Physicist says women could vault to new Olympic records

August 16, 2000

Just as women's pole vaulting makes its debut at the upcoming Olympic 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, a physicist from the University of Texas says women are poised to make even bigger leaps in the record books. Cliff Frohlich, who has written articles on sports physics in the American Journal of Physics and the book The Physics of Sports, points out that while the men's pole vaulting record has stood for more than 6 years, we've yet to see the heights to which women will vault.

By using a vaulter's sprint speed to determine the potential vertical height, Frohlich says he expects the women's record to top 17.5 feet soon. That's more than two feet higher than where the current record sits.

The women's current world record holder, Stacy Dragila, an assistant track and field coach at Idaho State University, just set her latest record of 4.63 meters, or 15 feet 2.25 inches in July at the Olympic trials in Sacramento, California. The world record in men's pole vaulting is held by the Ukraine's Sergey Bubka, who cleared 6.14 meters or 20 feet 1.75 inches in a 1994 competition.

Dragila's coach, Dave Nielsen, agrees with Frohlich that women probably have room for significant gains, but he isn't sure about the 17.5 foot figure. Still, he thinks 16.5 feet is a good bet, and he says women will eventually break the 17 foot mark. "Women have different challenges than men in pole-vaulting, such as different upper body strength and a lower average height," Nielsen says. Nevertheless, he adds, "I don't doubt that women will eventually jump over 17 feet."

With current women's records at just over 15 feet, Frohlich says that "the women's record is likely to improve quite a bit" as women who can run faster and use the pole more effectively enter the field. The reason this is possible is that vaulting is an example of conservation of energy: The kinetic energy, or energy of motion, of the runner's approach speed is converted, through the pole vault, into the potential energy of the jump height. The faster a vaulter sprints toward the vault bar, the more energy is available for the vault.

Nielsen says in addition to the approach velocity, other factors must be considered, such as how effectively the vaulter's horizontal running velocity is converted into vertical velocity, since this determines the amount of momentum that will carry the vaulter up and over the bar. This occurs through the "angle in" and "angle out" that the vaulter's body makes with the ground at the start of the vault.

Upper body strength and the height of the vaulter's center of mass also play very important roles, since both are intimately tied up with the amount of mechanical work that must be done. The taller a person, the higher is their center of mass. Likewise, the distribution of mass affects center of mass. In general, men have a higher center of mass than women do. In his recent presentation before the 2000 Olympic Trials U.S.A. Track & Field Super Clinic, Nielsen stated that everything else being equal, "the taller vaulter will likely be able to hold [the pole] higher and will be higher in the air at take off."

As for upper body strength, Nielsen says, "Females are similar to males in leg strength, but have noticeably less upper body strength." He thinks this might be a liability during vaulting, which requires the execution of a series of maneuvers that amount to a somersault while holding the pole.

Louis Bloomfield, another physicist who teaches the popular "How Things Work" course at the Unviersity of Virginia agrees with Frohlich's expectations that women will likely make some big height gains in the near future. "He's probably correct," says Bloomfield. "His observations that women can do better than 15 feet, and will probably do so fairly soon, is probably correct, too."

Nielsen says that, an increase in women's sprint speeds, as well as improvements in other vaulting factors, will "likely result in vaults exceeding 5 meters (nearly 16.5 feet)."
For More Information:

Rory McGee
Inside Science News Service
American Institute of Physics

Dr. Cliff Frohlich
Institute of Geophysics
University of Texas
Austin, TX
Office phone: 512-232-3260

Dave Nielsen
Pole Vault Coordinator, Women's Development and Head Track & Field Coach
Idaho State University
Office phone: 208-282-3299

American Institute of Physics

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