In the build-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, all the talk among the boys at my primary school was of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Clued-up children – in other words, those whose parents were more interested in athletics than mine – knew all about the rivalry between ‘the Tough and the Toff’, as Pat Butcher calls them in his new double-subtitled book, The Perfect Distance: Ovett and Coe: The Record-Breaking Rivalry (Weidenfeld, £14.99); and because this was a posh primary school, the consensus was in support of Coe. Interest in him soon faded into the middle distance, however, as a new hero of the playground emerged: Daley Thompson the decathlete. Not just some 800-metre runner, here was a man who could apparently do almost anything: a true star of track and field (Steve Ovett dismissed the decathlon as ‘nine Mickey Mouse events followed by a slow 1500 metres’, but we were young and impressionable). What’s more, Thompson got to do things that looked like they were a lot of fun: in particular, the pole-vault.

Part of pole-vaulting’s appeal lay in its not being something we were able (or compelled) to do ourselves. A ditch and a line of trees ran along the edge of the playing fields, and those at the back of the queue for the long jump could (and would) leap the ditch with the aid of a stick: never mind that the ditch was fairly narrow, and using a stick was not only unnecessary but made it more likely that we would fail to clear the distance and fall in. Even at the time, we were all too aware – how could we not be – of the unleapable chasm separating our efforts from the soaring flight of the champions: it was awesome, the way they launched themselves into the air in a graceful arc; seeming, for a still moment at the pinnacle of their trajectory, to balance on the end of the pole by a fingertip; before flexing over the bar and dropping the five metres and more back to earth.

The prehistory of pole-vaulting is, like that of many sports, murky. It wasn’t on the programme at the Ancient Greek Olympics, though the Minoans may have used poles to leap over the bulls during bull-dancing events. According to one story, the modern sport derives from a traditional way of getting around the Fens of East Anglia, or other waterway-riddled parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands. At any rate, pole-vaulting was introduced to German gymnastic competitions in the latter part of the 18th century: perhaps in order to distinguish themselves from grubby peasants traversing canals, the amateur sportsmen concentrated on leaping not as far as possible along the ground, but as high as possible away from it. These pioneers used rigid poles made of ash; flexible bamboo poles were introduced around 1900, and the modern fibreglass variety was first used in 1956.

The notion that the sport might have had its origins in a form of siege warfare is appealing – Welsh hordes flinging themselves over the walls of Edward I’s castles, pitchforks at the ready – but sadly without foundation: at the first modern Olympic Games, in Athens in 1896, William Hoyt of the USA claimed the gold medal for clearing 10'10"; and he didn’t have to carry any heavy weaponry. Even the crackest pole-vault assault squad, attacking a fortification with defences higher than 12 feet, would have knocked themselves out on the battlements. (Yes, Kevin Bacon pole-vaults to devastating effect in his battle against the giant worms terrorising the Arizona desert in Tremors, but that’s only a movie.)

Today’s top pole-vaulters can jump a lot higher than 12 feet (or four metres). It’s fairly simple to work out the maximum possible vaulting height. An athlete running at 10 metres per second, with perfect technique and an ergonomically faultless pole, who converts all his kinetic energy (half his mass times the square of his velocity, or ½mv2) into potential energy (his mass times gravity times his height off the ground, or mgh), will be able to lift his centre of gravity 5.1 metres into the air (mgh=½mv2, h=v2/2g, 102/9.8x2=5.1). Assuming his centre of gravity is a metre off the ground, he should be able to clear 6.1 metres. Which is slightly less than the world record, set by the Ukrainian Sergei Bubka in 1994, of 6.14 metres. Faster, taller athletes with better-designed poles might one day jump a little higher than that, but Bubka, whose record has remained unbeaten for a decade, vaulted pretty much as high as it is possible for a human being under his own propulsion to go.

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Vol. 26 No. 19 · 7 October 2004

I have no quarrel with Thomas Jones's account of the mathematics of pole-vaulting, but feel he hasn't told the whole story (LRB, 2 September). I remember my sports master saying that a good pole-vaulter does a handstand on the pole when he is at the top of his trajectory. It seems improbable that the handstand is effected with nothing but the remnants of the kinetic energy available at take-off. The pole-vaulter must inject additional kinetic energy with his arms once the pole straightens near the bar. Depending on his build and skill, this should make a difference of perhaps 50 centimetres. In Britain at the end of the 19th century, vaulters were allowed to shin up the pole – at that time rigid – before dropping over the bar. An athlete who mastered the handstand technique added much more than 50 cm to the height achieved.

Long-lasting world records such as Sergei Bubka's are set by athletes who are a class above their world-class rivals. But it would surprise me very much if in the next ten years another supreme pole-vaulter did not appear: extremely fast, well above average height, with powerful shoulders, the muscular control of a gymnast, and perfect timing. In fact, the athlete's height plays a much less significant role than in the high jump: several world-class male pole-vaulters have been under six feet.

Apart from the physiological factors, however, it shouldn't be forgotten that athletes adapt their training and their expectations according to the achievements of their peers. We haven't reached the limits of human performance in sport or in any other field. In a famous letter to the Times thirty years ago, a reader wondered why the times of Derby winners had not improved for more than forty years. I would guess that one reason was that training methods hadn't changed, but another – and perhaps much more important – reason is that horses aren't told the times achieved by their rivals.

I look forward to pole-vaulting performances of at least 6.3 metres for men and 5.15 metres (the world record is currently 4.91 metres and vulnerable) for women by 2020.

Roger Partridge

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