At a small indoor track meet in Finland on February 2, Pentti Nikula, a thin-legged, thick-armed young bank trainee, soared upward on the bend and snap of his fiber-glass pole and sailed over a crossbar perched at 16 feet 8� inches. This was a new world record, but in setting it the 24-year-old Finn was simply giving brilliant expression to a sport that has become—thanks to fiber glass—the popular craze of Finland and the talk of the indoor track season all over the world.
"I'm in fine shape," Nikula, the first non-American to hold the record in 35 years, said. "I expect to do 17 feet the next time." That next time is this weekend at the National AAU Indoor Championships in New York, and it is possible that Nikula may have to clear that height, or very close to it, just to win. For aligned against him will be a group of vaulters—among them Ron Morris, Dave Tork, Rolando Cruz and John Belitza—who almost every week clear the recently unattainable height of 16 feet with the regularity of metronomes.
Suddenly the pole vaulters have become the star performers of track and field. Five new members have joined the 16-foot club this winter, bringing the total who have gone over that height, indoors or out, to nine. The controversy over their use of fiber glass, one that many had predicted would heat up anew once the "trapeze artists" got the hang of the revolutionary apparatus, is now only a rapidly dying ember. The vaulters like the new poles, the crowds ooh and ah at every stratospheric flip and the coaches and happy meet directors gurgle about records as though they hung from the ceiling like so much confetti, which in a sense they do. Vaulting with fiber glass admittedly is not the same event vaulting was in the past, when Cornelius Warmerdam and Don Bragg were setting records with bamboo and aluminum, but it is here to stay.
Detractors of the new field event have claimed that fiber glass is the only factor involved in a 16-foot vault. "It's the pole, not the man," declared Russia's national coach, Gabriel Korobkov. "In Russia we develop athletes, not implements." Last year Korobkov's demurrer struck a responsive chord around the world, but the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which calls the tune on such matters, ruled it was the man, not the pole.
"You cannot legislate against material," says Britain's Harold Abrahams, chairman of the IAAF Technical Committee. "It has been proved to the federation's satisfaction that fiber glass is no more effective than perfect bamboo, and that a metal pole could probably be produced that is better than either." This seems to have been the final word on the matter, and even the conservative U.S.S.R. has now ordered 150 fiber-glass poles from the U.S.
Owning a fiber-glass pole and learning to use it, however, are two facts of vaulting that are quite often totally unrelated. Because the pole has so much bend and then so much snap, vaulting with one can sometimes feel like riding a wild horse. Formosa's C. K. Yang, now at UCLA, reported this difficulty with a pole he used for a while last year.
"It threw me all over," says Yang, who held the indoor record for a few hours last January with a mark of 16 1�. "Out of the pit, on my back, on my head, everywhere. I never knew where I was once I left the pole."
Its resiliency, though hard to tame, is what can make the fiber-glass pole such an effective vaulting instrument. Because it bends so much more than the metal pole, it produces less shock when slammed into the vaulting box, and the hands can be kept as far as 18 inches apart when gripping the pole. This means better control in the swing-up. The top hand can also be placed at least a foot higher up the pole (currently as high as 15 feet), a significant factor in achieving greater heights. The vastly deeper bend of fiber glass—three times as great as steel—rebounds, of course, into a much longer snap, one that carries the vaulter up to the crossbar with tremendous momentum. The trick is to wait out the snap.
For vaulters reared on metal—and that includes all of today's most successful practitioners—that isn't always easy. The degree of bend the pole will take is never predictable. In addition, hanging upside down in the air during the long wait for the pole to uncoil is a difficult test of patience for vaulters accustomed to the quick series of movements required by metal.
There are other problems with fiber glass. The pole may break, although this is not as dangerous as it seems—all good vaulters are adept at controlling their bodies in mid-air. The height of the fall is becoming troublesome, too. Nobody has yet discovered a truly soft substance to land on.