While reading about the recent Wired Health Conference, an interesting exchange during an interview caught my attention.
The interviewer asked Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in the decathlon Ashton Eaton, "Why do athletes—especially in track and field—just keep getting better?"
After a humorous reference to his upcoming marriage to elite heptathlete Brianne Theisen, Eaton responded:
..."We keep going (competing) to see the limits...except in the pole vault, I think the performance is dictated by the implement (pole) technology. Whatever technology is invented next may help people go higher."
Finally. A world-class athlete who is actively involved in the sport has unwittingly verbalized my own instincts as to why the incredible heights attained only by the great Ukrainian vaulter Sergey Bubka seem so unapproachable.
What I interpreted Eaton to be saying was that the men's pole vault has probably met its ceiling—somewhere just north of the six-meter (19 feet, 8.5 inches) mark—based on the limitations of current pole technology. This is a theory I have espoused for some time now.
The obvious retort, If Bubka did it, why can't someone else? begs an answer.
My answer is blunt. Give it your best shot.
And a lot of really good vaulters have—for nearly 20 years now.
The 20th anniversary of Bubka's outdoor record (6.14 meters = 20' - 1.75") comes in July, 2014. No one has come within three inches during that time, and today any vault over six meters is cause for great celebration.
Indeed, no one except Bubka has ever pierced the 20-foot barrier. The Ukranian has done it 11 times.
Bubka's competitive advantage was threefold:
Strength and speed
Bubka was able to overcome the physics problem of leverage. His powerful approach (run-up speed) and upper body strength allowed him to maximize the extra potential energy inherent in a heavier pole, which most vaulters cannot control.
Bubka was a master of the Petrov model which creates and utilizes the stored energy of the flexed pole through the entire ascent phase.
The 20-foot barrier (6.10 meters) presents an enormous mental challenge to any vaulter. Throughout his career, Bubka was seemingly unfazed by the challenges of reaching new heights. He broke his own world records (indoor and outdoor) 34 times.
Simply put, an athlete with the physical and mental attributes of a Sergey Bubka is a true rarity, and we may never see another vaulter of his caliber in our lifetimes.
Short of that possibility, it will likely take another improvement in the pole (as Eaton suggests) to give us our next 20-foot vaulter. And another outdoor world record remains five centimeters beyond that.
If we look to the recent past, a pattern of ascending limits related to the composition of the pole characterizes the pole vault.
Rigid-pole vaulting (wood, bamboo, aluminum) reached its upper limits in the 15-foot plus range. Pole vaulters had tapped their optimum performance, relying on sheer speed and strength to overcome the leverage challenge of an unyielding pole.
In the early 1960s, the fiberglass pole began to revolutionize the sport. As vaulters were able to let the stored energy of a flexed pole do more of the heavy lifting, the limits rose into the 18-foot range.
In the same vein, 1970s technology brought a lighter, stronger and slightly longer implement into the game. It was the carbon-fiber pole and again, the bar rose to near the 20-foot range.
Are we now witnessing the peak of the carbon-fiber era in the pole vault, save for one man who is no longer competing?
I believe we are, and I think it will take a radical change in equipment or rules (or an Eaton offspring) before we see another world record.
Rojofact: During Bubka's amazing run of outdoor world records (17) between 1984 and 1994, only one man interrupted his consecutive streak. Competing against Bubka in Rome, 1984, Frenchman Thierry Vigneron eclipsed the Ukranian's world mark.
Minutes later, on his next run, Bubka snatched it back and has not yielded it to another vaulter since.