Athletic Origins: the Pole Vault

Most people have seen it happening at the Olympics; a person barreling down the runway with a twenty foot long poker, bending it into a bow and attempting to enter low earth orbit.  When seeing something so foreign to most everyday actions, the first question many people ask is: “who first thought that would be a good idea?”  Depending on who you ask, the answer could be anything from the Ancient Irish to Egyptian soldiers to Industrial Age Germans.

Images of Egyptian soldiers scaling walls using poles are considered the oldest record of pole vault humanity has ever done, but they amount to little more than simply climbing slabs of wood to get over ramparts.  Aside from that, the oldest records that involve something akin to the pole vault are found in the 12th century book of Leinster.  The book described the 1829 BCE Taliteann games in Ireland, where men would compete in nearly everything (Spear throwing, pole vault, singing, you name it, the Ancient Irish claim to have done it.)  The only issue with the Book of Leinster’s version of Pole Vault’s origin is that the first Taliteann games were more or less legends.  3000 years of time passing between the events and the recording allows for a certain amount of artistic liberty to be taken with the accounts.

5th century BCE Greek imagery found on some pottery depicted men preparing to use poles to spring onto a horse, and the Greek word for pole vault roughly translated to spear high jump.  Pole vault as a whole was not considered a sport, more a method of ambulation because it would allow an individual to get higher or farther than normally possible with a simple stick.  French and English commoners were known to use rods of wood to leap over small rivers and streams; but it was not until much later that the pole vault became a sport.  It took Johann GutsMuths the father of modern Gymnastics to make Pole Vault an official thing.  In 1792, when he produced his book on how youths should exercise, he had a small section on how to pole vault detailing how to hold the sticks, how to run and how to jump.  Prussia at the time was the world’s leading military superpower, with better troops, better training and better leaders than anybody around them.  Because the Prussians were the bar standard for nearly anything military during that era, things they proscribed (such as exercises and youth programs) were immediately copied by the rest of Europe and America.  Within 60 years, the vault was being done in the English Games and intercollegiate sports; and within 100 years, it was an accepted event in the Olympics (women didn’t get to vault Olympically until 2000, 108 years later).  America led the sport with a 16 Olympic gold sweep, winning from 1896 all the way until 1968.  With 45 Olympic medals to their name, the United States are the winningest nation in Olympic Pole Vault.

As the current numbers stand, the original Gold medal height in Pole Vault was 3.3 meters, roughly 11 feet.  The current record for men is 20 feet, 2.5 inches, 6.16 meters off the ground.  For such an odd sport, a surprising amount of effort and skill has gone into raising the bar.

The most famous two examples of the vault:
~10 BCE: Roman poet Ovid describes a goddess escaping earth by sticking a spear into it and “taking off for the heavens”.

July 1, 1520: Pedro de Alvarado, injured and fleeing from Aztecs angry over the murder of Montezuma, sticks his lance into the ground and blasts himself over a gap in a causeway and out of the clutches of his pursuers.  His crazy leap became known as the “Salto de Alvarado”,


I Wasn’t Kidding About the Jumping Over Rivers Thing, the Dutch do it Professionally Now:

Pole Vault!:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s