11 August, 2014

Pole vault: before & after

The before and after in the title refer obviously to the fiberglass revolution that changed completely the nature of pole vaulting. Pole vaulting with wood, bamboo or metal poles is a different sport than the one with fiberglass poles. One can wonder how IAAF with their ultra-conservative attitude did allow for this revolution. It is my feeling that they did not see it coming. Fiberglass poles had been around for more than a decade before becoming world-record stuff. But let us see how all this came to be.

Pole vaulting has been a human activity for centuries before becoming a competition sport. One reads accounts about (pole) bull jumping in Minoan Creta, (horizontal) canal jumping in the Netherlands, but it was in Germany where pole vaulting became part of the gymnastics curriculum at the end of 18th century with best performances around 2.5 metres. By the middle of the 19th century the record stood at around 3.20 m. However at that time the athletes were not really “vaulters” but rather “climbers”. The pole was shod at the lower end with an iron tripod: the athlete planted it in front of the bar started climbing and, when the pole started falling forward, he drew up his knees passing the bar in a sitting  position.

I admit that I had trouble understanding the “climb” technique until I saw a video of canal jumping competition where this technique is used, albeit for horizontal jumps, till today. The best performance with the climbing technique, before being banned, was over 3.5 m. 

The first poles were wooden ones, made from ash, hickory, spruce or cedar. They were shod with a single spike at the lower end to prevent slipping. They were much longer than the height of the bar and quite heavy, which required a grip with the two hands well apart. (It is probably the length of these wooden poles which would inspire a ridiculous rule if there is one. Obviously if the pole reaches higher than the bar it may drop it if it is incorrectly released. But why on earth if the pole does not reach all the way up should the jump be invalidated if the pole passes under the bar? Fortunately this stupid rule has now disappeared).

At the very end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, three major changes projected pole vault to the modern era. 
The first was the introduction of the plant hole. Replacing the spike it allowed a firmer positioning of the pole in front of the bar. As expected, this did not go smoothly at the beginning. In the 1908, London, Olympics the american vaulters had to fight tooth and nail in order to be allowed to dig a plant hole (moreover it had to be positioned off-centre so as not to create problems to people jumping with a spiked pole). The plant hole was replaced in 1924 by the plant box with standard dimensions.
The second improvement was a technical one. It was introduced by. R. Clapp who established a world record of 3.62 m with it. He was the first athlete to use the lower hand slide, bring it close to the upper hand and pulling with both hands, an undeniable advantage. This technical innovation became the standard style surviving until the advent of fiberglass poles. 
The third progress was in the choice of pole material. While westerners were jumping with wooden poles, japanese athletes have been using bamboo poles for decades. The first athlete to break a world record with a bamboo pole was the french F. Gonder with 3.69. He went on to win the 1906, Athens, intercalated Olympic games and has even jumped 4 m unofficially, despite his unorthodox (to say the least) technique, "en drapeau".

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards bamboo poles dominated the pole vault scene. They had definite advantages over wooden poles since the latter could not bend and could not transfer horizontal motion into upward motion efficiently. Bamboo poles had some bend and, moreover, being lighter, they allowed for a faster approach.

The IAAF started homologating world pole vault records in 1912 with a 4.02 m record by M. Wright culminating at the fabulous 4.77 m record of C. Warmerdam (probably the greatest pole vaulter before S. Bubka), which would survive for 15 years.

In 1948 another type of pole made its appearance: the swedish steel pole. Its advantages over bamboo were obvious: it did not break, was lighter and had practically the same spring as bamboo. An american brass and aluminium alloy pole was introduced practically at the same time. The metal poles met with great success but the records of Warmerdam were so extraordinary that only a modest progress was registered with these new poles (in fact a mere 3 cm as far as the world record is concerned).

While steel poles were becoming all the rage the real revolution started but went practically unnoticed. A California firm started producing fiberglass pole vaults. While they met with considerable success at the beginning the athletes soon became disillusioned since these first poles were rapidly fatiguing and breaking. However, once people had the idea of a fiberglass pole the progress in quality was rapid. H. Jenks is the name one usually encounters as that of the “father” fiberglass poles. In any case, he is the first person in North America to patent a fiberglass vaulting pole. People refer to his friendship with B. Mathias as the reason for the latter to use a fiberglass pole in the Olympic decathlon. 

While I doubt this fact, as far as the 1948 Olympics are concerned (too early!) it is almost sure that he used a fiberglass pole in 1952. The only  other two olympians to use such a pole up to 1960 were my compatriot G. Roubanis, bronze medal in the 1956, Melbourne, Olympics and European record holder,

and the puertorican R. Cruz, 5th in the 1960, Rome, Olympics. (In fact Roubanis himself says that he does not remember whether he used a metal or fiberglass pole in Melbourne. He had been experimenting with fiberglass poles and he had them with him in Melbourne though).

The point it that all these athletes were using their fiberglass pole as if it were a standard, metal, one. Then, in 1961, everything changed. The poles had evolved, tailored to the athlete’s weight and, what is even more important, they could bend without breaking. (H. Jenks was instrumental in this). The first athlete credited with employing a wide handhold and bending his pole was A. Dooley. Immediately he found imitators and the first fiberglass world record was soon established by his teammate G. Davies with 4.83 m. (In fact the second one was also established by a team-mate of Dooley’s, since the latter went to train with Uelses who, in 1962, broke Davies’ record with 4.89 m). The revolution had started and it was too late for IAAF to forbid the use of the new poles. 

Cornelius Warmerdam tried a fiberglass pole and, jumping 4 m with it, predicted that people should be able to jump 5 m. It turned out that this was a very timid prediction. 

The present article wouldn’t have been possible without the precious help of Becca Gillespy. While researching for this article I stumbled upon a reference to the book “Illustrated History of the Pole Vault”, a book almost impossible to find. 

I searched for it and I found a reference to it in the store of the Pole Vault Power site. I sent an email immediately to Becca who managed to find a copy (the last one apparently) of the book for me. A million thanks Becca.

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