Differences That Made A Difference

A forum to discuss pole vaulting related things of a historical nature.
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Differences That Made A Difference

Unread postby roger/over » Thu Feb 10, 2005 7:34 pm

Doing a little house-cleaning, I ran across this bit that I sent to the VaultCanada mailing list in 2000, some of which you might still find of interest.


A few years ago, an Australian schoolgirl wrote for help on a term paper
she was doing. It was to deal with changes in technique, poles, and
facilities that had affected vault performance. There may be members of
this mailing list who would find my reply of interest and add to it things
I may have missed. Gerard Dumas added the section on poles.


Planting box. It must have had lots of effect on confidence at takeoff,
when they first implanted a box, instead of just digging a hole. This must
have happened around the turn of the century. Gerard would know.


Sawdust pits. I have pictures that show sand pits that are clearly *lower*
than the runway. Since I grew up in Kansas, where there are no lumber
mills, I vaulted into sand through my freshman year of college (1948).
Before each practice or meet, the sand was turned over with a spade, but a dozen jumps would turn it back into rock. That meant you had no choice but to land on your feet, requiring "jack-knife" clearance. Vaulters in
timbered parts of the country had sawdust pits much earlier than I did.
When I talked with Warmerdam a year ago, he told me that (in California) he vaulted into sawdust from his earliest school days and only vaulted into
sand "once or twice" in European meets.

Bagged foam pits. These were made up from rubber foam mattress pieces, enclosed with fish net. A big improvement over sawdust, but it was easy to fall through spaces between the 4-foot by 6-foot sections. I first vaulted into that arrangement about 1968. The vaulters themselves, of course, financed the construction.

Airflow pits. These big airbags (ours was a French Raugen) were much safer than bagged foam and easier to use indoors. They stood about four feet high, so if you had to abort a vault, it was quite a jump to get on top.
Vent flaps on the sides released air when you landed. The University of Victoria bought one of these in 1970 and it was trucked around through two Canadian championships and four British Columbia championships. Gerard still uses it for winter workouts. Since it came with a one-year warranty, we've gotten pretty good value. Incidentally, you may have noticed that airflow pits still are the choice of movie stuntment jumping out of tenth-floor windows.

Graduated-density foam slab pits. (In the U.S. and Canada, the original was Port-a-Pit.) I can't imagine any improvement on these, as a landing
surface. They were the first to make landing position irrelevant, other
than torpedo-ing straight on your head. I'm not sure how to date this,
except that I remember vaulting into (and beyond) a Port-a-Pit in a meet at the University of Washington in 1970 and they were standard throughout a master's European tour in 1972. I can't over-emphasize the importance of this development in permitting full utilization of fiberglass pole
technique, especially regarding clearance technique.


Cinder runways. Even I can't remember when this became standard; certainly sometime before the 1928 Olympics. The main effect was on vaulting in bad-weather conditions: like possible or not.

Asphalt-composition runways. Originally, they were made up of road-paving asphalt mixed with automobile-tire shavings. For the first time, runway markers made sense, because stride pattern didn't depend on the weather.Almost my first experience with these runways was at the 1956 U.S. championships. The temperature, in St. Louis, was over 100 degrees F. I can't remember problems in the pole vault, but I do remember that in the triple jump, the landing from the "hop" phase quickly came to look like a cinder runway in rainy weather. Obviously, the "all-weather" runway was another very significant development, providing a new level of confidence in approach. This may have been even more important for rigid-pole vaulting than for fiberglass, since being under or over at takeoff lacked the forgiveness of fiberglass technology and technique. (A less verbose way of putting that would be that being under or over at takeoff with a rigid pole was very bad for your back.)

Plastic-composition runways. Again, I associate this development with 1970 and the University of Washington. What I remember most about this first exposure was the feeling of running above, rather than on, the runway. I think this translates to a) faster approach speed and b) quicker, more effortless take-off. If you'll promise not to tell . . . The advent of
high-density fiberglass poles and of plastic-composition runways (Tartan)
converge, for me, with that 1970 meet at "UDub." Gerard and I went down a bit early that day to pick up our first black Catapoles (I'd think the
first in Canada.) Since it seemed a real imposition to take up the time of
Canada Customs in filling out a bunch of forms and collecting duty when we returned, I set about taping the new pole and "aging" it with dirt and
grass stains. That's when I learned that Tartan tracks and runways and
Astroturf "grass" make it almost impossible to get anything dirty.


Aluminum crossbars (1955?). Not a big deal, really, but they came off the
standards much less readily than the previous bamboo or cane ones and seldom broke like the wooden alternative. A big problem was that they bent very easily, so that after every bad miss the officials had to try to rebend them to something like straight. Depending on where the resulting waves were, it took varying amount of contact to brush them off.

Fiberglass crossbars (1980?). Heavier and straighter than aluminum, and
much more resistant to being dislodged. Creative re-engineering could make them even more so--e.g., weighting the ends, filling with sand, etc. I
suspect that more than a few records were set with re-engineered crossbars.


Cantilevered standards (1975?). Maybe more a psychological advantage than a physical one. The bar on today's standards certainly looks lower to the vaulter. Another effect may be that the shorter crossbar bounces less and stays on with higher tailwinds than on the old standards.



No shift of the upper hand. As you probably know, the English vaulters who
dominated the event in the 1850s and 1860s used a "climbing" technique;
planting the pole, swinging to horizontal, then as long as balance could be
held, sliding the top hand up, sliding the bottom hand to meet, the top
hand again, etc., finally flexing the knees and dropping over. About 1860,
the AAA outlawed this technique, although the professionals continued to
use it. Since vaulting was higher initially with the climbing technique,
this rule change might be thought of as retrograde, but without the change
the vault record might have topped out at around 11 feet (3.35).

The shift of the lower hand to meet the upper, to maximize the swing and
two-handed pull-up, of course continued through the bamboo, aluminum and steel-alloy pole eras.

Wide grip and no hand-shift. With the arrival of the high-density
Catapoles, vaulters found that the hand-shift left too narrow a fulcrum to
control body position behind the new wide bend, finding themselves far too
often thrown off one side or other of the pit. (I think I remember that
being the way world record holder Jim Graham suffered his career-ending
injury.) It probably was originally for this reason that the hand-shift was
abandoned, although it also became apparent that the wide grip was
beneficial to controlling an early roll-back. A brief argument raged over
whether the wide grip also facilitated greater pole bend through forceful
extension of the lower hand. John Pennel was the primary advocate of the
left-hand-push, while Bob Seagren favored a passive left hand, with the
primary impulsion on the pole coming from the upper hand. Since both were multiple holders of the world record, I can only conclude that the forceful left arm was the correct choice for the shorter, stronger Pennel and the passive left arm better for the taller, more graceful Seagren. Since their day, the argument seems to have been won by Seagren's successors.

Lateral or elevated pole carry. Prior to the advent of the exaggerated wide
grip, it was usual in the approach to carry the pole straight ahead on the
right hip, with the left arm crossing the body. If you'll try running this
way with a moderately-wide grip, you'll find you have very little arm
action to aid your legs. When this technique was complicated even further
with a wider grip, it forced an almost crab-like run. The solution was to
carry the pole laterally, across the body, to gain and maintain speed;
swinging the pole into alignment with the planting box only in the last few
strides. This gain in freedom of arm action is continued by many of today's
vaulters' use of a very high carry, dropping the pole tip only in the last
four strides.

Arch-flyaway clearance. As I remarked earlier, a "jack-knife" clearance was almost mandatory on sand and sawdust pits, in order for the vaulter to land on his feet. That style persisted in the early days of fiberglass poles andsafer pits, mainly because that was "the way a good vaulter does it" and, besides, it was acrobatic and exciting. Seagren, Kjell Isaksson, and Brian Sternberg refined a clearance technique that involved flexing the legs backward during clearance, to sustain the time over the bar. Eventually, other vaulters--especially Bubka--demonstrated that the most efficient fiberglass clearance was simply to push off the pole and follow a natural arch over the bar. I don't know whether this style has a distinctive name.



1860 Wooden poles; Ash, Hickory, Hazelnut

1879 First bamboo poles. The US record holder at the time, Hugh Baxter who was a big man, did not like them and went back to wooden poles.

Bamboo poles were used from the early seasons of the century till the
beginning of the 50s.

The last world record with a bamboo pole was established by Cornelius
Warmerdam in 1942.(15'7 3/4" 4.77m) That is outdoors, of course.

1947/1948 Ray Maggard (Calif) experimented with aluminium poles. Although way lighter that the Bamboo poles, these implements broke too easily and they were not used much after these two seasons.

1950 Metal Poles
Swedish alloy (Seefab) 14', 15', 16'0
British alloy (Appolo) 14', 15" only two sizes I think.

French Duraluminium in 1950. 4.00, 4.20, 4.40. Some were in two pieces and were adjustable and easy to carry. However the sleeve at the junction was very heavy and these poles were not popular.

1952 First fiberglas (Bob Mathias, US)

1955 French Vaulter Georges Breitman (4.11m in 1949) had some outfit
manufacture white fiberglass poles. I was the test pilot and after two
tries at the factory we abandoned the project. Too expensive and too
bloody fragile.

1956 Rolando Cruz (Cuba) and Georgios Roubanis (Greece), both in the
States, jumped with fiberglass and Roubanis was the first man to obtain a
medal with this pole (Melbourne) 3rd.at the Olympic Games.

1957 Robert Gutowski Cleared a new world mark (15'8"1/4 4.78m) with the red US Gill Pole.

1959 Don Bragg, US only world record holder indoors with a metal pole;
15'9"1/2 4.81,5m.

1959/1960 First wide popularity of fiberglass poles.

Robert Dooley, First big bender. 4.70 in 1959.

1961 George Davies US first world record holder using the fiberglass;
15'10"1/4 4.83,2m.

1962/1963. John Uelses (US) and Pentti Nikula (Finland) were the first really successful vaulters with the fiberglass. Uelses established indoor
and outdoor records and Nikula was the first man to clear the 5.00m
barrier. He did it indoors in 1963 (February) US vaulter Brian
Sternberg reached the mark outdoors in April of the same year.

1964 Fred Hansen (US) was the first man to win an Olympic title with the
fiberglass pole.

1990 (early) Carbon fiber was introduced. Stronger for its weight than
glass fiber.

Sometime in the 1970s some German guy (not Von Braun) inflated Helium
in his fiberglass pole to make it lighter. It exploded I think when
the gas was compressed when the flexion of the pole occured.


RR--Gerard doesn't make it clear that the fiberglass (Skypole) used by
Mathias in 1952--actually 1948--was nothing like the 1960s Catapole. It was lighter and easier to slide your bottom hand on than bamboo, but bent no more and probably less. Otherwise, its primary virtue was that when it
broke, which was often, it just folded over like a cardboard mailing tube;
unlike the high-density poles, which explode and leave all sorts of nasty
pieces to land on.

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Unread postby souleman » Thu Feb 10, 2005 11:52 pm

Very interesting. Roger, do you know if the pole that Seagren wasn't allowed to use at his second olympics used the carbon fibre like todays poles? Another question is, did Bob Richards win his pole vaulting medals on a bamboo pole or did he use a steel, or aluminum pole? Just wondering. Later............Mike

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Re: Differences That Made A Difference

Unread postby dgracecpv » Mon Apr 17, 2017 4:43 pm

I am doing a paper on the implement and equipment history of the vault. Where did you get the information you posted about the facilities and runways; that would be incredibly helpful! Thanks!

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