Risk Management in the Original Extreme Sporting Event: The Pole Vault: With More "Catastrophic" Injuries Than Any High School Sport, the Pole Vault Requires Close Attention to Safety Issues

By Bemiller, Jim; Hardin, Robin | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Risk Management in the Original Extreme Sporting Event: The Pole Vault: With More "Catastrophic" Injuries Than Any High School Sport, the Pole Vault Requires Close Attention to Safety Issues


Bemiller, Jim, Hardin, Robin, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Extreme sports are having a major impact on youth sport activities. School-age athletes are attracted to the fun and excitement of extreme sports such as snowboarding, BMX cycling, and skateboarding. One of the original extreme sporting events, pole vaulting, is a unique and exciting event that has been part of the scholastic track and field program for more than half a century.

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The pole vault has ancient origins. Leaping with a pole was known to the Greeks as early as the fifth century B.C., and art and writings of that period depict the use of poles or staffs to vault onto the back of a horse and evade the enemy (Johnson, VerSteeg, & Kring, 2007). The pole vault as an athletic event was contested in the Tailteann Games in pre-Christian Ireland, according to traditions in the medieval Book of Leinster (Ware, 1999).

The pole vault was part of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, with a winning vault of 10 feet, 6 inches. The world record for men now stands at 20 feet, 1.25 inches (not at altitude; Track & Field News, 2004c). The pole vault for women was only recently added to the Olympic program in 2000, and the winning height of the Beijing gold medalist in 2008 set a world and Olympic record of 16 feet, 6.5 inches (Official Website of the Olympic Movement, n.d.). The scholastic records in the United States exceed 18 feet for boys and 14 feet for girls (Track & Field News, 2004a, 2004b). To achieve these breathtaking heights, the pole vault requires a combination of athletic abilities--including speed, strength, agility, and coordination--to master the proper technique. The challenge and excitement of this and other extreme sports are what make them appealing to both competitors and spectators.

Forty-eight states offer scholastic championships in the pole vault. The first collegiate pole vault championship was held in 1877 by the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletics of America (Johnson et al., 2007). The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began holding the pole vault as a men's championship event outdoors in 1921 and indoors in 1965. Indoor and outdoor championships were added for women in 1998 (Benson, 2002, 2003). Participation is on the rise in the pole vault, as in other extreme sports. There are an estimated 25,000 high school pole vault participants annually in the United States and thousands more at the collegiate and elite level (Mueller & Cantu, 2007).

The Element of Risk

Extreme or action sports are usually characterized by speed, height, physical exertion, specialized equipment, and an element of danger (Dictionary.com, n.d.). The pole vault epitomizes these qualities, with well-conditioned athletes who use a specially designed pole to launch themselves into the air and over a crossbar at progressively higher heights. The ever-present element of danger, as in other extreme sports, attracts participants and spectators. Eighteen fatalities were reported in high school and college pole vaulting from 1983 to 2006. This is in addition to 18 other catastrophic injuries reported during the same time period (Mueller & Cantu, 2007).

All of these incidents involved problems in landing. Vaulters landed partially on the mat and bounced off to strike an unprotected area or missed the landing mat completely (Mueller & Cantu, 2007). Head trauma accounted for most of these catastrophic injuries and was the cause of death in almost every instance (Boden, Pasquina, Johnson, & Mueller, 2001). These injuries prompted major rule revisions in 1987 and 2003 regarding the configuration of the landing systems and the administration of the event (Oakes, 2008). The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research reports that if the participation estimate of 25,000 high school vaulters is correct, the catastrophic injury rate for high school pole vaulters is higher than for any other sport included in their research (Mueller & Cantu, 2007). …

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