Pole vault (prosaic): An athlete sprints down a track carrying a pole. At the end of the track, they plant the pole in the box, transferring their momentum into the pole and using it to soar into the air. At the peak of their ascent, they let go of the pole and attempt to clear a bar without knocking it down.
Pole vault (poetic):
First of all, pole vaulting is extremely hard, even though it may look simple and beautiful when done right. There are a million things you have to be thinking about at once, all crammed into the less than 10 seconds of a jump. You have to be incredibly fit and strong, and your technique needs to be great. It's complex, difficult, and over like quicksilver. This "Pole Vault for Dummies" post breaks down the many elements needed to be a successful vaulter. And once you master the sport, you have to be able to perform consistently, under pressure, and in often tricky conditions. It doesn't matter what you can do in training - you have to show it on the day.
Here's how a pole vault competition works. First there's a qualification round; you have to clear either a minimum qualifying height or be in the top x number of athletes to proceed to the final. (Surprisingly, excellent vaulters often go out in qualifying rounds, so it's never a given that all the top favorites will make the final.)
In the final, there will be pre-set heights. (These vary based on the competition, but there are generally larger increases at lower heights, and smaller increases the higher you get.) You can choose whichever of the heights you like as your "opening" height. Some athletes come in early, some take a higher-risk strategy of coming in late (cough cough Renaud). The latter is higher-risk because you only ever get 3 misses in a row - if you choose a difficult height to open at, you might miss all 3 chances and not even register a mark! But if you come in too early, you spend more energy and also risk registering extra misses along the way, which could hurt you in a tiebreaker situation. So there's a definite element of strategy involved along with the athletic side.
Once the competition reaches your first height, you get 3 chances to make it, taking turns in order with everyone else who's attempting that height. (If you make it, your chances are restored back to 3 for the next height, and you go hang out and wait for that height to finish. Pole vault competitions can take hours, particularly if the weather isn't cooperating; you end up with a lot of down time.) You can also choose to 'pass' to the next height - so if, for example, you missed at 5.60m, you might then pass 5.60 and save your next 2 chances for 5.70. You can also pass a height if you made one and now want a rest - for example, you make 5.60, pass 5.70, come back in at 5.80.
If at any point you miss three vaults in a row, you're out, and your mark is whatever height you last successfully jumped (or no mark at all if you haven't made one - that hurts). This continues until there's a winner. There are various tiebreak procedures if necessary (say two people have both made 5.98, then missed all three chances at 6.01), which I won't get into because they're complicated, but if you're interested I can explain and/or point you in the right direction for that. :)
If you win the competition and still have chances left (e.g., you make 5.98, your only remaining rival misses all three chances at 5.98 and registers 5.93), you can then put the bar to whatever you like and use your chances to try for a personal best/competition record/national record/world record/etc. It still counts, even though it's not really under the same competition pressure.
Okay, that's the basics of the sport! Now for the athletes.
Sergey Bubka (USSR/UKR), competed 1981-2001
Sergey Bubka is a superhero. Like, seriously. When he was 20, he burst onto the scene and won his first World Championship, and a year later he set his first world record at 5.85m (19 feet 2 in). Over the period from 1984 to 1994, he broke the world record 35 times (17 outdoor, 18 indoor). You see, the thing was that he got a bonus every time he broke it. So he had an incentive to break it only by a centimetre or so each time, moving it slowly up while maximizing his benefits. Sneaky, yeah? xD Which also means that he was an even greater pole vaulter than reflected in the record books, because if he'd gone all out in competition and tried to vault as high as he actually could, the WR would have gone much higher. He was apparently vaulting over 6.20m in practice and insiders familiar with his peak form think that he could possibly have neared 6.40m if he'd really tried. (Bubka has agreed that he might have been able to near 6.40, given his height of clearances over lower bars, but has cautioned that there's a psychological element as well and actually trying to do it may not have worked out for him.
Anyway, however high he MIGHT have gone if he'd been putting 100% into it, the WR Bubka eventually ended up with was 6.15m, set in 1993. (Watch how high he goes over the bar!)
How dominant was Bubka? From the time he first claimed the world record, he only lost it once - and then only for a matter of minutes, before he took it back on his very next vault. Furthermore, all those 6m+ vaults, as he edged the record higher and higher? There are still, to this day, only 19 other men who have managed to clear 6m, and of those 19, only 8 have cleared 6.03m. And only 1 man besides Bubka has ever managed to clear higher than 6.06m. Ever.
Bubka will forever be a pole vault legend, and is nowadays a very important figure in Ukraine (president of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine, council member of the IAAF, member of the Ukrainian Parliament, etc.) He ran for President of the International Olympic Committee in 2013 but lost to Thomas Bach.
"I love the pole vault because it is a professor's sport. One must not only run and jump, but one must think. Which pole to use, which height to jump, which strategy to use. I love it because the results are immediate and the strongest is the winner. Everyone knows it. In everyday life that is difficult to prove." - Sergey Bubka
Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS), competed 1998-2016
Yelena Isinbayeva is the greatest female pole vaulter of all time. She first claimed the world record with a vault of 4.82m in 2003; she has set 15 outdoor and 13 indoor world records. The WR now stands at 5.06m (set 2009). She first cleared 5m in 2005, and remains to this day one of only two women to ever clear it. She won 2 Olympics, 3 World Championships, and 4 World Indoor Championships.
Isinbayeva's amazing and unequalled sporting career has been affected by off-court issues, most notably homophobic comments and her ban from the Rio Olympics as part of the general ban on Russian track & field athletes [NB: Isinbayeva has never tested positive for any banned substance, and her dominance is generally accepted as due to a combination of a) exceptional technique and b) helpful height and gymnastics training (she was a gymnast until age 15, when she became too tall and switched to pole vault)]. She would have been the favorite in Rio, having recently posted the season-leading result of 4.90m. (Stefanidi ended up winning the gold with 4.85m.) After being banned from Rio with the rest of the Russians, Isinbayeva retired.
Again, only one other woman has ever cleared 5m (Jennifer Suhr). I'm still adjusting to the idea of a post-Isinbayeva sport.
So remember how I said there was only one other man besides Bubka who's ever gone higher than 6.06m? Meet:
Renaud Lavillenie (FRA), 2003-present
That is not a glamour shot from a photoshoot. That is what Renaud actually looks like in competition (pictured: him competing in the 2011 World Championships). He only zips up immediately before starting his run and unzips as soon as he's done. His theme music when he jumps is a clip from the Skrillex remix of Avicii's "Levels". He is The Man (and he knows it).
Oh, where do I start with Renaud? He was born into a pole-vaulting family and started pole-vaulting at age four with a curtain rod. Since then, he's risen to dominate his sport and become a glitzy French megastar along the way. He definitely has a big head and thinks a lot of himself, but then, he kinda has a point? If you find (IMO justified) cockiness and self-satisfaction offputting, you might not like him. But he's also endearing? (Particularly in relationships with people who look up to him and respect him, whether that be his little brother, his decathlete friend Kevin Mayer, his pole-vault buddies like Sam Kendricks, or young fans.)
(Renaud holding a little fan in the middle of a competition [Paris DL 2016])
In 2009 he cleared 6.01m, his first 6m+ vault and the new French record. He looked like this:
He also did silly things like this:
In 2010, he won the first pole vault title in the Diamond League (it's a series of events, you earn points for finishing 1st/2nd/3rd/etc. in each one, and at the end they're added to see who has the most). Since then he's won all seven DL trophies to date. (This is crazy.)
He also got carried around by a mascot after winning the European Championships, so.
In 2011, Renaud became the man with the 3rd-highest PB of all time (behind Bubka and Hooker). He won the European Championships again, and there was much hugging and joy.
This was also when this hilarious commercial for underwear was made. VIVE LA FRANCE. (Note the curly golden-haired guy - that's Kevin Mayer, more on him later.) [NSFW, censored nudity.]
This, this is advertising done right, if you ask me.
(A different video of that.)
In 2012, returning to competition after surgery on a broken hand (from a snapped-pole accident), Renaud won the World Indoor Championships for the first time (5.95m) and won the gold medal in London (5.97m). Already a big star in France, this of course made him even more of one. He added an Olympic tattoo to his forearm.
Here he is being hugged by the silver medallist:
Also he and his baby brother Valentin (more on Valentin later) made this video in their backyard, which shows that he can poke fun at himself:
By 2013, Renaud was still winning lots of things (European Championships, Diamond Leagues, etc.), and he was starting to take shots at Bubka's WR. Unsuccessful shots, but shots.
Meanwhile here he is with friend Christophe Lemaitre (100m/200m athlete), for once out of spandex:
And doing backflips over the bar in warmup just for funsies:
Coming into the 2014 season, Renaud was in fantastic form, clearing 6m regularly. On 31 January he set a new personal best of 6.08m (and took three more unsuccessful shots at 6.16m), moving into second-best of all time after Bubka.
And on 15 February 2014, in Donetsk, Bubka's home town, with Bubka in attendance, this happened:
Bubka's record, which had stood for 21 years and which many thought would stand for decades more, had been conquered. (Tangentially, what happened next illustrates how dangerous pole vault is, even though they make it look easy: A still-grinning Renaud put the bar up to 6.21m - because why not immediately break your new WR? - and ended up crashing on takeoff and gashing himself with his spikes, requiring 16 stitches. His amazing run of form ended just like that, and he missed the World Championships.)
To sum up, here's how Renaud got to 6.16m:
Obviously the WR is the highlight of Renaud's career thus far. It's also the point where he stopped being "Renaud" and became AIRLAVILLENIE, FRENCH SUPERSTAR. (Like seriously, you don't understand how many Renaud Lavillenie videos there are on Youtube.)
Since then he hasn't let up. He's taken a number of cracks at re-breaking the WR, and got some good tries in. I wouldn't be surprised if he breaks it again (wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't, though - it's damn hard!)
Besides continuing to win stuff (World & European Championships, every single Diamond League title ever, etc.), Renaud's also found time to do other things. Like, shirtless glamour vaulting videos in his backyard:
Taking his sweet time about entering competitions (a Renaud trademark), because why waste time and energy on jumping all the low heights with the peasants when you're secure in your ability to jump the high ones? ;) Just hang around for hours half-dressed and nonchalant, and then clear 5.70 first try.
The pole vaulters are introduced to the crowd, including @airlavillenie. Expect him to enter the competition some time tomorrow lunchtime— IAAF Diamond League (@Diamond_League) August 21, 2014
Vaulting in shopping malls, because why not?
Goofing off with fellow pole vaulters:
Doing cool videos so we can see what it's like to vault:
And finally, we come to Rio. (Settle in.)
Pole vaulting in Rio was outdoors. Outdoors means that conditions can be variable, with wind and rain. While Renaud is still an excellent pole vaulter outdoors, and his personal outdoors best of 6.05m is not shabby at all, it's still trickier than indoors. Renaud's won the World Indoor Championships twice, but has not yet managed to bag the World Championships when it's held outdoors (they alternate years). Still, he was definitely the favorite, and you could tell he knew it. The morning of the final:
In the final, it came down to a duel between Renaud and Thiago Braz da Silva, a young Brazilian. (Sam Kendricks took the bronze with 5.85.) Renaud was perfect through 5.98 (which broke his own Olympic record from London), with Thiago having to set a new outdoor personal best of 5.93 just to keep up. Thiago passed 5.98 and then, to the roar of the home crowd, cleared a new Olympic record of 6.03m on his second attempt. 6.03 was higher than Renaud had jumped all season, outdoors or indoors; after he missed twice (which meant he'd lose the tiebreaker to Thiago if he cleared on the third try and neither could jump the next height), he passed to 6.08m. That was higher than he had ever vaulted outdoors before.
It was at this point that the crowd became truly raucous. They had been acting up for a while, ever since it became clear that Thiago was seriously challenging, booing and disrupting during not only Renaud's runs, but Kendrick's and Kudlicka's (3rd and 4th) as well. Renaud, used to more supportive crowds, tried to get the crowd to be quiet for his run, but it was a lost cause and when he then inadvisably gave them a thumbs down, they booed even more. He missed his try at 6.08m (to raucous cheers), and Thiago became Olympic champion.
Now, as soon as Thiago cleared 6.03m, this was pretty assured. 6.03 was higher than Renaud had jumped all season, plus it was outdoors. It was unlikely that he would pull a miracle out of the hat, and definitely unlikely once he had to raise to 6.08. (He's jumped that high only twice in his career, both indoors.)
But on the other hand, although unlikely, it wasn't impossible. (And if anyone could do it, surely it would be the man who surpassed Bubka.) Renaud, who desperately wanted a second gold medal, was heartbroken. Instead of being reasonable - he jumped very well, (temporarily) setting a new Olympic record for goodness sake, but was just outjumped on the day by a fantastic performance from a young guy who set a HUGE personal best - he turned instead to the behavior of the crowd. In the heat of the moment, after the competition finished, he criticized the crowd's disruptive behavior and made an extremely ill-judged comparison, saying that kind of disrespect was unheard of in the Olympics, probably since Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936.
He immediately realized (or his PR people did) that he was going to be in big shit for that - no matter how rude somebody is to you, you can't compare them to Nazis - and tweeted an apology.
Yes, sorry for the bad comparaison I made. It was a hot reaction and I realize it was wrong. Sorry to everyone. https://t.co/rK5mmuMgqH— Renaud LAVILLENIE ® (@airlavillenie) August 16, 2016
He also went on Brazilian TV to apologize. But the damage was done, and Brazil went crazy. Overnight he became, as I've been told by many Brazilians who appear in my Twitter mentions whenever I mention his name, "the most hated man in Brazil".
This turned out to be an issue because the medal ceremony wasn't until the next day. When he was introduced on the podium, he was booed. Loudly, vociferously, prolonged; Thiago eventually had a "WTF" reaction and the announcer introduced him so the crowd would cheer. Meanwhile Renaud broke down on the podium, tears rolling down his cheeks during the anthem.
After the ceremony, Thiago and Bubka comforted a still-emotional Renaud backstage.
Reaction to this was swift. Thomas Bach said it was "shocking behavior" and "unacceptable at the Olympics". Brazil, unrepentant, seems to think that he got what he deserved; his social media accounts still are flooded with "LOSER"/"BOOOOO" (and worse) every time he posts. [Pole vault was not the only sport in Rio where Brazilian fans were disruptive beyond the bounds of what is normal. The men's floor event final in gymnastics was particularly egregious. And I've heard there were other cases too.]
Again, I'm not saying Renaud was blameless. Although it's understandable that he was upset by the crowd's disruptive behavior during his & the other non-Brazilian competitors' vaults, a) that was not the reason he lost, and b) he should've bit his tongue and not said anything (and definitely not the Owens comparison). Also, he doesn't seem to have been a very good loser in that I don't think he really congratulated Thiago very much; perhaps because of Thiago's youth (and now perhaps because of his newly demonstrated potential), they haven't bonded yet in the way Renaud has with some of the other top pole vaulters. It was a difficult episode and Renaud handled it badly.
In my opinion, though, handling defeat badly isn't a reason to boo a medalist to tears on their medal podium.
ANYWAY. That's the Rio drama! After that happened, Renaud stayed in Rio for the remainder of the Games in order to cheer on his friends, especially Mayer (decathlon) and Lemaitre (200m), who both turned in fantastic top-of-the-line performances to win medals (silver for Mayer, bronze for Lemaitre).
(cheering on Mayer)
(with Pauline Ferrand-Prevot)
After the Olympics, Renaud came back to France and wrapped up his 7th Diamond League title.
What will 2017 bring? Will Thiago keep challenging, or was that a miracle not to be repeated? Is this Renaud's year to finally win an outdoor World Championship? It all remains to be seen.
But one thing I know for sure - Renaud will still be the guy that everyone is chasing.
And he'll keep being his inimitable self. ;)
In Part 2 of this fandom primer/pimping post, we'll meet all the other vaulters who are chasing Renaud! :D Including, but not limited to, Renaud's baby brother Valentin.
On to Part 2!