Composite materials in the pole-vault:
In third spot, we have the pole vault. The men’s pole vault was one of the first athletic disciplines to feature in the Olympics. In 1896, the pole vault was won with a height of 3.20 m; in 2012 in London, the winning height was 5.97 m – an increase of 2.77 m! The substantial increase in pole vault height is considered to be a result of material development.
Figure 1 – Pole vault performances at the Olympics since 1896. Fibre glass poles first used at 1964 Olympic Games; world record jumps up by 48 cm! (Graph courtesy of Leon Foster)
The IAAF competition rules state that the pole may be any length or diameter, and be constructed from any material or combination of materials. Early poles were made from solid wood and would have been relatively heavy. This would have limited the run up speed of the athlete, and subsequently their launch velocity. By the start of the modern Olympics in the 1900’s, most athletes would have been using bamboo poles; these were hollow and therefore much lighter. They were also more flexible which allowed the athlete to utilise the bend of the pole to gain more height. Bamboo however is not very durable and the poles were often subject to breakages during competition and training.
Figure 2 – Pole vaulting in 1953.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s athletes experimented with hollow aluminium or steel poles; these had increased durability over the bamboo. The biggest improvement in jumping heights came in the 1960’s with the introduction of fibre glass poles. The glass fibre poles were more flexible, lighter and were able to use various fibre lay-up orientations to enable the twisting resistance to be increased. The glass and later carbon fibre poles are used by all athletes today and for many are considered the biggest technological leap in athletics. The video below shows the Ukrainian pole-vault legend, Sergei Bubka break his own world record to jump 6.06 m. He broke the world record 35 times in his career, leaving it at the current 6.14 metres!