Poles were often used to traverse canals and streams in northern Europe. Instead of bridges, a stack of poles allowed travelers to swing themselves over an obstacle. The activity evolved into a sport. Pole vaulting for both height and distance was contested in the UK, Germany, and Netherlands. Pole vaulting for distance never made into the Olympics, and is therefore not a part of modern track and field, but it is still a regional sport in the Netherlands, where it is called fieflijeppen (and it is something to behold).
Initially, pole vaulters used stiff poles made of bamboo or aluminum, but with the introduction of flexible fiberglass poles in the 1950s, greater and greater heights were achieved (the mens world record is now 6.18 meters, or 20 ft, 3 in).