Sports Law • Risk Management

May 22, 2011: Inspect Your Pole Vault Equipment

There is something comforting about watching an airplane pilot walk around the outside of an airplane for a visual inspection prior to takeoff. Even though there are mechanics that work on the planes, the pilot who knows it is his or her ultimate responsibility for everyone’s safety onboard takes his or her due diligence seriously. It should be no different for athletes, and especially coaches, to inspect sporting equipment prior to each use.

When I coached pole vaulters, I took seriously the responsibility of regularly inspecting the equipment. Part of my inspection process included checking the pole vault pit. A pole vault pit is comprised of several dense mats pushed up next to each other and fastened together with a thinner, singular top mat. Despite the top mat, athletes landing on the pit cause the mats, over time, to shift and sometimes separate, creating a gap can between the pads. These pads need to periodically be pushed back together.

A moving pit can create several problems. First, an outdoor pole vault pit is typically mounted on top of wooden crates to keep rainwater from saturating the foam pads. Any shifting of the mats may expose the wooden crates to athletes, who, are exposed to injury if they land on the exposed crates.

Second, shifting of the pads can impede the box at the end of the runway where the pole is placed for the vault. The rules require a particular amount of clearance around the metal box so that the pole can swing to vertical without interference; so it is important that the mats not keep the athlete from moving the pole to vertical, or else they risk falling back onto the runway or the metal uprights.

Pads are also used to cover the uprights that hold the crossbar, which the vaulters must clear during a vault. These pads are placed around the metal uprights and held together with Velcro to protect an athlete from injury. Often the Velcro must be undone to adjust the standards for each athlete. Thus, is important to ensure the pads are secured prior to each vault.

Beyond the pit, the fiberglass poles should be inspected for micro-fractures. A pole with micro-fractures is subject to break when bent or stressed, which occurs prior to take-off and when a pole vaulter is in mid-air. Periodically the athletic tape used for handgrips should be removed to inspect for any micro-fractures.

Also, the rubber tip on the bottom of pole should be inspected for cracks and wear so that is can properly slide in the metal box. Additionally, the pole should be marked for weight rating and pole height. Be sure that athletic tape for handgrips does not conceal the labeling and cause an athlete to use a pole on which he or she is not rated or experienced. Also, for safety reasons, the athletic tape should not exceed the maximum handgrip line established by the manufacturer.

Furthermore, athletic tape should be wrapped around the pole for all handgrips to minimize the athlete’s hand from slipping. Ultimately, it is a coach’s responsibility to regularly inspect pole vault equipment to ensure the safety and success of all athletes.