There are a number of reasons why pole-vaulters Steve Smith and Bob Seagren should be close buddies. Both spent their childhoods in the Los Angeles area and both competed on the USC track team and the 1972 U.S. Olympic squad. Smith holds the world’s indoor record (18’4″), and until a couple of months ago Seagren held the outdoor (18’5¾”). And they travel the International Track Association circuit together. But there the similarity ends.
Seagren is a devoted family man, clean-cut and all-American, while Smith is a divorced swinger with the frizzy hair—and attitudes—of the counterculture. Seagren is the elder statesman of pole vaulting, Smith the upstart. In a gentlemanly sport where officials have been known to wear tuxedos and good manners are expected all around, the two athletes make no pretense of liking each other—in fact, Smith calls it hatred.
“I guess it began in college,” Smith says. “Bob was arrogant, he talked down to me and always got his way—he just teed me off.” Seagren denies going out of his way to goad Smith: “He keeps saying all this crap. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t dare attend a press conference with him for fear he’ll start something physical.” This winter Seagren and Smith checked their tempers, trained intensively for the Superstars (Seagren finished second, Smith seventh) and let their vaulting practice slide. Now both are back in championship form—and feuding again. Going into the National Indoor championships at Madison Square Garden this week, the most important indoor pro meet of the season, Smith had cleared the 18-foot mark four times in 1975; Seagren once. Smith’s record could be broken.
With the money he has earned from Superstars and vaulting, Seagren and his wife, Kam, bought an elegant Spanish house in Westwood and are redecorating it. “The living room is first,” says Kam. “Right now it’s done in early whorehouse.” While Bob is off jumping, Kam tends to their 9-month-old daughter, Kirsten, models and plays bit parts in movies. “I had a role where all I had to do was walk around looking bitchy,” she says. Bob and Kam have exhibited their gleaming teeth for a TV toothpaste blurb. Bob is also taking acting lessons. “I can’t compete in Superstars anymore [three years is the limit], and I can’t live on the money I make off pro track [$25,000 a year]. Besides, that could end soon,” says the 28-year-old Seagren.
At 23, Smith is likely to replace Seagren as king of the pole vault—if his self-described “big mouth” doesn’t make him so unpopular he finds himself ostracized. Already he makes $30,000 from his vaulting and endorsements. He owns a house in Redondo Beach, about 20 miles from Seagren, and spends his spare time chasing girls, surfing and—one of his several peculiarities—backflipping from swings. “You have to be a little bit off to get involved in pole vaulting,” Smith says. “I became impatient waiting in line to play four-square in grade school. Instead I’d head for the swings where I’d pump as high as I could and then bail out. Leaving the swing,” he says, “you’re in the same position as when you’re going up to the bar.”
Throughout his pro career Smith has been a showboat. He frequently misses introductions at meets, and at one showed up 15 minutes after his event began. (He can skip the lower heights if he wishes.) In Portland Smith rode a skateboard the half mile from his hotel to the arena. And while most jumpers use an old track shoe to scratch their starting points into the runways, Smith ostentatiously marks his with a tiny samurai sword.
At a recent Los Angeles meet Smith belatedly decided he wanted the bar raised in a sequence different from the one agreed upon. When the officials refused to comply, Smith disappeared in a pout for 30 minutes. When he re-emerged he shrugged and said: “Aw, I just went for a drink.” Seagren’s annoyance with Smith is becoming more apparent. “There seems to be one set of rules for Smith,” he complains, “and another for the rest of us.” An official agreed: “It’s the star system—the tail wagging the dog.”
Smith defends himself, saying that at L.A. the altered increases in the height of the bar might have helped him set a new world’s record, which brings a vaulter a $2,000 bonus. After he missed at 18’3″ Smith moaned: “I feel like I’ve been robbed. Bobby [Seagren] starts crying so they listen to him. I was the only one who had a shot at the record, that’s part of the show too. If I get rid of half the hassles I had here, I’ll clear 19 feet this year.”
And Seagren? “I’ll be up there,” he promises. “I get all the encouragement I need from Smith’s mouth.”