Pole vault is a track and field event in which a person uses a long, flexible pole (which today is usually made either of fiberglass or carbon fiber) as an aid to jump over a bar. Pole jumping competitions were known to the ancient Greeks, Cretans and Celts. It has been a full medal event at the Olympic Games since 1896 for men and 2000 for women. It is typically classified as one of the four major jumping events in athletics, alongside the high jump, long jump and triple jump. It is unusual among track and field sports in that it requires a significant amount of specialised equipment in order to participate, even at a basic level.
How it works: Competitors vault over a 4.5-metre long horizontal bar by sprinting along a runway and jamming a pole against a ‘stop board’ at the back of a recessed metal ‘box’ sited centrally at the base of the uprights. They seek to clear the greatest height without knocking the bar to the ground. All competitors have three attempts per height, although they can elect to ‘pass’, i.e. advance to a greater height despite not having cleared the current one. Three consecutive failures at the same height, or combination of heights, cause a competitor’s elimination. If competitors are tied on the same height, the winner will have had the fewest failures at that height. If competitors are still tied, the winner will have had the fewest failures across the entire competition. Thereafter, a jump-off will decide the winner.
Equipment: Pole vaulters' poles are among the least-regulated of any Olympic apparatus. The pole can be made of any material or combination of materials and may be of any length or diameter, but the basic surface must be smooth. The pole may have protective layers of tape at the grip and at the bottom end.
Technique: Pole vaulters combine some of the best track and field qualities into one event. They require the leaping strength that any good jumper possesses, together with a gymnastic-like ability to control their bodies in the air. A successful vaulter generally has a sprinter’s speed and must build that speed while carrying a long pole. Finally, while pole vaulters don’t resemble discus throwers or shot putters — vaulters are typically tall and lean — pole vaulters do require strong arms to control, plant and push off from the pole. Although many techniques are used by vaulters at various skill levels to clear the bar, the generally accepted technical model can be broken down into several phases:
- Gripping the Pole: A pole vaulter’s first lessons will likely include the proper way to grip the pole, and how to hold it at the start of your run-up. You’ll place your hands about shoulder-width apart toward the top of the pole, with your dominant hand closer to the end. In the long run, you’ll want to grip the pole as close to the end as possible. In the beginning, however, your coach will have you place your hands in the proper positions, depending on the type of pole you’re using and the speed of your approach run.
- Approach: During the approach the pole vaulter sprints down the runway in such a way as to achieve maximum speed and correct position to initiate takeoff at the end of the approach. Top class vaulters use approaches with 18 to 22 strides, often referred to as a "step" in which every other foot is counted as one step. The tip of the vaulting pole is angled higher than eye level until three paces from takeoff, when the pole tip descends efficiently, amplifying run speed as the pole is planted into the vault box.
- Plant and take-off: The plant and take off is initiated typically three steps out from the final step. The goal of this phase is to efficiently translate the kinetic energy accumulated from the approach into potential energy stored by the elasticity of the pole, and to gain as much initial vertical height as possible by jumping off the ground.
- Swing up: The swing and row simply consists of the vaulter swinging the trail leg forward and rowing the pole, bringing the top arm down to the hips, while trying to keep the trail leg straight to store more potential energy into the pole, the rowing motion also keeps the pole bent for a longer period of time for the vaulter to get into optimum position. The swing continues until the hips are above the head and the arms are pulling the pole close to the chest; from there the vaulter shoots their legs up over the cross bar while keeping the pole close.
- Extension: The extension refers to the extension of the hips upward with outstretched legs as the shoulders drive down, causing the vaulter to be positioned upside down. This position is often referred to as "inversion". While this phase is executed, the pole begins to recoil, propelling the vaulter quickly upward. The hands of the vaulter remain close to the body as they move from the shins back to the region around the hips and upper torso.
- Turn: The turn is executed immediately after or even during the end of the rockback. As the name implies, the vaulter turns 180° toward the pole while extending the arms down past the head and shoulders.
- Fly-away: This is often highly emphasized by spectators and novice vaulters, but it is arguably the easiest phase of the vault and is a result of proper execution of previous phases.
Safety: Let’s face it, anytime you’re vaulting yourself into the air, there’s some risk. As a beginner, you won’t be vaulting immediately, and when you begin you won’t be vaulting very high. Nevertheless, some coaches invest in extra-large landing pads to protect young vaulters if their jumps go astray. It’s also important to match a vaulter with the correctly-sized pole for better control of his initial vaults.
- Once the vaulter leaves the ground, he/she may not move the lower hand above the upper hand on the pole, nor may he/she move the upper hand higher on the pole. Vaulters also may not steady the bar with their hands during the vault. A successful vault is one in which the crossbar remains in place when the vaulter has left the landing area.
- Competitors may begin vaulting at any height announced by the chief judge, or may pass, at their own discretion.
- Three consecutive missed vaults, at any height or combination of heights, will eliminate the vaulter from competition.
- The victory goes to the vaulter who clears the greatest height during the final. If two or more vaulters tie for first place, the tie-breakers are: a) The fewest misses at the height at which the tie occurred; and b) The fewest misses throughout the competition.
- If the event remains tied, the vaulters have a jump-off, beginning at the next greater height. Each vaulter has one attempt. The bar is then alternately lowered and raised until only one vaulter succeeds at a given height.