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 8¾ 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 1¾. "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.
"The biggest difference is the timing," says Ron Morris of Los Angeles, who beat Nikula in Helsinki last summer with a fiber-glass leap of 16 feet 1 and cleared 15 feet 8 in the Metal Age. "It is a matter of waiting for the pole to bend and do its work. You have to put yourself in the pole's hands to take advantage of the effort it will give back."
"With a glass pole many vaulters tend to reach out," adds sandy-haired Brian Sternberg, a sophomore at the University of Washington and, at 19, the youngest of the 16-foot vaulters. "But you go where your feet go. If you drop your feet you sprawl forward instead of whipping up."
Harnessing the rubbery energy of fiber glass is an exercise in technique and timing that Nikula, certainly, has begun to master. His skill with a glass pole has made him a national hero in Finland. Recently in Helsinki alone some 300 young boys have been hospitalized with broken arms and legs after reckless—and obviously disastrous—attempts to emulate their idol. On one glorious, bone-cracking day a total of 40 such cases was reported. Last August, when U.S. miler Jim Beatty ran in Helsinki with the announced purpose of breaking the world record, hardly a Finn paid serious attention. They were too busy focusing on the pole vault duel between Nikula and Morris of the U.S.
Pentti Nikula (pronounced Nickoolar) was raised on the rugged family farm in Somero, some 100 miles northwest of Helsinki. He has even white teeth, elegant manners, a soft voice and a gentle handshake. But Nikula raises his voice with indignation at the slurs that have been cast on fiber-glass vaulting.
"Hardly anyone seems to give me credit for my hard training and strength," he complains.
Nikula's hard training began three years ago under Valto Olensius, a former national vault champion, a teacher and the administrative chief at the Pajulahti Sports Institute, where he tutors Finland's 14 best vaulters. During the week Nikula's job at a bank in the small village of Vaskio limits his training to weight lifting, isometric exercises and sprint drills, but on Saturday he drives over to Pajulahti and takes 20 vaults. Then on Sunday he increases this total to 40, always aiming to go as high as possible. "Five meters (16 feet 4‚Öû) will now be achieved quite normally in training," Olensius says calmly of a height that has eluded all but Nikula.
Slightly over a year ago the agile Finn, who is also something of a gymnast, could not get within 1½ feet of that height. "When I started using a fiberglass pole I did not have the strength to bend it," he recalls. "Not only that, but my stomach muscles were not strong enough to get my legs up quickly. So for a whole year I just concentrated on amassing power."
He also learned to run faster. Since starting work under Olensius, Nikula has improved his time for the 100-meter dash from 12.5 to 11.1. "Over the last five meters of the run to the vault," Olensius says, "I believe that Nikula is the fastest in the world."
But a more crucial ingredient of pole-vaulting is found in the grip. The farther out on the pole it can be taken, the higher the vaulter can get into the air at the top of his swing up. From that point on, technique tells the difference, but he must get there first. Nikula, who is only 5 feet 10, anchors his right hand at a height of 14 feet 8½ for his top leaps—higher than average, and he can push up an additional two feet while clearing the bar. Yang, for instance, went only 15 inches over his grip height on his briefly held record vault. It takes great strength and speed to get airborne while holding the pole so far out on the end, but when a vaulter like Nikula can combine a high grip with finesse at the top, 17 feet is just a jump that comes before 18 feet.
"People who say that vaulting with glass is mere acrobatics are talking nonsense," says Olensius. "You are not getting out any more energy than you put in. The heart of the vault is in the height of the grip and the speed with which you run. It is difficult to run fast when you have what is in effect a wall in front of you. It takes courage. But if you try to run as fast as possible, slam the pole in as hard as you can and lift the knees quickly, then you can succeed."
Nikula's latest and greatest success came only a few days after Yang, competing 5,000 miles away in Portland, Ore., had set his record. Nikula was not exactly in a promising frame of mind when he arrived in Pajulahti for a Saturday night meet. It was cold, and he was still red and sore on one side where the bar, falling upright, had caught him as he came down during training. "But I just told Nikula to trust himself and take a higher grip," says Olensius.
"It was a hard thing to do," says Nikula who, as the vaults got higher and higher, gradually increased the height of his grip from the customary 14 feet 3¼ to 14 feet 8½. "But Olensius kept after me. Then when I cleared five meters I had a feeling somehow that I had a real result for the first time. I was relieved. It was as if an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders."
That weight has now settled squarely on the shoulders of his U.S. competitors and Yang, who are at present working hard to control the erratic power of fiber glass and recapture the record.
"Fiber glass is experience, experience, experience," says Yang, the world's finest decathlon performer, "but I have some advantage. I have the spring, developed in the high jump, broad jump and hurdles."
John Uelses, the first man to clear 16 feet, has bought two new 16-foot-long poles, plans to move his grip up to 14 feet 6, work out some flaws in his form, and looks for continued improvement. Dave Tork of West Virginia, who has cleared 16 feet 2¼, is lifting a 300-pound weight to strengthen his shoulders and hopes to make 17 feet within a year.
It is obvious that the new fiber-glass poles may help achieve results that have not yet been envisioned, but it is also beyond doubt that superior strength, technique and timing will, even with glass, do most of the work.
As for the Finns, they are off to a flying start. Coach Olensius believes that five of his pupils will go over 16 feet 4‚Öû this summer. And Nikula is positively frightening on the subject of what he thinks he, personally, can attain.
"Clearing 5.30 meters (17 feet 4‚Öù) is only my intermediate target," he says. "My aim is secret. It is so high it will take some time to achieve."