An Illustrated History of Pole Vault

Pole vaulting

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The Early Days of Pole Vault

Harry Babcock at the 1912 Olympics. IOC Olympic Museum/Allsport/Getty Images

The precise origin of pole vaulting isn't known. It was likely discovered independently in a variety of cultures as a way of surmounting physical obstacles, such as streams or irrigation ditches. Egyptian relief sculptures from approximately 2500 B.C. depict warriors using poles to help climb enemy walls.

The first known pole vault competitions were held during the Irish Tailteann Games, which date back as far as 1829 B.C. The sport was an original modern Olympic event in 1896.

Harry Babcock gave the U.S. its fifth consecutive Olympic pole vault championship (not including the semi-official 1906 event) with his victory in 1912. His 3.95-meter effort (12 feet, 11½ inches) was exactly two meters less than the winning vault in 2004.

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Sixteenth Gold

Bob Seagren with daughter Kirsten in 2004, at the premier of the movie "Miracle.". Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Bob Seagren's 1968 gold medal extended the U.S. Olympic men's pole vault winning streak to 16. American domination ended in controversy in 1972 when many competitors — including Seagren — were not permitted to use their carbon fiber poles. Seagren won a silver medal that year.

The carbon fiber poles were just the latest incarnation of pole vaulting technology. The first poles were likely large sticks or tree limbs. Competitors in the 19th century used wooden poles. Bamboo was employed prior to World War II when it was replaced by metal. Fiberglass poles were introduced in the 1950s.

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Breaking the Barrier

Sergey Bubka flies into action in 1992. Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

Ukraine's Sergey Bubka was the first pole vaulter to top six meters. The 1988 Olympic gold medalist reached a personal best of 6.15 meters (20 feet, 2 inches), indoors, in 1993. His outdoor best was 6.14/20-1½ in 1994.

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Women Join In

Yelena Isinbayeva competes in the 2005 World Championships. Kirby Lee/Getty Images

Women's pole vault was added to the Olympics in 2000, with American Stacy Dragila winning the initial gold medal. Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva (above) won the 2004 gold and set a world record of 5.01 meters the next year. By 2009 she'd improved the world mark to 5.06 meters (16 feet, 7¼ inches).

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Modern Pole Vaulting

Tim Mack clears the bar during the 2004 Olympic pole vault final. Michael Steele/Getty Images

Advances in pole-making technology are primarily responsible for the huge increase in pole vaulting heights over the years. William Hoyt won the 1896 Olympic pole vault with a leap of 3.30 meters (10 feet, 9¾ inches). By comparison, the 2004 gold medal vault of American Tim Mack (above) measured 5.95/19-6¼. Today's poles, made from carbon fiber and fiberglass composite materials, are lighter — permitting greater speed on the approach — stronger and more flexible than their predecessors.

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Men's World Record

France's Renaud Lavillenie set the men's pole vault world record in 2014. Michael Steele/Getty Images

France's Renaud Lavillenie broke Sergey Bubka's world record in 2014 — and in Bubka's hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine, no less — by leaping 6.16 meters (20 feet, 2½ inches).