Let’s start with the basics. Every track and field event, pole vault included, needs to be conducted safely. Weather conditions might change the focus from “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger) to “survival mode”, but the event still needs to be safe.
With every event in track and field there is also an “assumed risk”. A hurdler might trip and fall on the sunniest of days. An errant throw might somehow escape even the most confined discus cage, or worse, rebound onto the thrower in the cage. In the last couple of years nationally, the most dangerous event in track and field was… (not discus, and not pole vault): distance running.
Since 2019 the fatalities in track and field have been in distance running. Most of those were accidents in warmups, out on the roads around stadiums or schools, where the runners were hit be vehicles (North Carolina).
Not for the Faint
As a forty year pole vault coach and official, there was always a struggle to find balance between competition and safety. Weather conditions always impact the pole vault, and the official determines when those conditions make the event unsafe to contest. There are times when you can run the 1600 or the 4×100, but not be able to pole vault. But it’s not as often as you think.
One last caveat: as a coach, I had the last word whether my athletes vaulted or not. If I thought it was unsafe, I pulled them off the runway. Like any event, pole vault is “voluntary”, wholly at the discretion of the coach and vaulter. An Olympic Pole Vault Coach once told me: “Don’t let your vaulter be the one that makes officials decide it’s too bad to vault”. In unsafe conditions, we could at least pass rather than jump.
So yesterday the weather forecast was sixty and sunny in the morning, then increasing winds and clouds and falling temperatures throughout the day. There was no question that we would begin to vault, the question was, at what point might we have to stop.
The morning girls’ competition started well, without any issues at all. The moderate wind was directly at the vaulters’ back, a pole vault coaches’ dream. In warmups the “good” vaulters were breaking out their “big poles”, hoping to take advantage of their increased runway speed from the tailwind.
As the official “calling the bar”, my specific concern was the “properly released” pole. I made sure I maintained my focus on the vaulter’s release, knowing that the “glorious” tailwind might well blow a properly released pole back into the crossbar. As it turned out, through one hundred sixty some vaults there were only two “discretion” calls, both good releases. Several other vaults ended with the pole resting on the crossbar, but no “call” was required as the bar stayed up.
Throughout the girls’ competition, the wind continued and then increased. That required concern in keeping the crossbar up in now-gusting winds. The vaulters (wisely) timed their attempts to lulls, but my pit crew had to keep the bar in place. Our young “bar setters” did a great job of placing, holding, and releasing the bar just as the vaulter left the ground. Throughout the competition, we never had a bar come down as a vaulter went up.
The champion’s final vaults were marred by now increased winds. It wasn’t a safety issue, just the practical problems of pole and step placement. But we were reaching the maximum tailwind for practical vaulting.
New Competition, New Weather
And then warmup for the second competition began. The winds started to swirl, shifting from tail to cross. When a gust lifted the front buns of the pole vault pit off the ground – it was time to close the pit and delay warmups. It was the right decision. A storm cell moved through, and the entire meet was lightning delayed for thirty minutes. By the time we returned to the runway, the wind died back down, but was now swirling. Meanwhile the temperature began to drop.
As we “hid” in the locker rooms, trees fell in some neighboring areas, and some local power went out. It looked like the end of the vault day, and maybe the track meet.
One important point: pole vault, like every other track and field event, can be delayed rather than cancelled. Often times once the weather cover goes back on the pit, the vault day is over. As the official, I made it clear that we had every intent of returning to the vault if conditions moderated. After the storm cell moved through, we called the boys back to vault.
Tail Wind to Wind Chill
We managed our way through the boys’ competition. The “setters” no longer had to hold the bar on; now it was a matter of keeping them warm in the wind-chill. In fact, the vaulters now faced a moderate head wind. There was no “safety” concern, though one loomed on the horizon: rain.
Rain is the biggest safety factor in the pole vault. Rain impacts the ability of a vaulter to hold the pole. The presence of some moisture does NOT immediately end the vault competition. As the official in rainy conditions, I immediately shift my focus to observing the vaulter’s grip on the pole (particularly their top handhold). If I see vaulters slip, it’s my “cue” to suspend the vault. As a coach, I did everything I could to keep my vaulter’s hands and poles dry (we were both good and creative). And if we couldn’t, I would suggest to the official in charge that it was time to suspend.
Back to the role of the coach in this process. As an official I am very sensitive to coaches’ opinions on the weather conditions. Throughout yesterday’s competition, I was constantly checking with them to make sure everyone “was in”. But as an official, I also know that the competition itself, whether to vault or suspend, is my duty, not theirs.
The rain moved in just as we finished the second competition. The winning vaulter (and his coach) wisely determined not to go any higher. We packed up just as my least favorite track weather moved in: forty degrees and cold, cold rain. I was glad to head for the car.
Two pole vault competitions completed – safely. Another “Icebreaker” Invitational (maybe should be the “Windbreaker” Invitational this year) in the books. As the official, if conditions are unsafe – stop the vault. But pole vault doesn’t have to be for “fair weather” only.