Analyzing the Olympic pole vault competitions

Not only did this year’s Olympic Games mark the high point of the year for pole vaulters, it also presented a new era in the sport. Two first-time Olympians won gold, showing adversity of against the tough conditions, as well as two seasons training and competing under a pandemic. Below I take an in depth look at both the men’s and women’s competition, as well as some thoughts on what sets apart the sport’s biggest star: Mondo Duplantis.

Men’s pole vault analysis

The men’s pole vault looked to be an event on the rise over the last few years. Thiago Braz and Sam Kendricks were just 22 and 23 years old when they made the podium in Rio. Add to that young world record holder in Mondo Duplantis and almost certainly the podium would take more in Tokyo. The pole vault was indeed at a high level in Tokyo, but with all that went wrong in the preparation of major contenders we were left thinking “what could have been.”

To start with the conditions need mention. While the men’s competition was not affected by rain or wind like the women were, still perhaps no other event feels the impact of heat and humidity more than the pole vault, where athletes are left exposed on the track for 3 or 4 hours from the warmups to final jump.

Looking at individual athletes, the first big story began before the Olympics started when Sam Kendricks, the only person who seemed capable of pushing Duplantis, had to pull out of the Games due to a positive COVID test. As shown by his win at the 2019 World Championships, he often finds a new level when it counts the most.

Some would think that bronze would be a disappointment for the defending champion Braz. However after years of injuries and distractions, it felt like a victory to be back on the podium.

The final Rio medalist, Ranaud Lavillenie, was not a major factor. As with other names from his era like Piotr Lisek, he is starting to show his age, and small injuries hampered their preparations.

Compared to Rio, Gold and silver in Tokyo was just 1cm less than Rio, and Bronze was slightly improved. Interestingly, if Kendricks had competed then the level needed to qualify for the final would have been 5.75 meters, the best ever. This depth of talent is in large part due to a batch of young US boys and others from three continents on the rise. Names like Emmanouil Karalis (GRE) and Christopher Nilsen (USA), both still under 23, showed great potential, from a group together with other young but capable vaulters like KC Lightfoot (USA), Kurtis Marschall (AUS), Sonre Guttormsen (NOR), Ersu Sasma (TUR), Bo Kanda Lita Baehre (GER). You can expect many of these names to reach results up to 6m in major competitions within the next 2-3 years.

Mondo: the future of pole vaulting

In the meantime, Duplantis is still the face of the pole vault. Already world record holder and Olympic champion at age 21, you can expect him to rule the pole vault in the coming years even more dominantly than Sergej Bubka did at his peak. What continues to set Duplantis apart is his speed. He usually is 0.2 to 0.5 meters per second faster than most of his opponents. The laws of mechanics tell us that every + 0.1 m/s in approach speed counts for approximately + 10 cm of possible height difference, assuming the same quality of energy transformation from kinetic energy at the end of the approach to potential energy when clearing the bar during the vault.

Duplantis is also a great technician, especially in the way he swings and rocks back, giving him a huge boost out of the recoiling pole, and allowing him to fly 20 or 30 centimeters higher over the bar than most of his opponents. His speed advantage, however, allows him to compensate for other parts of his jump where he might be less efficient.

One area is the pole plant. In his current technique he lowers the pole tip down earlier than other athletes, so much so that it touches the ground approximately one meter before the plant box and then slides into the box. Lowering the pole early is less efficient as it causes the center of mass of the pole is lowered overall, and then subsequently lifted again thereafter. Another approach, the so called “active pole drop”, could provide a smoother transition. Athletes using this method rotate the around its transverse axis in the last approach steps, which can be more efficient as it only requires the pole to lower its center of mass as much as necessary. But by having so much speed in his approach, he can lose a little efficiency here or there and still consistent bring more energy into the jump than his competitors.

The pole drop is perhaps of greater importance in cases where the front edge of the plant box is not flush with the track surface. This has happened in the past, even at the World Championship level. With such a plant box, a little bump from hitting the edge can cause the pole tip to rise and not catch the back on the box in the deepest point. This causes a chain reaction of problems, including an unfavorable able of the pole upon plant, and jamming the athlete between the ground and the pole.

Women’s pole vault analysis

In addition to dealing with heat and humidity, the women’s event faced even more difficulties as the qualification was paused for 90 minutes due to heavy rain. Then a strong head wind in the first hour of the final caused more misses at early heights. Fifth place was just 4.50m, the lowest for that place since the women’s pole vault debuted at the 2000 Olympics.

But don’t let the results fool you. The level of competition was still high. Despite the weather, it took the best ever result (4.55) to reach the Olympic final, even though big names like Olympic silver medalist Sandi Morris failed to move through.

After the head wind eliminated many competitors in the final, the weather changed and it became a tail wind. The progressions were a bit crazy. That might have worked in Doha, but after 18 months of a pandemic and a non-climatized stadium, the progressions also contributed to many athletes dropping out earlier than excepted. The best athletes in Tokyo were able to adapt better to the conditions, with Katie Nageotte deserving the gold. She was clearly the best prepared athlete, both physically and energetically (in her approach speed). She has the potential in her technique to jump 5 meters very soon.

Anzhelika Sidorova seems to have lost some of her class from 2019 form. She is still by far the best technician among the women, but perhaps less speed in the approach made her vulnerable this time. Holly Bradshaw not only crowned her solid season with a with the bronze medal, but achieved her third best result ever despite the conditions!

Further back some health problems kept Ekaterini Stefanidi well off of her levels from 2016-2019, but still got rewarded with a 4th place thanks to a season’s best. This was quite an unexpected result after looking at her results leading into Tokyo. Many younger athletes also arrived in Tokyo with great expectations but left disappointed such as disappointing, namely Wima Murto (FIN), Nina Kennedy (AUS), and Angelika Moser (SUI). They were not yet able to realize their full potential under challenging conditions, but will still be major factors in future championships.