A wonderful women’s pole vaulting competition took place last week at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Two athletes, Nina Kennedy of Australia and Katie Moon of the USA, had identical records. Both had cleared 4.90m, the world-leading height of the year. In Kennedy’s case it was a personal best and a new national record.
Both, after a long and exhausting pole vault competition, failed at a height of 4.95m. TV commentators were anticipating that the bar would be lowered, and the competition would enter a jump-off until a winner could be declared. But after a brief and emotional conversation the two athletes and friends involved, in a great display of sportpersonship, agreed to forego further pole vaults and share the gold medal.
To have fought well
As Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, said: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
It is traditional while talking about pole vaulting to convert metric heights into the equivalent in double decker buses. A standard UK double decker is reported as being 4.4m high (14ft). Both pole vaulting athletes last Wednesday achieved heights higher than a double decker bus.
If a rather looser definition of a pole vaulter can be accepted, something along the lines of, ‘one who is able to clear a greater height when encumbered with a pole than he/she is capable of without a pole’, then I was once such a one. Any analogy involving double or even single decker buses is, however, wholly inappropriate.
I learned my technique, if it can be called that, on the playing fields of Bridgend Boys Grammar School in the 1960s. In that liberated time, sports equipment was available unsupervised to any scholar who cared, or dared, to use it.
During a lunch hour I was taught how to grip the pole, using much the same technique that current vaulters employ. Holding the leading arm across the body, palm above the pole and thumb under it, the trailing arm bent almost at right angles, palm under the pole and thumb over it. The grip allows for the vaulter to attempt to swivel around the pole and push their body over the bar.
A senior boy in school, experienced at pole vaulting, helped me practice. He’d hold the angled pole in place in the box beneath the bar for me while I ran up. I grabbed the pole with the grip I had been taught, and he’d flick me over the bar.
Eventually I grew big enough to run with the thing and attempt pole vaulting unaided.
If my grip was conventional, much of what followed bore scant resemblance to today’s athletes. They generally approach the bar in a near vertical position, and the bar is usually some feet higher than the length of the pole. Whereas I was, at best, horizontal over the bar, knees tucked in somewhere near my stomach. And I needed a pole a minimum of two feet longer than the height I was attempting.
The heights of pole vaulting
Of course, in those far-off days my pole was a rigid aluminium one. I would have been terrified to use one of the flexible catapulting poles so ubiquitous today. And I landed in a sandpit, not on a pile of foam mattresses sufficient to conceal a pea from a princess.
Despite my dismal technique and very modest heights, pole vaulting was a lot of fun. I sometimes scored the occasional point awarded for achieving minimal standard heights for my club in competition.
Despite a brief and inglorious pole vaulting career, it has taken me a troubled 40-plus years to come to accept, begrudgingly, eventually, reluctantly, tearfully, the possibility that I may never vault again.
I do bring, then, some very limited personal experience to bear in my understanding of the level of athleticism shown by Nina Kennedy and Katie Moon. For that, and for their sportpersonship, I couldn’t be more full of admiration.
This is sport as I believe it should be. Fiercely competitive, with endurance and skill of the highest order, but above all respectful and friendly.