Dave Reardon

Press Box

By Dave Reardon

Sunday, June 2, 2002

HHSAA hopes not to
drop pole vaulters

HEY, guess what? You'll never believe this.

Pole vaulting is dangerous.

Propelling yourself 15 feet into the air with the possibility of landing head-first on something hard could kill you.

What a shocking revelation.

Almost as amazing as the one made last summer. It took several highly publicized deaths of college and NFL football players, including All-Pro Korey Stringer, for most people to realize that dehydration and/or the lack or proper supervision of athletes in the hot sun could kill them.

This spring, three deaths of pole vaulters have high school sports administrators debating whether to ban the event.

At the very least, the National Federation of State High School Associations will likely recommend increased safety standards to state associations this week.

The deaths of Penn State's Kevin Dare and high school vaulters Jesus Quesada of Clewiston, Fla., and Samoa Fili of Wichita, Kan., prompted the concern.

Quesada and Fili both bounced out of the 12-foot-by-16-foot pit and hit their heads on hard surfaces. There is a proposal to extend the landing surface, and another to require vaulters to wear helmets -- helmets that no company wants to make yet, because they're not sure if they can produce ones that can do the job.

A pole vault ban is a possibility here, Hawaii High School Athletic Association Executive Director Keith Amemiya said.

"It's an option being explored. The safety of our student-athletes is always a major issue, as are liability concerns," said Amemiya, an attorney with seven years of experience working in litigation. "It comes down to a matter of practicality. Should we try to save one event in one sport at the risk of bankrupting the HHSAA and causing elimination of all other state tournaments?"

It's debatable if pole vaulting is as dangerous as football -- it depends what study you look at, and who is doing the counting and interpreting. There's been a small cry of protest from pole vault coaches so far; try proposing a ban on football and see what happens.

While it is an event everyone is familiar with and many enjoy watching, the pole vault remains an obscure oddity performed by daredevils who often have a tighter bond with each other than their own teammates in other events. Many pole vaulters from different schools practice with each other because of facility limitations.

It wouldn't matter if no one was hurt pole vaulting the previous 100 years -- three deaths in the space of a couple of months erases any clean record.

"I'm unaware of any major pole vault injuries ever in Hawaii," said Amemiya, a former Punahou half-miler. "But all it takes is for one to occur and then it's too late."

Although several states have already banned the event, Amemiya believes that to be rash at this point. He is putting forth a proposal at next week's state athletics directors' conference on Kauai to form a pole vault safety committee to explore the issue further.

"Dropping it will be a last resort," he said. "But there are also competitive issues because we don't know how many schools will be able to afford the proper safety equipment."

At last month's state championships, the pole vault -- as usual -- was the spectator highlight of the four-ring circus that is a track and field meet. No pole vault records were broken (and, by the way, no bodies were, either), but the noisy reaction to successful vaults and close misses made it clear it is the most crowd-pleasing event.

Aside from decathletes, pole vaulters are track and field's finest all-around athletes. Success in the event requires upper and lower body strength, flexibility, technique, and, above all, courage.

Now they're between a pit and a hard place.

Dave Reardon, who covered sports in Hawaii from 1977 to 1998,
moved to the the Gainesville Sun, then returned to
the Star-Bulletin in Jan. 2000.
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