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Inside Track: Vaulters conceptualize domestic tour
Mon Jan 12, 2009 By Joe Battaglia / Universal Sports
Jenn Stuczynski and other elite U.S. pole vaulters could soon have a domestic tour to compete on.
If anyone knows how difficult it is to make it as a professional pole vaulter it's Jeff Hartwig.
“In order to stay involved in the sport coming out of college, there are basically two options," Hartwig said. "You’re either good enough to go on to the regular circuit where you can get a contract with the shoe companies and start to earn money based on your performances, or you get a job to support your pole vault habit and you’re basically a hobby pole vaulter until you get good enough. I had to work five years before I was able to start to make any money in the sport itself. That was the road I went down."
Now the two-time Olympian and four-time U.S. champion is trying to help ease that road for the current and next generations of vaulters. Hartwig, along with fellow American and 2001 World Indoor silver medalist Tye Harvey have proposed the United State Pole Vault Tour, a domestic circuit that would enhance the visibility of the sport and provide American vaulters with a viable arena in which to train, compete, and earn a living.
"Even though this tour would be unofficial in terms of the actual results, this would be the vaulters' job," Hartwig said. "Instead of working in a restaurant waiting tables for five or six hours a day at hours that aren’t convenient for good rest and recovery from training, now they would live and train as a full-time athlete and for 10 weekends a year they would be obligated to come support this tour."
The concept was presented to 25 of the nation's elite vaulters -- Jenn Stuczynski is the lone notable exception since she did not attend - in a closed-door meeting at the Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nev. on Jan. 6 and was met with overwhelming approval. Among those in attendance were 2000 Olympic gold medalist Stacy Dragila, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Toby Stevenson and 2007 World Outdoor champ Brad Walker. Hartwig says the Tour has been tentatively scheduled to debut in June but is still very much in the planning stages.
"This is a concept in its infancy," Hartwig said. "At this point we don’t have any money, we don’t have any venues, and we don’t have any dates."
Hartwig, 40, said the idea of having a domestic tour is hardly new, but it just took a lot longer to bring it to fruition.
"We’ve talked about it for years," he said. "I think four generations of pole vaulters have said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a circuit?’ Unfortunately by the time people that have enough knowledge about the sport become available to work on it - I know as a competing athlete that you just don’t have the time or the energy to commit to something like this -- they’re back to searching for ways to make a living."
Pole vault street meets are incredibly popular in Europe, where the competition is conductive in a festive atmosphere similar to a beach volleyball tournament. While the USPV Tour would look to embrace the entertainment aspect of a street meet, Hartwig said the competitive part of the event would less resemble the street meets, like Sergei Bubka's Stars Meet in Donyetsk, Ukraine, or the meet in Aachen, Germany that served as his Hartwig’s competitive farewell in September. While those popular events are traditional pole vault competitions with sanctioned officials and conventional bar height progression, the USPV Tour will be a team-oriented exhibition not sanctioned by IAAF or USATF.
The Tour would be comprised of 10 mixed-gender teams comprised of six athletes competing over two days. The first day would be a team qualifier where each athlete would be given two to three jumps and the cumulative heights of each team would be used for seeding the team competition the next day, when the top two male and females on each team would compete. Athletes would be able to set the bar at whatever height they choose, meaning marks would not be considered legal by IAAF regulations.
"The format flies in the face of a lot of things that are involved in the pole vault," Hartwig said. "It’s still in the best interest of the pole vaulters to support it because it’s a way for them to earn money without monopolizing their time. Athletes will still be training toward things like world championships, Olympic Games, and national championships. A good way to describe it is like the Ice Capades for professional figure skaters. It’s just going to be a show using the pole vault as the main source of entertainment."
Hartwig points out that many obstacles remain, the biggest being securing the requisite start-up capital.
“To bring in 50 or 60 pole vaulters, to set up a venue that would seat 3,000 or 4,000 people, you're probably talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per event,” Hartwig said. “You can’t get the money until you’ve got the athletes on board. At the same time, athletes want to know up front how much money they’re going to make before they sign on to support anything."
If there is one thing the USPV Tour has, it's athlete support.
“I’d love to be a part of the tour. I’m in 100 percent,” Stevenson said in a statement. “It’s about time for something like this for pole vaulting. Either you reinvent yourself for today’s audience or you don’t exist. And that’s what pole vaulting is doing with the tour.”