"Dear Editor: Motorcycle Diary: High Challenges
Russian Pole-vaulter Svetlana Feofanova and her competitors here feel significant pressure as they compete in the London Olympics, the anxiety they experience just trying to get their equipment to meets is sometimes is even more excruciating.
“Traveling with the poles is just horrible; it’s the absolute worst part about this whole thing,” Svetlana told me as I gained access to their practices before the qualifying round. “The hardest is when other athletes complain. The sprinters have a gripe? Do you know what I wouldn’t give just to be able to throw my spikes in a bag and go?”
Fees and restrictions for checking baggage on airlines are perpetually rising, but pole-vaulters have little recourse.
Shipping companies are inconvenient and ineffective, because the poles must be sent days early and horror stories abound about chopped, chipped and cracked poles. So most vaulters endure the inevitable airport process: pack five or more poles weighing roughly 10 pounds each into bags that look like something a giant might use to carry his skis, and then approach the check-in counter with a hopeful smile.
The initial response, vaulters say, is almost always the same.
“I hope you’re not trying to check that,” Svetlana, who jumped in Group B yesterday, said in a nasal tone, mimicking the curmudgeonly character she often encounters.
Last year, after competing at an event in China, Svetlana was stonewalled when she tried to check in for her flight back to the United States. Her agent had called ahead to the airline and been told that checking Feofanova’s poles would be no problem. But the desk employee held firm: the poles would not fit on the Boeing 747 aircraft, he told Svetlana, who tried, to no avail, to explain that they had fit on the same plane on the flight over.
“It wasn’t like I’d walked there,” Svetlana said. “But the agent wouldn’t listen.”
Eventually, Svetlana was told she could fly home with the poles on a different flight that left the next day, meaning she had to stay overnight at an airport hotel at her own expense.
Of course, that was minor compared with a disaster last year, when she successfully checked her poles at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, only to be summoned by an airline employee once she had reached the gate and told that the poles would not be allowed on the plane after all.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Left with little choice but to skip her flight or leave without her poles, Svetlana got on the plane and borrowed poles from other vaulters at the competition, in Doha, Qatar. “I did terribly,” she said. “The whole thing was awful.”
What irks vaulters most, they say, is the inconsistency of their treatment. Vaulters know that trying to get poles onto a tiny regional jet is a futile exercise, but most airline baggage policies say poles are accepted as checked baggage on mainline planes. (American Airlines is one of a few carriers that will not take them.)
Still, vaulters say, whether poles actually make it on the plane — and how much of a fee is charged — varies widely depending on the employee behind the counter.
Fees can range from zero to, in one instance another athlete recalled, 16 euros per kilogram — or roughly $750 total — for a short flight in Europe. Most often, vaulters will pay $50 to $250 each way, depending on the airline and the route.
The hassle of traveling with poles does not begin — or end — with airports. Shuttle vans and even buses are often incapable of fitting the poles, so most of the time, vaulters must strap their poles to the roofs — or other parts — of their cars. Svetlana drives a Toyota Corolla and has rigged up a system where the poles run alongside the passenger side of the car, sliding under the rearview mirror.
Clearly getting up and over the bar cleanly is just one challenge. I will think of this and Svetlana the next time I watch pole vaulting. "