24 August, 2014

Pole vault: a women’s sport

Back in the days when women were not pole-vaulting (officially) I was dreaming of the day this missing discipline would be introduced, making it possible for women to compete in the decathlon. Alas, things did not go this way. Women have been participating in pole vault competitions for 20 years now but, as I am deploring in a previous article of mine, the feminine decathlon is a stillborn discipline.

When I started planning for a pole vault article I thought that, for women, there has never been a “before” and an “after”: the era of feminine pole vaulting started with fiberglass poles. This made me curious and I started researching: was it true that women never tried vaulting with, say, bamboo poles? It turned out that nothing was further from the truth. Indeed there were some serious indications that women did indeed vault. Even if this photo 

from the late 1800s were fake there is this magazine cover from the 20s

showing a young lady vaulting with a bamboo pole in perfect style.

Thanks to the contributors to the site PoleVaultPower.com I was able to find the women's world record progression. It is unofficial, of course, but who cares about such details. So the oldest recorded performance of a female pole vaulter was 1.72 m by R. Spencer in 1911. No details are known about the implement which could have been wood or bamboo. By 1935 the record was 2.53 m by Z. Romanova, most probably with a bamboo pole. In 1952 D. Bragg (the sister of Don Bragg who would later become an olympic champion) broke this record (one can surmise, with a metal pole) with 2.59 m. The first to jump over 3 m was J. Edwards who, from 1981 to 1983, took the record from 2.61 m to 3.59 m. By that time the fiberglass poles had dominated the pole vault scene. 

The first official world record was homologated in 1992. At that time several chinese athletes had improved the record from 3.72 m to 4.02 and the first official record, due to C. Zhang was 4.05 m. The supremacy of the chinese vaulters was soon to end and the world record became a european-american affair, with an australian interlude due to E. George. The first female vaulter over 5 m is the great Y. Isinbayeva who improved the record 17 times.

When I started following women’s pole vault I was not very happy with their style. I was not convinced by D. Bártová’s technique and I did not have the occasion to watch E. George (who has an excellent style) in action. Remember, YouTube was still years away. The first great, to my eyes, female pole vaulter, the one who jumped just like her male colleagues, was A. Balakhonova, European champion and record holder with 4.55 m.

Anzhela Balakhonova

But that was back just before the turn of the century. The new generation of female pole vaulters was arriving with S. Dragila, S. Feofanova and Y. Isinbayeva who, with their strength and grace, 

Liz Parnov in a most probably failed attempt (but I like the acrobatic style)

changed the face of this spectacular discipline making it a women’s sport.

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