The Future of Pole Vault

Sweden’s Armand Duplantis breaks the world record height in the Pole Vault during the Glasgow Indoor Prix at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Scotland, Saturday, 15 Feb 2020. Ian Rutherford, AP


In 1959, Ray King, a master pole vaulter, coach, and teacher, published his Master’s Degree Thesis entitled An Historical Study of the Pole Vault. Vaulters and associates Jan Johnson and Russ VerSteeg discovered King’s thesis and, with permission from his widow Millie, expanded on the collection. The first record of a pole vault competition in ancient culture is of the Tailteann games of ancient Ireland (1892 B.C.). However, mediums of art and archaeological finds indicate individuals using poles for activities such as agriculture, sailing, and warfare as early as 2500 B.C (Johnson). Farmers and soldiers alike discovered the functionality of poles to leap over obstacles, and from then on the sport developed. Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths is considered to be the Father of Modern Pole Vaulting. GutsMuths, in his book published in 1972, describes the design of standards, basic principles of the vault, and both recommended length of approach and hand grip (Johnson). Women’s pole vault was not an official event until added to the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Sequence of movements by a world-class male pole vaulter. Reproduced from Ganslen (1979).


Current elite pole vault performances, though believed to be significantly higher than performances in the 20th century, have faced little to no improvement. Statistical analysis of elite marks actually show a regression in performance. Until Renaud Lavillenie, a French pole vaulter, broke the world record in 2014, Sergey Bubka, a former Ukrainian pole vaulter, had the record title since May of 1984. In 1993, Bubka raised his own best height to 6.15 meters. The 20 year record of 6.15 meters was beat by Lavillenie with a jump of 6.16 meters. This is a difference of a centimeter in 20 years of improved knowledge in sports medicine, nutrition, and training techniques. Additionally, Bubka competed outdoors, exposed to factors such as humidity and strong winds, whereas Lavillenie and Duplantis have set their respective records in an indoor facility. Swedish athletics statistician and journalist A. Julin studied emerging trends in the pole vault, through which he observed a regression of elite athletic performances in the men’s pole vault. At the elite level marks, “barrier heights” are typically considered to be heights that are difficult to achieve, often increasing by intervals of ten centimeters (I.E. 5.7 m, 5.8 m, 5.9 m, 6.0 m). Julin discovered that “the numbers of 6.00+, 5.90+ and 5.80+ vaulters [had] more or less been cut in half from the 1998–2000 period to 2002–2003,” (Julin). Julin also sheds light on the untapped potential that Bubka still had left in his tank. Bubka’s continuous world record breaks were considered true clearances. He often flew so high over the crossbar that it is suspected he could have cleared 6.25 meters if the bar was set to that height. The IAAF Handbook Rule states “The crossbar shall rest on pegs so that if it is touched by a competitor or his pole, it will fall easily to the ground in the direction of the landing area,” (Julin). Since Bubka’s time jumping, the hard aluminum crossbar has been replaced by a fiber glass pole. The competitor should clear the bar, but athletes may now get away with depressing the bar. The bar no longer falls easily to the ground. Bubka was also limited by his contract with the Soviet Union. Year after year he was able of setting a new world record, so he was encouraged to raise the bar centimeters at a time to prolong the fame and fortune that the Soviet Union acquired from Sergey Bubka’s success.

The setup of the pole vault event, with the bar, standards, pit, and box (runway not shown here) [12].


The sport of pole vault needs to be made a safer environment, whether it be through increased regulation or improved safety technology. There are safety measures available to the public that are not yet being taken advantage of. ESPN journalist Jeff Hollobaugh discusses the urgency in which coaches need to establish a safe environment for their vaulters. Improved regulation for the minimum dimensions of the foam pit has proven successful, as previously mentioned, but more measures need to combat athletes who fall towards the metal box that is left unprotected by the mats. The most apparent solution would be to ensure that all pole vault coaches are qualified to instruct vaulters. A large portion of sustained pole vault injuries at the box are from poor decision making on the length and weight rating of poles used. Hollobaugh promotes the use of helmets in the sport, and rebuttals those who claim all injuries sustained could be avoided with proper coaching and without a helmet by bringing light to Dave Nielson, the Olympic coach that has his athletes wear helmets (Hollobaugh) John Johnson, a former world-class vaulter, recommended that helmets be made mandatory by the year 1998, but there is still little to no progress on this effort. The technology exists. Those who claim they would wear a helmet if it were designed specifically for pole vault have outdated sources. A helmet
designed specifically for pole vault, the KDMax, was produced in 2004 (Mueller 2012). Increased representation of helmet use in media by elite pole vaulters would increase the chances of high school and collegiate vaulters following suit, but a mandate would be ideal. Helmets would significantly reduce head trauma as a last resort, but even greater efforts have to be made to prevent dangerous circumstances in the first place.

Woks Cited

Boden, Barry P., et al. “Catastrophic Injuries in Pole Vaulters.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 40, no. 7, 2012, pp. 1488–1494., doi:10.1177/0363546512446682. Accessed 06 April 2021.



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