Graphing Athletics: The Pole Vault

The modern pole vault (i.e. that which we see in the Olympics) is a competition based on vertical height. Competitors use a pole (between 3 to 5 metres long) to clear a bar set at a specified height. The competitor that is able to clear the greatest height is the winner.

Historically, pole vaulting was used to cover horizontal distances (across canals, ditches or spans of water) rather than gaining vertical height. This historical version of pole vaulting has also evolved into a competitive sport.

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Pole vaulting has ended up as a fiendishly technical event. The modern vaulting pole is a very complex piece of equipment. Constructed from layered fibre glass, it is designed to bend and store energy very efficiently. Poles are built with different stiffness and weight limits so an athlete can tune them to their style and size.

Over time the construction of the vaulting pole has changed significantly and it’s a big factor in the performance in the event.

Let’s have a look at the history of the pole vault data to see how things have changed.

Visit our datasheets!

For a description of the sections of the datasheet and how to interpret them please see our original article on the 100 metre sprint.

Visit our datasheets by clicking on the images below.

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Dominant nations

It is clear from the men’s datasheet that the USA have, historically, absolutely dominated the event. Of all the data we have, over 50% of records are for an American athlete. In the early part of the 20th century their domination was supreme — around 80% of the top athletes were from the U.S.A.

From the middle of the 20th century other nations begin to compete with the U.S.A’s dominance. The U.S.S.R, Poland and Germany begin to take a large share of top performances and in the modern era the U.S.A has less than 20% of the share of top performances.

In the women’s data one thing is immediately very clear. The International Association of Athletics Federations only recognised the event in 1994 — astonishingly recent. We weren’t able to collect reliable data before 1991 so our data-set only progresses from this date.

In this short time, the women’s event has been dominated by three nations — Germany, the U.S.A and Russia.

Dominant Individuals

Sergey Bubka is the stand-out competitor from Pole Vaulting history, breaking the world record 17 times over the course of his career. Despite his domination of the sport, he won only a single Olympic gold. His success was attributed to his great strength and gymnastic ability. The same has been said of his female equivalent Yelena Isinbayeva — the current world record holder. Unfortunately she was unable to compete in Rio because of the ban on Russian athletes.

Performance History

Over the course of the events we’ve investigated we’ve come to expect almost perpetual progression. We’ve seen some stalling in female events due to an era of performance enhancing drugs but generally average performances have increased over time.

The Pole Vault is no exception, in both the men’s and women’s data a general increase in vault height can be seen throughout the data. However, there are a number of points in the event’s history where progression wasn’t guaranteed.

This change is accompanied by a change in technology and technique. The table below shows the evolution of technology in the event. In 1942 the world record was set at 4.77 metres in the United States. It wouldn’t be broken again for 15 years. Of course, this was during World War 2, and average performances can be seen to take a dip in this period (competitive sport is not a priority in times of great conflict). However, even after the end of the War over a decade would pass before the record was pushed on by only 1 cm.

If we look at the technological advances that have taken place in the Pole Vault (in the table below). The first advance, aluminium poles, directly corresponds with the date of that world record progression (1957).

Year Event
1957 Tapered aluminium poles used
1960 Tapered steel poles used
1961 Composite poles,used for first time
1964 Introduction of crash mats rather than sand pits

Pole Vault progression has been reliant on technological advance. In the lifetime of the event, the technique and technology has completely changed.

In the early days of the event, relatively rigid poles were used and athletes landed in sand pits.

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In the Pole Vault, an athlete’s kinetic energy is transferred into height during the vaulting phase. The athlete is also able to add height through good technique.

When wooden and steel poles were used, the proportion of the vaulter’s kinetic energy which could be transferred to height was limited. The video below shows the arced path the pole vaulter must take to clear the bar.

Modern technology revolutionised the event. Flexible poles are able to store the kinetic energy of the runner. After the vaulter plants the pole in the ground their speed reduces considerably as the pole bends. Afterwards the bent pole gives the energy back to the athlete by lifting them vertically. This change in dynamics and technique allowed the vaulter to achieve much greater heights.

Finally, the introduction of crash mats meant that athletes could fall from increased heights without injury.

If you look at the men’s datasheet, the technological revolution is visible in the mid 1960s as the increase in performance rises more steeply. However, something else becomes apparent from the mid 1990s — atrophy. Since 1994 the World Record has only been broken once (as an indoor record, it isn’t included in this data-set). We are approaching a limit. The height of the jump is dependent on the speed of the runner. Technology has intervened on a number of occasions with lighter (to allow athletes to run faster) and more flexible (to allow athletes to store their energy in the pole) materials.

Without further technological innovation we might have to accept that progression will stall. Unlike in running events, where one hundredth of a second can be taken off a record at a time, in the pole vault, progression is measured in centimetres. It may be some time until an increase in running speed is translated into a large enough increase in height.

The rules for the Pole Vault are relatively lax, perhaps an innovation can be developed that will allow athletes to run faster or for more energy to be stored in the pole. This may be necessary so that jump heights can continue to increase.

 

N.B. Please note that the data we have included in this case is for outdoor performances only.

 

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About wiredchop

Simon Choppin Simon’s sports engineering career began at the age of six when he loosened the wheels of his skateboard in order to make it go faster. While the experiment was chalked up as his first failure, his resulting dimpled skull has provided an aerodynamic advantage in more recent sporting pursuits. Academically, Simon completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering with Mathematics at Nottingham University before joining the Sports Engineering Research Group at Sheffield to start his PhD. His main interests include work with high speed video, mathematical modelling of various sorts and experimental work involving machines with big buttons. As a sportsman, Simon has an unfortunate lack of talent for anything requiring skill, tactical awareness or the ability to learn from mistakes. He does however seem to posess the ability to move his legs around for a long time until other people get tired, for this reason you’re most likely to see him on a bike of some sort or running up a hill in offensively small shorts. Simon was fortunate enough to have a stint at the Guardian newspaper as part of the BSA’s media fellowship, which gave him the idea for this blog. Other than this, his writing experience includes his PhD thesis and various postcards to his Mum.