Bend It Like Bubka: A Historic, Scientific, and Personal Take on Pole Vaulting

July 2, 2010
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According to pole vault world record holder Sergei Bubka, “Often, you need to take some risk.” For some, this risk is a stupid one, such as a blind jump off a cliff into the ocean, running across a busy highway, or buying five new cars at the same time. For others, this risk is a reasonable one, such as falling in love, moving to a new country, or having a baby. The sport of pole vaulting is somewhere in between. It is a stupid, dangerous risk, but a reasonable one in the fact that it is a sport practiced commonly by many talented athletes. This sport, although still fairly new in its modern form, actually began thousands of years ago in the times of ancient civilizations.
Although there is no evidence suggesting that ancient civilizations pole vaulted competitively, there have been many drawings discovered depicting men using long poles for activities such as farming, fishing, and combat. It is believed that these poles were used as a way to avoid obstacles such as rivers and fences. The first known pole vault competitions were held during the Irish Taliteann Games, which date back as far as 1829 B.C.
Pole Vault became an Olympic Sport in 1896. When the sport first began, competitors used poles made of wood. They switched to bamboo poles prior to World War Two. After the end of World War Two, vaulters switched to poles made of Swiss steel, tapered so that the pole was wider towards the bottom and grew increasingly narrower towards the top. Beginning in approximately the 1950’s, vaulters switched to flexible poles composed of either fiberglass or carbon fibers. Unlike the bamboo and steel poles, the flexible poles bent after takeoff, therefore lowering the height of the vaulter’s grip before they are sprung upwards with the extension of the pole. This allows vaulters to grip higher on their poles than they could on a stiff bamboo or steel pole, and therefore increasing the average jump heights of pole vaulters in general.

Since the introduction of flexible poles, vaulters around the world have been soaring to new heights. The current men’s world record is 6.14m (outdoors), or 20’ 1.74’’, and 6.15m (indoors), or 20’ 2.12’’, held by Sergei Bubka. Bubka was coached by a man named Vitali Petrov, who currently coaches the women’s world record holder, Yelena Isinbayeva, with a record of 5.06m, or 16’ 7.21’’, outdoors. Many wonder how these athletes have come to jump so high. Besides the fact that they are both tall and have incredible athletic ability, train everyday for hours, and have one of the best coaches in the world, much of their success is due to an understanding of physics.
Pole vaulting is an example of the law of conservation of energy. This scientific principle states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form of energy to another. A technique often stressed in the pole vault world is to put as much energy into the pole as possible by attempting to jump off the ground before the pole hits the box, pushing the pole forward to move it quickly, and many other motions. Putting the maximum amount of energy into the pole with proper technique allows the vaulter to use larger poles and grip higher on the pole. Having a higher grip allows the vaulter to be higher in the air and therefore able to clear higher bars. Understanding this basic concept of physics allows for vaulters to improve their technique by understanding the reasons that they use that specific technique. The approximate height that a pole vaulter can clear is explained by the equation h = 0.55 x [vaulter’s height] + 1/2 (v^2/g), where 0.55 x the vaulter’s height represents the height of the vaulter’s center of mass (on average), v represents the vaulter’s velocity, and g represents acceleration due to gravity on the earth. Though this equation is somewhat accurate, it does not incorporate other factors in to the jump, such as the athlete’s technique, amount of energy, or strength level. Also, no jump is ever the same, therefore no jump can ever be predicted perfectly with this equation on a consistent basis.

The perfect jump may come once or twice in a vaulter’s entire life, if it ever comes at all. Few have ever attained such flawlessly consistent technique. When I was younger, I always dreamed of Olympic gold and attaining that sort of perfection possessed by a gold medalist in all their glory. However, I wished for gold in gymnastics, swimming, or long distance running. Never did I imagine I would someday fall in love with pole vaulting. A few weeks before my seventh grade track season began, my mother asked me if I had ever considered pole vaulting, backing up her suggestion with reasoning that included my abnormal amount of upper body strength, my speed, my athletic ability, and, believe it or not, my intelligence. I soon discovered I was even more suited for the sport then I imagined, winning first place at our very first track meet. The joy I find in this sport is unexplainable. If you are reading this, and have never pole vaulted before, it may be difficult for you to understand my addiction to it. In fact, you may think I am crazy for doing such a sport. Many people, especially those with a fear of heights, would never dare to try such a thing. However, when I am vaulting, I have no fear. Nothing matters except for me and the pit. I am not worried about the fall. I stand on the runway with determination, like a bull about to charge, trying to erase every doubting voice in my mind telling me that I will mess up. Standing there, I know that if something goes wrong, I may not make the bar. I may lose points for the team, lose an opportunity to qualify, or lose a championship. It is a stressful experience, to be honest. The entire sport is simply frustrating. Despite the stress it causes, this sport, for those who love it more than anything, can create a high unlike any other. It gives you the feeling of every muscle in your body buzzing with adrenaline. It brings a full awareness of every move made on the runway, and a complete obliviousness to everything else. However, this sport, while it is everything to me, may have caused me more tears than any boy in my life. Pole vault is definitely a heartbreaker, and a tease. For every vaulter, there is always a stage where there is one bar that we are completely capable of clearing but can never seem to make. A vaulter will fall onto the mat with a silent pain that comes as the bar falls, along with their dreams of gold falling too. But, like lovesick teenagers, we continue this heartbreaking experience due to our love for the sport. Are we simply crazy? Many would think so. You have to have just a little hint of crazy to run full speed down a runway with a giant pole, then to get completely upside down while several feet in the air.

Regardless of my sanity level, I am sure that I love this sport passionately beyond belief. I dream of pole vaulting often, and imagine such great success during the day. No amount of cheesy clichés that I can use could describe how much I enjoy it. I’m not even sure why I love it. I just know that I do. I love the feeling of a perfect jump, and the way it feels to soar over a bar. I love the way it feels to free fall onto the mat, smiling in mid-air at the realization that the bar is still up, and that I have become a champion, a qualifier for regionals, state, or nationals, or a new record holder. I pole vault not only because I love it, but because it’s the closest I can get to flying without wings. Pole vault is what I know, and what I love. Just like Sergei Bubka said, “Even now, I want to keep my amateur spirit, to spend my time, to be in the sport with all my heart.”





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PV<3 said...
May 22, 2013 at 7:31 pm
No vaulter is crazy for feeling the way you do. i love pole vault with a passion that is unexplainable. im not that great at it but it means i can improve. I always feel great when i am vaulting no matter what happens and i think that is what it takes to love this specific event.
 
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