The pole vault record is the most frequently broken word mark in men’s track and field history. As of 2014 the IAAF has ratified 71 world records in the event, although they were set by just 33 different vaulters.
American Marc Wright was credited with the first recognized men’s pole vault world record with a leap of 4.02 meters (13 feet, 2¼ inches) in 1912. His effort is one of the longest-lived men’s pole vault records, surviving until 1920, when American Frank Foss won the Olympic gold medal by clearing 4.09/13-5. Foss had been credited with a clearance of 4.05/13-3½ the previous year, but the feat wasn’t recognized by the IAAF for record purposes. Norway’s Charles Hoff beat Foss’ Olympic mark in 1922 and improved the record three more times, peaking at 4.25/13-11¼ in 1925.
American Sabin Carr leaped 4.27/14-0 in 1927 to break the 14-foot barrier and begin the United States’ 35-year hold on the world record. Over the next nine years, Americans Lee Barnes, William Garber, Keith Brown and George Varoff all inched the pole vault record upward, reaching 4.43/14-6¼ in 1936. Bill Sefton and Earle Meadows then lifted the mark above 4.5 meters, to 4.54/14-10¾, at the same Los Angeles meet in 1937. Cornelius Warmerdam was the first man to clear 15 feet – the initial clearance apparently occurred in 1940, although it wasn’t recognized as a world record. He set his first official world mark by clearing 4.60/15-1 in 1940, then raised the mark twice more, reaching 4.77/15-7¾ in 1942. The latter mark stood for one month shy of 15 years.
Full Metal – and Fiberglass – Vaulting
Robert Gutowski finally edged Warmerdam out of the record books by clearing 4.78/15-8 in 1957, the first record set with a metal pole. Don Bragg’s leap of 4.80/15-9 in 1960 marked the beginning of a 5-year period in which the pole vault mark changed hands 11 times. George Davies broke the record in 1961 with a fiberglass pole, then John Uelses – who topped the 16-foot mark – and Dave Tork both erased the record within a month of each other in 1962. In June of 1962, Finland’s Pentti Nikula briefly took the record away from the United States when he cleared 4.94/16-2½.
Brian Sternberg returned the pole vault mark to the U.S. in 1963. In April he became the first vaulter to hit the 5-meter mark, then he improved the record to 5.08/16-8 in June. Fellow American John Pennel drove the record higher in August, breaking it twice and topping out at 5.20/17-¾, becoming the first to clear 17 feet. Pennel set his second mark after borrowing a pole from American Fred Hansen. Hansen’s poles then broke the record twice in 1964, but this time with Hansen holding them, as he peaked at 5.28/17-3¾.
It took almost two years before the record fell again. In 1966 American Bob Seagren gained his first world mark by clearing 5.32/17-5½. Just more than two months later, however, Pennel took the record back with a leap of 5.34/17-6¼. The following year, Seagren leapfrogged Pennel with a jump of 5.36/17-7, but the mark survived for just 13 days before 19-year-old Paul Wilson cleared 5.38/17-7¾ at the U.S. Championships. Undeterred, Seagren set his third world record in 1968, clearing 5.41/17-9 at altitude in California. This time he enjoyed the record for nine months before old nemesis Pennel topped 5.44/17-10 in 1969.
East Germany’s Wolfgang Nordwig became the world record-holder in 1970, breaking the mark twice, then Greece’s Christos Papanikolou topped the 18-foot barrier and set a new mark of 5.49/18-0 in October of that year. The following year was quiet, then four new marks were set in 1972. Sweden’s Kjell Isaksson set the first three records, then Seagren returned to the top by clearing 5.63/18-5½ at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Seagren’s fourth world mark survived until 1975, when fellow American David Roberts topped 5.65/18-6½. Earl Bell and then Roberts set new marks in 1976, with Roberts peaking at 5.70/18-8¼.
The men’s pole vault record left America for good (as of 2014) in 1980 when Poland’s Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz cleared 5.72/18-9. The mark was broken four more times that year, twice by France’s Thierry Vigneron, once by another Frenchman, Phillippe Houvion, and then by Kozakiewicz again, who finished the year as the world record-holder after clearing 5.78/18-11½ at the Moscow Olympics. Vigneron took the record back in 1981 – leaping 5.80/19-¼ to top the 19-meter barrier – but only owned it for six days before Russia’s Vladimir Polyakov reached the record books with a leap of 5.81/19-¾. France’s Pierre Quinon broke Polyakov’s mark in 1983 but Vigneron took it for the fourth time four days later after topping 5.83/19-1½.
The Sergey Bubka Era
On May 26, 1984, Sergey Bubka of Ukraine – then competing for the Soviet Union – leaped 5.85/19-2¼ to begin his reign on top of the men’s pole vault lists. He improved the mark twice more that year before facing off with Vigneron at a meet in Rome on Aug. 31. Vigneron briefly led the meet with a world-record leap of 5.91/19-4½. But his fifth world mark was also his briefest. Bubka immediately surpassed him to win the meet, and take the record back, by clearing 5.94/19-5¾. Bubka’s name has been in the record books ever since. He hit the 6-meter (19-8¼) mark in 1985, reached 6.05/19-10 in 1988 and 6.10/20-0 in 1991, topping 20 feet for the first time. On July 31, 1994 – jumping at altitude in Sestriere, Italy – Bubka set his final world record by clearing 6.14/20-1¾. One year earlier, however, Bubka – now competing for Ukraine in the post-Soviet era – had cleared 6.15/20-2 indoors at Donetsk. Because of IAAF rules at the time, the higher leap is accepted as the indoor world mark, while the 6.14-meter leap is considered the overall world record. Under today’s rules, an indoor record is eligible to be considered as the pole vault’s overall world mark, but the rules change wasn’t made retroactive. In his career, Bubka broke the outdoor pole vault mark 17 times and the indoor record on 18 occasions.