This is the last piece from Monaco, from July 12. I have been sick this week and am catching up on the content of the week. Stuart Weir wrote this piece, on the men’s pole vault in 2019. One of my favorites of the year, well done, Stuart!
The Men’s pole vault evaluated.
We have seen the last of the Diamond League men’s pole vault until the final in Zurich. Sam Kendricks (USA) finished top of the tree with three wins and 42 points but Piotr Lisek (Poland), who finished second on 41 points caught the eye with wins in the last two events in Lausanne and Monaco. Let’s get the Pole winning pole vault out of the way before noting that Lisek set a national record and a world lead in Lausanne at 6:01 and then beat both in Monaco with 6:02.
Of course, all these performances are in the past and count for nothing in the new, winner-take-all format of the Diamond League Final. One encouraging sign for those who love the discipline was that Renaud Lavillenie cleared 5.81 in Lausanne and 5.82 in Monaco.
Have you ever wondered about the origins of pole-vaulting? Probably not! There are several theories. It existed as a gymnastic discipline in Germany in the 1790s. A painting by AW Devis, from the same decade, shows an Eton schoolboy pole-vaulting a 6-foot railing. The earliest known competitive pole-vaulting (or ‘catgallows with poles’ as it was then called) goes back to 1839 when a Mr Alcock cleared 9 feet at Greystoke Races.
An alternative theory is that it was invented by in the mid-nineteenth century in Ulverston, in the North of England by shepherds who found vaulting the best way to cross streams and ditches. Eventually it became a competitive sport in Cumberland and Westmorland, including the Grasmere sports in the North West of England. Originally the rules allowed a competitor to climb up the pole and jump! If it originated in Germany then the old joke may be very old: “Are you a Pole, Walter?” “No, I’m German – but how did you know my name?”
I have been privileged to be in the stadium during several of the 2019 Diamond League events and to speak to the protagonists. Let’s start with Lavillenie, Olympic gold and silver medallist and medallist at the last 5 World Championships but who has been struggling with injuries. He told me in Monaco, “I have only been jumping five weeks and it is getting better and better but I will have to wait to be on the top of my form. For me what is important is to be able to have some competitions without any pain, to be almost free of any injuries, which is a big win for me. And then to focus on training and the work. That the World Championships are very late is a good thing for me because I need that time – and I have it. It’s good and I am waiting to take the next steps in the next couple of weeks”.
What, I wondered did Lavillenie make of the current crop of vaulters? “In the past I used to be very consistent and none of them [other vaulters] were as consistent as me and sometimes winning was not so hard. But now they have improved to a level which gives good opposition and is very good for the competition. So now at a Diamond League 5.80 will definitely not be enough to win. Now you have to think 5.90 or higher. There have been some good competitions which I think is good for the sport. Currently we have four or five guys capable of jumping 5.90 or 6 metres. That is very good for the pole vault”.
Kendricks told me he was not fazed by the long tough season: “Doha is frightening to a lot of people. And if you’re not a practised professional, it can seem a monumental task – waiting until October when you know the risks to be had the entire year before the championship. I think I look at it with different eyes as a pole-vaulter, because there is risk every day. And I tell myself to be my strongest at the end of the year. Everything during the year is going to prepare me for that final punctuation for the year of 2019 whatever that may be.
“We have an influx of new young talent and some of them are coming to the Diamond League for the first time. And I, as the Diamond League winner, I have to look at this as a new challenge. Pole vault is usually an event for mature athletes and it’s kind of anomalous now that there is so much young talent. I was the young talent and I suppose I am now in the middle generation. There are older pole-vaulters and much, much younger ones. But all these 20 year-old vaulters make me look old! It comes in waves and some years one person is dominant but others there is a thronging for the gold medals”.
Duplantis suffered a surprise NCAA defeat but wants to move on: “I thought I had a good collegiate season”, he told me. “Of course, I didn’t want it to end with a loss so I kind of left that one box unchecked. I am at peace with it now and I don’t want to dwell on it. I’m a professional now and I have to act like a professional. I am ready for the new season and I have a lot of important meets coming up. I’m excited, ready for it and ready to move on.
The relationships between vaulters – men and women – seem close. Mondo told me: “Pole vaulting is like your brotherhood”. Sam Kendricks said of Mondo: “He respects me as a competitor and he knows that I respect him as a competitor” adding: “Mondo and I have had a competitive relationship for a while now and have competed against each other many times. And we always seem to jump well together. In Stockholm last year he jumped 5.86 and I 5.81. In London I was 5.92 and he was 5.86. In Paris he jumped 5.90 and I did 5.96 so my best jumps seem to come when I’m jumping against Mondo”.
Mondo also relishes the competition and the friendships: “We are out there every competition busting our butt trying to beat each other but at the end of the day we got to have fun with it. We don’t want to lose. We want to beat the heck out of each other but there are things you can’t control. I can’t control how Sam jumps. I can just control myself. But there is no reason to let the fact that we are competitors get in the way of seeing someone as a cool guy I would like to hang out with”. As an observer the balance between being competitive and helping your opponent is a joy to behold, what sport should be like.
Let’s give the last word to Lisek: “For sure I didn’t expect 6.02 – it’s almost a dream. I’ve been injury free this year and 100% healthy”.
The last word for now. The Diamond League final and the World Championship will determine who really is the best in 2019.