The pole vault is a sport where the successful competitor must combine a high level of athletic prowess with the development of unerring and fluid technique. Pole vaulting also involves a consideration of the advanced technologies used to construct the pole; the physical characteristics of the pole will be critical to the generation of the lift necessary to take the athlete over the bar.
As with many of the disciplines that are predominately in the public eye only during Olympic competition, the pole vault is a relatively simple event. The vaulters must clear a bar, positioned above a landing mat, using a long pole with which to propel themselves upward for leverage to assist in the clearing of the bar. The event commences with a run up along a track. The athlete runs as fast as possible, holding the long pole. The pole is thrust into a pre-positioned box on the track surface, and the athlete converts the forward motion along the track into vertical lift. The pole provides considerable flexion, as it absorbs and then releases the energy of the athlete generated by the approach as the pole is straightened. As the vaulter nears the bar, the pole is used for balance as the vaulter angles his or her body across the bar, falling onto the landing mats below.
In international and Olympic competition, each athlete is provided with three opportunities to clear the determined heights. The winner of the competition is the last vaulter to have cleared a height; in the event of a tie, where one or more competitors have each missed three jumps at a height, the tie is broken through determining the least number of misses at the earlier heights.
The pole vault has been an Olympic sport since the inaugural modern Games of 1896. It is also an event at the World Track and Field championships, held every two years. Women have competed for their pole vault championship at the Olympics since the 2000 Games. The pole vault is also one of the 10 disciplines that make up the Olympic decathlon, often referred to as the competition that determines the world's greatest athlete.
The object of the pole vault is to clear the greatest height possible; this object may also be stated as how to best optimize the energy of the athlete created by the run up and the planting of the pole prior to take off. The technology of the pole has been central to the progression of vaulters in achieving greater heights in the past 100 years. As a physical proposition, the greater the amount of energy that can be released from the pole as it is flexed by the athlete on the path up toward the bar, the further the athlete will be able to travel. This property of the bar is known as its coefficient of restitution; similar considerations apply to how far a golf ball will travel when struck by a club. In 1896, the Olympic champion used a pole constructed of bamboo; he jumped 10 ft 6 in (3.2 m). With aluminum poles in the early 1950s, vaulters could achieve heights of 15 ft 6 in (4.7 m), due in part to the more flexible nature of the aluminum construction, one that absorbed greater amounts of energy when struck into the ground by the vaulter, and which then released the stored energy to the body of the vaulter as the pole uncoiled. In 1994, Sergey Bubka of Russia set a pole vault world record of 20 ft 1.75 in (6.15 m), using a pole constructed of a carbon fiber/fiberglass composite, materials that are both lighter and possessed of a greater coefficient of restitution than the aluminum model.
For safety reasons, the poles are rated for use by athletes of a minimum weight to prevent a larger than rated athlete falling as a result of a pole that snaps under an excess weight. Vaulters use as light a pole as possible to ensure that they carry as little weight as possible on the run up, permitting the fastest approach possible, and the corresponding greatest amount of energy to be directed into the pole.
Most high jumpers, who are also attempting to leap as high as possible over a stationary bar, are tall and very slim and lithe. Pole vaulters tend to be heavier and much stronger athletes. The world-class pole vaulter will often possess sprinting capability not far removed from that of an elite sprinter, as the more speed the vaulter can develop on the runway approaching the jump, the more energy can be directed into the pole and then transferred into the vertical movement of the athlete to the bar. The vaulter must also have a strong upper body, particularly in the shoulders, to generate additional forces on the push of the pole into the ground on takeoff. The vaulter must also be extremely coordinated, able to contort their body in midair on the approach to the bar.