Steve Smythe takes a look back at men’s pole vault events at the Olympic Games

For Rio 2016, defending champion Renaud Lavillenie looks favourite, although four other athletes achieved vaults of 5.91m or higher in 2015 and it could be a close contest.

The Frenchman is consistent in a generally unpredictable event, but his winning championship record isn’t perfect: he has three bronze and one silver medal from his four world championship finals.

Canadian Shawn Barber defeated him in Beijing and also ahead was London bronze medallist Raphael Holzdeppe, who has a consistent record, having won the 2013 world title.

Also on the way up are Brazilian Thiago Braz Da Silva and Greek Konstadinos Filippidis.

Over the years, the event has been US-dominated and Sam Kendricks looks their best prospect.


The inaugural contest in Athens in 1896 was a relatively modest-quality contest. The three Greeks involved were eliminated by the time their main rivals, the two Americans, started vaulting. William Hoyt beat his team-mate Albert Tyler with 3.30m and the Greek competitors aided them by massaging their legs and bringing them hot drinks!

Another American one-two with the same winning height came in Paris in 1900. Favourite Daniel Horton had declined to compete as it was a Sunday. When Bascom Johnson and Charles Dvorak showed up they were told it would be rescheduled so they left – only for the officials to change their minds.

All three jumped higher than the Olympic record to appease the aggrieved Americans the following day.

Dvorak had no such scheduling problems in St Louis in 1904 and won easily with 3.50m as four vaulters cleared 3.35m and the medals were decided by jump-off.

America had their first loss in Athens in 1906 as France’s world record-holder Fernand Gonder equalled the Olympic record, although he was helped by an official walking in front of Edmond Glover as he went to jump. The American injured himself and had to settle for bronze.

Two Americans shared gold in London in 1908 as Edward Cooke and Alfred Gilbert were inseparable with vaults of 3.71m.

There were no landing pits then and injuries were commonplace. The British wouldn’t provide a sand pit nor bales of straw to soften the impact.

In Stockholm in 1912, fourth-placer William Happeny of Canada broke two ribs after clearing 3.80m and couldn’t continue. Harry Babcock won with seven first-time clearances and a 3.90m vault to claim USA’s fifth victory.

The first Games after the War brought the Olympics’ first four-metre vault. Frank Foss made it six for USA in Antwerp in 1920 as he smashed the world record with a 4.09m vault despite wind and rain. It also remains the biggest win so far as as he won by an incredible 39 centimetres.

In 1924, US domination continued as 17-year-old high school student Lee Barnes topped an all-American podium with 3.95m. Barnes appeared in the famous film College as Buster Keaton’s stand-in, in a a scene that required him to vault into a second floor window.

He had improved the world record to 4.31m before Amsterdam in 1928 but could only finish fifth there. The United States nevertheless took all three medals again as Sabin Carr increased the Olympic record to 4.20m.

That only lasted four years as William Miller moved it to 4.31m to win at the next Games. World record-holder William Graber could finish only fourth as Shuhei Nishida surprisingly pushed him all the way and was just a centimetre down, preventing the usual sweep of the medals.

Berlin in 1936 was another US v Japan battle and was won by Earle Meadows’ Olympic record of 4.35m. Japan’s Shuhei Nishida and Suoe Oe declined a jump-off and then officially decided the silver by lot. When they returned to Japan they had their medals cut in half and then fused back with the other half so each had a medal that was both silver and bronze.

The next few years were dominated by Cornelius Warmerdam and his 4.77m world record in 1942 stayed unbeaten for 15 years, although he retired in 1944.

Heights were significantly down on that in both 1948 and 1952, although there were two more American victories.

London bronze medallist Robert Richards increased the Olympic record to 4.55m in Helsinki in 1952. Richards, who was known as the ‘vaulting vicar’, became the first double champion and triple medallist as he improved the Olympic record to 4.56m in Melbourne in 1956 when the fibre-glass pole made its debut.

The new implement brought a rise in standards and finally Warmerdam’s record fell. By Rome in 1960, Donald Bragg was world record-holder with 4.80m and he won Olympic gold with 4.70m as the US had their third successive one-two.

The world record was broken 17 times between 1960 and Tokyo in 1964 and the latest record-setter Fred Hansen won with an Olympic record 5.10m but was well down on his 5.28m mark.

The trend of US world record-holders winning continued in Mexico in 1968. It was a high-standard competition, the first nine clearing 5.20m and five of the top six setting PBs.

Bob Seagren won but only just as he won on countback at 5.40m from Claus Schiprowski and Wolfgang Nordwig, all three going close to a world record 5.45m.

While France had come out on top in 1906, many don’t count that as a normal Games as it wasn’t in the usual four-year cycle. The USA had won the other 16 gold medals.

Seagren was back in 1972 and favourite again, having increased his record to 5.63m. However the IAAF, after an East German protest, banned the Cata Pole, which most of the leading vaulters other than East German Nordwig used.

The IAAF lifted the ban four days before the Olympics but then changed their mind and confiscated them the night before.

Nordwig was affected the least and he won with an Olympic record 5.50m with an annoyed Seagren second.

The American thrust his unwanted pole back in the laps of IAAF official Adriaan Paulen, who was deemed the official responsible for the decision.

The US lost again in 1976 in Montreal, though world record-holder Dave Roberts took bronze with the same winning height as Tadeusz Slusarski as the first three equalled Nordwig’s Olympic record of 5.50m.

Due to the Olympic boycott, USA were absent in 1980 but probably wouldn’t have featured anyway.

The first six broke the Olympic record as Poland defended the gold medal. Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz had set a world record earlier in the year of 5.72m but that had been broken three times by the time of Moscow.

The Pole, who was subjected to boorish booing by the Russian fans who were cheering on Konstantin Volkov, responded with a world record 5.78m as Slusarski and Volkov shared the silver medal.

Three years later saw the emergence of Sergey Bubka with the first of six world titles. He increased the world record to 5.90m by the time of the 1984 Games, but the Soviet boycott meant he was absent from Los Angeles.

The American run of losses continued despite home advantage as Pierre Quinon won gold for France.

By the time of Seoul in 1988, Bubka had advanced the record to 6.06m and he led a Soviet clean sweep in Seoul with 5.90m.

The record was up to 6.11m by 1992 in Barcelona but there Bubka sensationally failed his opening height as Russian Maksim Tarasov won.

Bubka was injured for Atlanta in 1996 in a quality competition that saw the first three clear an Olympic record 5.92m, headed by Jean Galfione.

After the US won in 2000, they retained the title in Athens in 2004, which was again a surprise as Tim Mack won with an Olympic record and PB 5.95m.

Australia came out on top decisively in 2008 in Beijing with Steve Hooker moving the record to 5.96m.

In London, Lavillenie had a scare when a failure at 5.91m put him third but he ensured the gold with a world-leading 5.97m, which is also an Olympic record.

Most memorable Olympic pole vault: Sydney 2000

After all their earlier victories from 1896 to 1968, the US then missed out on the next eight Olympics.

In Sydney in 2000, the chances of regaining the title didn’t look that great.

World No.1 at 6.03m, Jeff Hartwig didn’t make the American team and three Olympic champions – Bubka, Tarasov and Galfione – were in the field along with 6.03m vaulter Ockert Brits.

It was a superb competition, although Bubka and Galfione didn’t even make the final. A record eight vaulters cleared 19 feet (5.80m) and four cleared 5.90m. The crucial jump came from Nick Hysong, who cleared that PB height first time while the others did not do so until their second and third.

However, it was only after 15 more jumps from seven vaulters that the American’s gold was confirmed.

British successes

Britain has never come close to a medal. Easily the best result came in 2012 with Steve Lewis finishing fifth in front of the home crowd thanks to a 5.75m vault.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s pole vault, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the March 10, 2016, edition of AW magazine