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Sevilla 99 Preview: Emma versus all the Women's Pole Vault

Sevilla 99 Preview: Emma versus all the Women's Pole Vault
Ottavio Castellini for the IAAF

"It appears to be like the high jump, except that the bar is rigidly in place. In fact it looked like several boards, one above the other, held firmly in place on their sides. The women could rest their hands on it for support as they vaulted over"

This is Dave Carey’s description of a "sort" of pole vault, at the time of the Vassar College Field Day. It is 1910 and the description bears little relation to the pole vault as we know it today, on the eve of the Third Millennium. Nonetheless, it is the ancient precursor of the current pole vault, which the IAAF Council opened to women competitors just a few years ago.

Were I to mention the names of Ruth Spencer and her American compatriots Hazel Hutoff and Pauline Siebenthal, they probably wouldn’t mean that much to you. But I will mention them anyway, because they were the first women to jump using a pole in their hands. Ruth jumped 1.725 m in 1911, Pauline achieved no less (!) than 1.855m. The first to clear 2 metres? Miss Mildred Carl, another young lady from the land of Stars and Stripes, who cleared first 2.185 and then 2.209m.

Prehistory perhaps, but ours is a sport that has a culture of preserving its past.

In this short and modest history, mention must be made of one person in particular: Miss Diane Bragg. Does that mean anything to you? It is not easy: she is the sister of "Tarzan", one of the greatest specialists of the pole vault of all time. This was the nickname of Donald G. Bragg, Don to his friends. He was the man who conquered Rome’s Olympic Stadium during the 1960 Olympic Games, winning, with a clearance of 4.70m, one of the longest finals ever recorded (over 7 hours). His little sister Diane became so enamoured of her idol that she took up practising the pole vault in her garden and actually managed to clear no less than 2 metres 59 centimetres.

All of this will come to mind on Saturday 21 August, in the splendid stadium of La Cartuja de Sevilla when, at 19.05 the off is given for the young women who will animate the first final of this spectacular discipline. For it is the first time that the World "outdoor" Championships includes the women’s pole vault. Previously, the event had been contested twice indoors: in Paris Bercy in 1997 and in Maebashi earlier this year. But never outdoors, until now; another good reason for us to take a look at this discipline and attempt an "analysis" just three weeks before it takes place.

We might attempt to follow a theme, and the title of that theme might just as well be: "Emma versus all".

The family name of this particular Emma is George, she is Australian, not yet 25 years old and comes from the state of Victoria, she studied art and economics at Deakin University in Melbourne. Her first steps in the world of athletics were taken, as is the case with most youngsters, at school, where she sprinted and did the long jump. They were unremarkable steps and certainly gave no indication of a bright future in the stadium.

But one detail mustn’t be overlooked: while she was still at school, the young Emma also frequented the Flying Fruit Flies Circus, as a trapeze artist, acquiring that ease and agility which are essential in a discipline like the pole vault. It is not coincidental that nearly all of the young women at the top of the rankings in this discipline come from a background of gymnastics. You can see it in their physiques: they are all attractive, compact and agile, and this derives from their gymnastic training. But this may also be a limiting factor. I really believe that when this discipline attracts taller, stronger women, able to hold a longer and more rigid pole, the current world record (which Emma George set a few months ago at the respectable height of 4.60m) will rapidly be wiped out and significantly so. Physique will play an important role, but so will research into the materials used.

But let us speak a moment of Emma, who discovered the pole vault towards the end of 1994. In her first competition, she cleared 2.55, a few centimetres less than Don Bragg’s sister. Then she started to progress consistently: first three metres and then higher and higher. At that time, the Chinese dominated the event, especially Sun Caiyun, who raised the record bar on numerous occasions. Emma’s progress was stunning: in just one year, 1994-1995, she went from 3.05m to 4.28m, clearing 4.25 in November 1995 and marking the first of her many records indoors and out and acquiring the nickname of  "the female Sergey Bubka".

The first to clear 14 feet (December 1995), first over 15 feet (February 1998), Emma gradually raised the world record to today’s respectable level. But as the heights increased, so did the standard of the competition. Just a year ago, it appeared nigh unreasonable to set the qualification standard for the World Championships at 4.35m, with a view to going straight to a final, granted that this was the first appearance of the event at a World Championships. At the end of the 1998 season, 9 women had achieved the standard, today there are 13. If the standard were to be dropped to 4.30, there would be 18 contenders.

Though Emma George is the favourite, because of her various records, there is no question that the winner of the inaugural gold could well be another name altogether. One details stands out against George: the fact that she has nearly always set her records in "cooler" events, far away from excessive competition and pressure. The proof? Two years ago, in the World Indoor Championships, she lost the title and the record to the USA’s Stacy Dragila; this year in Maebashi, she didn’t go through to the end of the competition, thanks to an injury, which curtailed her chances.

And Emma suffered another injury, just a few days ago, in the training centre of the Swiss team, not far from Bellinzona. During a training session, attempting a height of 4.50, Emma landed off the cushion, hurting her back. Despite initial fears, there were no serious injuries, but an enforced break in training just a few weeks from the Championships is not a pleasant thing.

So Emma is sidelined, for the moment, while her adversaries appear to be in splendid form. Two of them in particular. The graceful Ukrainian Anzhela Balakhonova, who has cleared better than 4.50 three times in the recent weeks, setting a new European record of 4.55m and winning a superb duel in the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm during the DN Galan a few evenings ago, with an excellent 4.45m, while competing against at least three-quarters of the adversaries she will face in Sevilla.

Graceful Anzhela and wide-eyed Natalia Grigorieva, a true "pin-up" of the athletics world. She comes from Saint Petersburg, Russia, but followed her pole vaulter husband, Viktor Chistyakov, to Australia and, since last year, now represents that country. Natalia satisfies all of the criteria that we mentioned earlier: leaving aside her looks, she is tall, agile and fast, she could be a serious candidate for the highest step of the podium. In her athletics career she also had a reasonable amount of success in the 400m hurdles. Balakhonova and Grigorieva met in Stockholm and their duel ended with the success of the Ukrainian who, after winning, had the bar set at 4.61, a centimetre higher than Emma George’s record. In her recent competitions, Grigorieva has been extremely consistent, with clearances between 4.40 and 4.45m, the higher mark being achieved in Salamanca (Spain).

But what about the Germans? We most certainly need to take them into account among the medal contenders. Nastja Ryshich put all the cards in order when she won the World Indoor title in Maebashi with 4.50m. Nicole Rieger – now Mrs Humbert – is also a close contender (bronze in Maebashi), Yvonne Bushbaum is the "enfant terrible" of the team, at just 19. If she is not intimidated, she could well be the joker in the German hand. For the moment, she owns the world junior record, with 4.42m. But this may not be enough for her…. Young people are never satisfied.

And who knows what Stacy Dragila will do. The laureate from Idaho State University was the biggest surprise of the World Indoors in Paris Bercy, when she took the gold instead of Emma George. And let’s not forget Daniela Bartova, the former European record holder last year, with 4.51m and who now looks to be getting back to some good heights (4.36) after a long break.

As the heat of the Andalusan evening mellows into a more liveable temperature, the answer will come from the runway; whether it will be the heiress to Gina Lollobrigida, as she played the starring role in a Fifties film "The Trapeze", our retired trapeze artist Emma George? The "pin-up" Tatiana Grigorieva? Or maybe the gymnast Anzhela Balakhonova? Or one of the tenacious German trio of Ryshich, Bushbaum and Humbert? Or our laureate Dragila? The wheel is turning ladies and gentlemen – faites vos jeux!

Ottavio Castellini is the Statistics and Documentation Manager of the IAAF and will be preparing a series of preview articles leading up to Sevilla ‘99