The Future of Pole Vault
By: Micah Evans
Seen above is Swedish pole vault prodigy Armand “Mondo” Duplantis breaking his own world record during the Glasgow Indoor Prix with a staggering height of 6.18 meters or roughly 20 feet, 3.25 inches. The world of track and field is complex to say the least. A wide array of events test athletes’ speed, strength, and agility, the Olympic motto being “altius, citius, fortius,” or higher, faster, stronger. Events range from triple jump to javelin, steeplechase, or the hammer throw. The most perplexing event, however, is the pole vault. Pole vault is the only field event in which an athlete can add energy to the system during flight. Rather than simply taking off of one foot as in a long jump, a vaulter must grapple the abundance of vault mechanics in under two seconds before clearing a bar. The vaulter must first line his or her steps up perfectly so as the dominant arm and foot are in line. The athlete must then perform a series of body intensive motions to efficiently roll the loaded pole over the dangerous metal box in which the pole was planted in order to land in the safety of the foam pit. Not only are the athletes responsible for the many variables of the vault, but the coaches alter the distance the crossbar stands away from the box. As previously demonstrated, there are many interrelated components to the pole vault, and a review of the sport could be covered from a broad approach, whether concerning the physics of the vault, the chemical makeup of modern day poles, or the the varying technical models that vaulters attempt to emulate. Two of the most touched on components of the sport in mass media, however, are injuries and record performances. Fortunately for media stations, there have been three new world records in pole vault within the past seven years. Though this seems promising for future pole vault elites, many researchers suspect that athletic performance in all areas of track and field are reaching an asymptote. The experienced increase in record performances today may be the last of their kind. The exception to this trend would be in the case of lower regulation of performance enhancing drugs or the acceptance of a technological advancement in pole vault equipment. Another common misconception is that pole vault, as with many track and field events, is a relatively safe sport. In retrospect this seems a silly thought process because it is reasonable to conclude that an athlete with a 16 foot pole in hand running at a dangerous metal box and hoping to land on a small foam cushion will undoubtedly lead to injury of some sort. Injury, in fact, is a defining feature of the sport. The catastrophic injury rate for high school pole vaulters is higher than any other high school sport, including football (Mueller 1996). Technological and regulatory developments in the pole vault will both lower catastrophic injuries derived from the sport and serve as the only way in which significant increases in record performance will be observed, whether said increased athletic performances are through improved efficiency return in pole and runway materials or through the decrease in regulation of performance-enhancing drugs.
The previous claim will be analyzed through the scope of past, present, and future trends in the distinct lenses of pole vault safety and performance.
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.
Past substantial increases in pole vault performances correlate chronologically to developments in pole vault pole material. The pole was originally a bamboo rod, but overtime the materials have evolved from bamboo to aluminum, synthetic fiber glass, and now carbon fiber or carbon fiber and fiber glass hybrid poles. The transition from stiff materials to flexible fiber glass poles was revolutionary to the sport. In the year 2000, Dr. Nicholas Linthorne sought to quantify this observed technical advantage, which he did so through developing a model of pole vaulting with a flexible pole. The model was used to “predict optimum take-off technique and pole characteristics for a typical world-class pole vaulter,” (Linthorne). Dr. Linthorne used key features of the model such as take-off angle, velocity, and energy losses in the take-off phase of the vault in a computer simulation program examining the effects of different combinations of such variables on the performance of an elite male vaulter. Dr. Linthorne observed a clear advantage to vaulting with a flexible pole. The flexible pole “produced a 90 [centimeter]higher vault by allowing a 60 [centimeter] higher grip and by giving a 30 cm greater push height,” (205). The flexible pole allows a vaulter to not only hold higher on a pole without being rejected onto the runway, as well as receiving greater upwards kinetic energy as the pole recoils. Thus, a vaulter transitioning from a stiff to flexible pole could significantly improve his record height without any increases in speed or strength.
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.
Pole vault, as previously mentioned, results in a great number of catastrophic injuries. For the purpose of this essay, catastrophic is defined as any severe injury incurred during participation in a school sport. Catastrophic can be divided into the following three categories: Fatality, non-fatal (permanent severe functional disability), or serious (no permanent functional disability but severe injury). In a series of reports on catastrophic injuries of high school and college sports, more specifically the 29th annual report, “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research,” researchers Mueller and Dr. Cantu discuss and expand on previous research on catastrophic injuries. The researchers cover all areas and sporting events of both high school and college athletics, using modern scientific studies and medical records to assess these injuries from various perspectives. The researchers estimated that there are roughly 25,000 high school pole vaulters annually, and “if this number were correct, the catastrophic injury rate for high school pole vaulters would be higher than any of the sports included in the research (approximately 5.92 catastrophic
injuries per 100,000 participants)” (21). Most vaulting accidents occur when a vaulter bounces out of or landing out of the pit area.
In a nine year follow up study, the same researchers identify the several rule changes implemented in 2003 and the subsequent effect they had on catastrophic injuries in pole vaulters. Several rule changes for the sport were mandated, including expanding the minimum dimensions of the landing pad. Results from 2003 to 2011 indicate that “19 catastrophic injuries occurred (average of 2.1 per year), with the majority … landing in or around the vault box,” (Boden 1). The 2003 rule mandates have observably reduced the number of catastrophic injuries, most prominently fatalities, from
vaulters missing the back or sides of the landing pads. The annual rate of catastrophic injuries derived from vaulters landing in the vault box has more than tripled (Boden). This still remains a grave safety issue for the sport.
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.
Along top of regulations such as rules preventing pole vaulters from “climbing” the pole and using poles rated for athletes below their weights, advancements in safety indications of the pole vault pole could decrease the incidence of catastrophic injuries. Brandon Winn and his associate researchers provide a brief overview of materials used in pole vault poles through history, current material selection, and a future material design proposal for pole vault poles. The pole’s main function is to store kinetic energy when bent and release that energy when straightened to propel the vaulter. The pole’s ability to store and return energy is known as strain energy storage capacity, a value that should be as high as possible. Elastic strength is also crucial to pole manufacturing as it allows the pole to compress without sustaining damage, which would result in crackage or failure. Given the frequency in which a pole is used, the pole should withstand many bends without deforming, which is known as fatigue resistance. Failure of a pole vault pole is common. A pole break during the vault can result in serious injury (Winn). In 2008, Joe Silvers was warming up for a competition when his pole broke into three pieces. A pole fragment knocked Silvers unconscious and cracked his scull, resulting in brain hemorrhaging. Pole failure can be a serious health concern. The most common factor leading to a pole break is fatigue failure. When an athlete above recommended weight overloads a pole, which is against regulation but is common practice, the resin layer of the pole cracks. With each use, the cracks deepen until the material fails under the vaulter. Poles can also break during transport or when the pole strikes an object near the pit. Coaches heavily rely on inspection of poles and enforcing legal weight ratings, but it is difficult to track how many times a pole has been used. The cracks in the resin layer are rarely visible, and if the crack is visible, it is a miracle that the pole has not broken yet. There is no clear indication of when a pole is no longer safe to use. In order to indicate when a pole is damaged, the cracks invisible to the naked eye must be made apparent. Researchers have developed a method of highlighting the cracks to determine if a pole needs retired. The design “features a solution of ethyl phenyl acetate (EPA) containing 2',7'-dichlorofluorescein (DCF) indicator filled microcapsules,” (Winn 12). The solution is DCF/EPA for short. The DCF indicator reacts with pole epoxy to turn bright red, and high densities of red highlight would indicate an unsafe pole (Winn). This crack detection would greatly reduce the amount of pole breaks putting vaulters at risk.
Unlike the future of pole vault safety indicators, record performances in the pole vault likely have a negative future in store. The question arises: What is the peak human performance? There must be one, as projected athletic performances cannot continue to improve forever. Running times would become negative numbers, and field events would expand to impossible heights and distances. Many studies have been performed on the limit to athletic performance, but the journal entry by Alan Nevill and Gregory White accurately breaks apart this misconception in their study on middle and long distance running events. Though the study was not conducted on pole vaulters, the models used are applicable to any sport in which the strength and speed of an athlete correlates to performance. Previous researches have used linear models to predict running world records basef off of recorded performances throughout the 1900s. These models inherently have the falacy that there is no limit to human performance and that eventually, women will run faster than men. In this research, “middle- and long-distance running world record speeds recorded during the 20th century were modeled
using a flattened S-shaped logistic curve,” (Nevill 1785). The curves produced by the researchers more realistically fit world record performances than linear models, identifying a “slow rise in world-record speeds during the early year of the century, followed by a period of “acceleration” in the middle of the century (due to the professionalization of sport and advances in technology and science), and a subsequent reduction in the prevalence of record-breaking performances” towards the end of the century (Nevill 1786). It is predicted than men are within 1–3% of reaching their asymptotic limits. Other events were also researched as part of the study’s analysis. Women’s pole vault was excluded from the study, as it’s new inclusion in the Olympic world leaves the sport still in the rapid acceleration of record performances phase.
As made apparent by the evidence presented, technological and regulatory advancements have a large impact on the sport of pole vault. Increased state mandates for safety regulations such as competition rules and equipment standards have already made a large impact on the number of injuries sustained by vaulters. Where these existing regulations do not protect, however, is injuries sustained from falling into the metal box in which the pole is planted on takeoff. A helmet mandate would decrease catastrophic injuries, but preventative measures such as purchasing pole damage indicator fluid will monumentally decrease serious injuries. The most difficult challenge moving forward, however, is school funding. Track and field programs receive limited funding, and schools often do not want to pay $10,000 for regulation mats, as well as providing helmets, safety indicators, and experienced coaches. Unfortunately, if these safety standards cannot be met by a school, it is imperative that the pole vault team is removed or relocated to practice at another facility.
World record performances in track and field events, including the pole vault, have already decreased substantially and will continue to unless prompted otherwise. The reversal of this trend will only happen as a result of new technological advancements adopted by track and field programs, or by reduced regulations on performance enhancing drugs. Though performance enhancing drugs were not a focal point of this study, they can be categorized under unnatural progressions to the sporting industry. Pole vault is highly susceptible to changes in technology, as the pole vault pole material is highly influential in determining the performance of an elite vaulter. A change in technology could include the discovery of a synthetic material with greater elastic properties energy storage capacity. Fortunately for now, the pole vault event will continue to see more records than any other track and field event, given it is the newest event group. Competitive women’s pole vault has only been in existence for 21 years, so be prepared to see the bar put up to great heights in upcoming competitions!
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.
Hollobaugh, Jeff. “Coaches Need to Get Serious about Pole Vault Safety.” Olympic Sports, ESPN, 2002, a.espncdn.com/oly/columns/jeff_hollobaugh/1365286.html. Accessed 07 April 2021.
Johnson, Jan, et al. Illustrated History of the Pole Vault. Track & Field News, 2007. Accessed 07 April 2021.
Julin, A., Lennart. “The Changing Face of Men’s Pole Vaulting.” Worldathletics.org, World Athletics, 5 Nov. 2003, www.worldathletics.org/news/news/the-changing-face-of-mens-pole-vaulting. Accessed 07 April 2021.
Linthorne, Nicholas P. “Energy Loss in the Pole Vault Take-off and the Advantage of the Flexible Pole.” Sports Engineering, vol. 3, no. 4, 2000, pp. 205–218., doi:10.1046/j.1460–2687.2000.00058.x. Accessed 07 April 2021.
Mueller, Frederick O., et al. Catastrophic Injuries in High School and College Sports. Human Kinetics, 1996. Accessed 07 April 2021.
Nevill, Alan M., and Gregory Whyte. “Are There Limits to Running World Records?” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 37, no. 10, 2005, pp. 1785–1788., doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000181676.62054.79. Accessed 07 April 2021.
Winn, Brandon, et al. “The Future of Pole Vaulting.” ResearchGate, Nov. 2017. Accessed 07 April 2021.