The Physics of Pole Vaulting

ByABC News
August 14, 2000, 4:04 PM

Aug. 18 -- To the observer, pole vaulting may seem fairly simple.

The athlete runs with a pole in hand, plants it in the ground and leaps over another pole.

But to a physicist, much more is at play. Consider this perspective:

As Sydney Olympics gold medal contender Stacy Dragila prepares to jump, she has chemical potential energy stored from the food she has eaten. She then runs down the path, converting her chemical potential energy into speed or kinetic energy. Once she plants the pole, it begins to bend, slowing down Dragilas kinetic energy and transferring it to elastic potential energy in the pole.

As the pole lifts her upward, it returns the potential energy to Dragila in the form of gravitational potential energy. By the time she clears the bar, Dragila has just enough kinetic energy remaining to carry her past the bar. On her way down, the gravitational potential energy becomes kinetic again and is finally absorbed by the mat she hopefully lands on.

Got that?

Even Dragila tends to shrug off all the science of her sport.

The 29-year-old American who currently holds the record for womens pole vaulting at 15 feet, 2 1/4 inches confesses, Numbers dont do anything for me. Im thinking more about form.

Predictions of Physics

But the numbers do matter to Dave Neilson, Dragilas coach. He figures if science is what makes pole-vaulting work, then science can also help Dragila vault higher. And according to recent calculations by a couple of scientists, Dragila can vault higher more than two feet higher according to one physicist.

Pole vaulting is almost strictly a matter of energy, says Peter Watson, the dean of science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. So the limit is designated by how fast you can run carrying a pole.

Calculations also show that men are reaching their height limit while women, who are relatively new to the sport, have a way to go.