As a practical means of passing over such natural obstacles as canals and brooks it has been made use of in many parts of the world, for instance in the marshy provinces along the North Sea and the great level of the fens of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The artificial draining of these marshes brought into existence a network of open drains or canals intersecting each other at right angles. In order te cross these dryshod, and at the same time avoid tedious roundabout journeys over the bridges, a stack of jumping poles was kept at every house, which were commonly used for vaulting over the canals.
Modern competitions probably began around 1850 in Germany, when it was added to the gymnastic exercises of the Turner by Johann C. F. GutsMuths and Frederich L. Jahn. The modern pole vaulting technique was developed in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. In Great Britain it was first commonly practised at the Caledonian games. Although strength and good physical condition are essential to efficiency in pole-vaulting, skill is a much more important element. Broad-jumping with the pole, though the original form of the sport, has never found its way into organized athletics, the high jump being the only form recognized. The object is to clear a bar or lath supported upon two uprights without knocking it down. While women's pole vault records were kept for many years, the event only started to gain popularity in the 1990s.
In holding the pole the height of the cross-bar is first ascertained, and the right hand placed, with an undergrip, about 6 in. above this point, the left hand, with an over-grip, being from 14 to 30 in. below the right.
To complete a vault, competitors sprint towards the bar and "plant" one end of the poles (which vary significantly in length, and competitors choose different ones depending on their own form and the weather conditions) in a small hole about 18 inches in front of mattress and bar, using the kinetic energy gained in their sprint to cause the pole to bend as they pivot up off the ground. As the pole angles towards the vertical, it spring back straight, releasing its stored energy to drive the vaulter higher. As he nears the bar he throws his legs forward, and, pushing with shoulders and arms, clears it, letting the pole fall backwards. Competitors, by this time, push off from the pole and attempt to roll over the bar with the abdomen facing down, landing on a soft foam mat. In Great Britain at one time the vaulter was allowed to climb the pole when it is at the perpendicular. Tom Ray, of Ulverston in Lancashire, who was champion of the world in 1887, was able to gain several feet in this manner. The other equipment and rules for the competition are virtually identical to the high jump.
The pole vault is exciting to watch because of the extreme heights reached by competitors, and is thus popular with spectators.