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Nurturing pole vaulters the 'Indian' way

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Nurturing pole vaulters the 'Indian' way

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Madhav Agarwal


The USA's Christopher Nielsen had failed to cross the 6.02m barrier in his final attempt in the men's pole vault final at the Tokyo Olympics, which meant the world record holder Armand Duplantis had secured the gold with a jump still to go.

The Swede, with gold in his pocket already, did not stop there and went on to attempt another world record, which unfortunately he narrowly missed out on. If one saw his last attempt closely, they would realise that the 21-year-old was still good enough to add another 30-40cm at least to his record jump, which stands at a massive 6.18m currently.

All in Sweden, in fact, every pole vault aficionado across the world would have prayed for the wonderkid's success, but the same cannot be said for the ones back in India. Here, the pole vaulters have a million different concerns and finding a decent pole, pit, or a coach, as basic as it may sound, are a few of them.

It was in 2018 that the National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) for pole vault was started in order to groom the youngsters in the sport keeping in mind the 2024 and 2028 Olympics. But the very future of this program looks in jeopardy already, let alone what's in store for the handful of athletes part of this misadventure. The pole vault academy which was merged with the NCOE in 2020, doesn't have a coach since December last year. Former head coach PC Tyagi's contract terminated in August 2020, while assistant coach Devender Kumar was ousted after he physically assaulted one of the athletes. Then the academy which was set up in Delhi is being moved to Bengaluru, and the athletes are not keen on relocating. Since the past year, a number of reports have also suggested that the landing pit used to train our vaulters in Delhi is close to 12 years old when the normal life of it is just three years. 

If that sounds unbelievable, a junior athlete from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, who is part of the academy told on condition of anonymity that the pit in question was removed by the authorities over a month ago with no replacement being provided. "There is no pit now. Since it hurt our back while landing, pit has been removed. But no replacement has been given."

To be able to understand how unfair the system has been to these Indian athletes, it must first be made clear that pole vault is one of the toughest and physically demanding sport in athletics. One needs to have more than decent sprinting ability, wrestler-like upper-body strength to bend the pole, long jumper-like explosive strength in legs to take off, and most importantly the will to put their lives on the line. 

With the possibility of the pole breaking, hands slipping from the pole, not landing over the pit correctly, or the pole hitting the vaulter after completing the jump, anything could go wrong. Team USA's Sandi Morris' pole snapped mid-air during a qualifying event for Tokyo Olympics, which lead to a shoulder injury and prevented her from laying hands on another medal. During the 2019 World Championship, something similar happened with Sweden's Angelica Bengtsson when her pole broke into two as well. Such instances are in a few hundreds in the history of the sport. 

Alone in the USA, since 2000, over 20 athletes have lost their lives, while close to 40 suffered a serious head injury due to pole vault. Just keep all these factors in mind, and also the non-availability of bare minimum facilities for the sport in the country; the disastrous combo rules out any possibility of it growing here. In a nutshell, would Duplantis be, where he is today if he grew up playing the sport in India?

Former national champion Khyati Vakharia, who retired from competitive pole vault in 2019, believes that the situation won't really change until and unless those at the helm start understanding the sport, and its needs, a little better. "So we do have some kind of equipment and a few coaches in India, say in the SAI centers, but the people at the helm of affairs have no clue about the sport," Vakharia told SportCafe in an exclusive interaction. 

"It is a no-brainer that whatever we have is just not enough. As the name suggests, we need enough poles to be able to train and compete sufficiently, which is not the case currently. Talk about countries, which are decent in the pole vault, their players carry close to 10 poles with them of different heights and weights, and the flex number varies accordingly." 

To partially explain why is it so important to have a series of poles, one needs to draw an inference from cricket. Batsmen these days carry 10-12 bats with them, which have different weights and balance. If the situation demands quick runs, a thicker bat with a bigger sweet spot is preferred, and when the situation demands stability, one with smaller edges is preferred. 

Vakharia too explains, "You just don't vault on one pole, but a series of them. In short, it is like a progression. What happens in India is that you might find a facility where you can jump, but you don't have a series of poles. An athlete might buy two poles, which they use in every condition, no matter what. That is not even matching the bare minimum. But despite that Indian vaulters have to make it work, against all the odds. And that is not how it works at all in this sport.

"Another issue is, we don't have enough competitions in the country. My coach in the US used to ask me to participate in a minimum of 12 events in a year. Now just compare this to what our vaulters do -- four to five maximum in a year, don't know what the situation is after Covid-19. I mean the top athletes who compete at the Olympics, participate in 30-40 competitions in a year. The number of times you play is the number of times you make mistakes, minimum. That is the best way to learn pole vaulting."

Just recently, a young 15-year-old vaulter Vanshika Ghanghas cleared a height of 3.50m at the National Athletics Championship in Warangal, where she secured fifth place. Our national record in the women's category stands at 4.15m by VS Surekha, a distance which Ghanghas should be able to clear with ease in the next three years. But for that to happen just about everything will have to fall in place miraculously, or else it will be a story like every other pole vaulter in the country.

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