CHAPEL HILL -Thirteen young U.S. athletes -- all high school boys -- died from catastrophic accidents suffered while pole vaulting between fall 1982 and spring 1997, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows.
"Pole-vaulting accidents stand out from those of other track and field events since they have been responsible for the majority of fatalities and permanent injuries in track," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of physical education, exercise and sport science at UNC-CH. "All of them happen the same way. Either the athlete hits the landing pit and bounces out onto the hard surface surrounding the pit, or he misses the pit altogether."
The study also revealed seven cases of permanent paralysis from neck injuries among high school pole-vaulters. Another six athletes suffered head and neck injuries; all completely recovered or were expected to.
Mueller directs the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, based at UNC-CH, and also chairs the American Football Coaches' Committee on Football Injuries. Each year, the center issues reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports. Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents.
"We don't know the exact number of pole-vaulters, but it is pretty low -- about 25,000 -- and so the incidence of injuries is high compared to other track events and most other sports," Mueller said. "A lot of people are concerned about these injuries, and we believe more research ought to be done on them. There's been discussion in some states about doing away with pole vaulting because of liability concerns, but I don't think that's happened yet."
Certainly schools and parents need to be sure that coaches who teach pole vaulting are qualified to do so, he said. Three pole-vaulting deaths in 1983 caused the National Federation of State High School Associations to require that school officials pad all areas in and around landing pits by 1987.
From 1982 to 1997, researchers found three other deaths from track and field events, three accidents causing permanent disability and seven other serious injuries from which the athletes recovered. A thrown discus, a heavy shot used in the shot put event or javelin struck 10 of these high school athletes.
Two pole-vaulters and one other track athlete hit by an errant discus died in the United States during 1997.
Mueller and other experts strongly recommend pre-practice physical examinations for boys and girls who want to participate in sports. Such screening sometimes reveals hidden conditions that make heavy exertion hazardous, he said. Parents also should make certain their children are insured against catastrophic injury and that medical assistance is available during practice, games and meets.
Note: Mueller can be reached at (919) 962-5171.
Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596