Think about it: You sprint at full speed while carrying a heavy pole, then use that pole to catapult yourself twenty feet in the air, then fall.

The pole vault is my favorite Olympic event partly because it seems like such a bizarre practice, the sport that most closely resembles a dare made by acrobatic drunks. In fact, it has a long and gloriously mysterious history, faint images on walls and vases of ancient Egyptians and Greeks using poles to evade enemies or to launch themselves onto particularly tall horses.

So many of our sports are artistic reproductions of practical applications, but the pole vault is the zenith of this phenomenon. Take this pole and rocket yourself over that bar. Why? Because you never know when a pole might be all you have. And because it’s beautiful.

“Once you come off the pole, you’ve done everything you need to,” says Derek Miles, an American pole-vaulter who finished fourth in Beijing. “The only thing you need to do is fall.” Pole-vaulting, essentially, is the art of transferring energy — from the man to the pole (through speed) back into the man (through flex) — but that transfer has to be harnessed perfectly. After the platform divers — and the trampolinists, if you enjoy the Olympic Circus — the pole-vaulters are the Summer Olympians asked to fall the farthest. (Sergey Bubka, the Ukrainian legend, holds the record for outdoor pole-vaulting: 6.14 meters, or just more than 20 feet. He might as well have pitched himself off the roof of a two-story house.) If I ever find myself falling through space from such a height, I’ll know something terrible has happened. A pole-vaulter will be in the vicinity of miracles.

And that’s why you should watch the pole vault this summer — really watch it, every single beat of it. The approach, the plant, the takeoff, the swing up, the extension — pause it right there, when “there’s some timing and swinging stuff that has to happen, where you actually swing around upside down and try to get on top of that bend before it releases,” Miles says. (Think about that for a second.) Then comes the turn and, finally, the fly-away.

Each of those movements is beautiful on its own, so precise and technical but also so fluid and athletic. Combine them and you witness something almost magical. It is the response — a seemingly ridiculous, illogical response — to every ugly, cynical instinct that regular life might instill in us. Always give me the sport that ends with something called the fly-away, as though its singular purpose were to see its participants escape. That’s what pole-vaulting is: not a way over, but a way away.

By: Chris Jones


Pole Vaulting
Pole Vaulting

Leave A Comment