Ukrainian pole vaulter
In his 18-year career, pole vaulter Sergei Bubka set the world record 35 times, won gold medals at six consecutive world championships, and won an Olympic gold medal in Seoul in 1988. He is widely considered to be the greatest pole vaulter in history, and is the only person ever to clear a bar 20 feet overhead.
"One of Athletics' Most Anticipated Events"
Bubka was born to a working-class family in Voroshilovgrad in what was then the Soviet Union in 1963. His father, Nazar, was a member of the Soviet Army, and expected military-style discipline from Bubka and his brother, Vasily. Bubka's mother, Valentina, worked in a hospital.
Bubka's first exposure to pole vaulting came when he was nine years old; a friend invited him to join a vaulting club. Coaches there noted that he had talent, and he soon began training with coach Vitaly Petrov. Although Bubka's father tried to force him to quit, he continued to train.
Bubka's parents divorced when he was 15, and he went to live with Vasily in a factory dormitory in Donetsk, a manufacturing city. In Donetsk, Bubka continued to train with Petrov and went to school. In 1983, Bubka won his first world championship, beginning a long reign as the best in the sport. Before he entered the field, pole vaulting was a relatively obscure sport, like many other field events, and was rarely broadcast or publicized. However, according to Kevin B. Blackistone in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Bubka "transformed the pole vault into one of athletics' most anticipated events.… a raucous, hand-clapping, crowd-energizing event."
Blackistone noted that at a meet in London in 1984, the bar was set at 18-8. Bubka soared over it by a foot
and a half. It was moved to 19-4. Bubka cleared it by eight inches. Polish vaulter Tadeusz Slusarski, who had won an Olympic gold medal in 1976 and a silver in 1980, watched this and predicted to American vaulter Larry Jessee that they were seeing the beginning of a great athletic career. Bubka had arrived, and no one could beat him.
At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Bubka won a gold medal in the pole vaulting event. Bubka went to the Olympics again in 1992, at the Barcelona Games, but did not clear a single bar in the final competition. On his first try, he went under the bar, and on his second, he knocked it over. He passed on his third try, gaining time to get himself together. On his fourth try, knowing it was his last chance, he tested the wind and changed poles when he felt a gust. However, when he started down the runway, he felt the wind die: he had chosen the wrong pole. On the way up, his shins slammed into the bar: he had just lost his Olympic chance.
In May of 1996, Bubka traveled to Brazil to compete, inadvertently setting off a chain of events that may have prevented the city of Rio de Janeiro from making a successful bid to host the Olympics in 2004. As he entered Brazil, suspicious customs officials sawed his poles in half, saying that they might contain smuggled items. The poles did not, but they were ruined, and Bubka had to compete in a Rio de Janeiro meet using borrowed equipment. Embarrassed Brazilian officials apologized, according to a report in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser.
"The Olympic Games Are Not Meant for Me"
In July of 1996 Bubka was scheduled to compete in the Atlanta Olympic Games, but was forced out by an injury to his right Achilles tendon. Of his inability to compete in Atlanta, he told Duncan Mackay Athens in the London Observer, "That was a sad day in my career. I wanted to win in Atlanta because I have only one Olympic gold medal and I wanted one more." He told Ian O'Connor in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service that his injury, which began in April of 1996, "is proof that the Olympic Games are not meant for me." He took time off from training for surgery on his Achilles tendon, not returning to his sport until the summer of 1997.
At the world championships in 1997, Bubka was taken aback when Russian athlete Maksim Tarasove cleared 5.69 meters. Bubka, taking a risk, did not even try to jump that height, but had the bar raised to 6.01 meters, a height only he and two other athletes had ever cleared. It was a dangerous bluff: if he failed, he would lose. The 80,000 spectators waited tensely as he sprinted down the runway, planted his pole, and flew over the bar, winning the gold medal and setting a new championship record.
In 1998, Bubka underwent surgery on his Achilles tendon, which had bothered him for some time. By the following year he was still recovering from the surgery, and did not participate in that year's world championships. Although he was able to swim in order to retain his fitness, he could not put weight on his foot without agonizing pain, his manager Andrzej Kulikovsky told a reporter for the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser.
In 2000, Bubka was reluctant to participate in the pole-vaulting competition in the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, because of the strong and unpredictable winds. According to a report in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser, Bubka predicted that the competition would be "a nightmare" and that the winner would be "whoever lives."
Bubka didn't enter the qualifying round until the competition had already been underway for three hours, and he missed all three tries at his opening height of 5.7 meters. He failed to qualify for the Olympic final, and did not compete.
"Bubka Does Not Jump, He Flies"
Belarussian pole vaulter Dmitriy Markov told Warren Partland in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser, "Bubka does not jump, he flies. Everyone else jumps but if you want to match him you must be prepared to fly." A risk-taker, Bubka used poles that some thought were too large for him in his quest for greater and greater height. He made his run dramatically, bending his pole and soaring over the bar with spectacular style.
Part of Bubka's success at breaking the world record so many times was his tactic of raising the bar by a tiny amount each time, setting new world records in one-centimeter increments. Each time he set a record, he received bonuses, endorsements, and appearance fees, so this tactic earned him a great deal of money as well as more notoriety than anyone had ever enjoyed in his previously obscure sport. O'Connor noted that each time he broke a record, Bubka received $40,000 from the Nike company, and commented, "Bubka is no fool. He doesn't smash his own records, but nibbles at them, replacing them a fraction at a time. Since taking the Nike deal, Bubka has taken 15 nibbles, good for a $600,000 bonus." Although some observers criticized Bubka as calculating and mercenary, Blackistone noted that Bubka was simply doing what star athletes in most other sports did: "Set records. Earn bonuses. Garner greater appearance fees for the next big meet." And, Blackistone wrote, "Bubka just proved that a pole vaulter could do the same if he was as spectacular and spell-binding in his performance."
Bubka lived the high life, buying expensive cars and moving to a $2 million apartment in Monte Carlo. His riches were noted by members of the Russian mafia, which issued death threats and threats to kidnap him if he did not hand over some of the money. As a result, since the mid-1990s he has traveled with a bodyguard.
|1963||Born in Voroshilovgrad, Soviet Union|
|1972||Begins pole vaulting|
|1978||Parents divorce; moves to Donetsk with his brother; continues to train|
|1983||Wins the first of six consecutive world championships in pole vaulting; other wins occur in 1987, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 1997|
|1988||Wins gold medal at Seoul Olympics|
|1992||Competes in Barcelona Olympics|
|1996||Misses Atlanta Olympics due to injury|
|2000||Competes in Sydney Olympics|
|2001||Retires from competition; becomes member of Ukraine Parliament|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1983, 1987, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997||World Champion, pole vault|
|1988||Gold medal, Olympic Games|
Retires from Competition
In February of 2001, at age 37, Bubka retired from competition. At a lavish party in his hometown of Donetsk, he thanked the crowd of 6,000 of his home fans for supporting him. After retiring, he continued to teach at a pole-vaulting school he founded in Ukraine, and served as the Ukrainian representative to the International Olympic Committee. American vaulter Jeff Hartwig told Blackistone, "The sport will certainly miss Sergei. For years, we'll always be measured by what he did."
Blackistone, Kevin B., "Bubka Raised Bar High, and Few Cleared," Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, (February 8, 2001): K1836.
"Bubka Has Poles Cut by Customs Officers," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (May 9, 1996): 28.
"Bubka in a Breeze," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (September 15, 2000): 26.
"Bubka Out of World Championships," Birmingham Evening Mail (Birmingham, England), (August 10, 1999): 44.
"Bubka's World Title Agony," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (August 13, 1999): 84.
"Grand End for Bubka," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (February 6, 2001): 69.
Mackay, Duncan, "Athletics: World Championships: There's Only One Bubka," Guardian (London, England), (August 11, 1997): 6.
Mackay, Duncan, "Olympic Games: Pole Vault: Bubka Bows Out Without a Vault and Brits Fails Too," Guardian (London, England), (August 1, 1996): 24.
O'Connor, Ian, "Sergei Bubka Denied a Chance at Olympic Gold," Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, (July 31, 1996): 731K1297.
"Olympic Games: Athletics: Bubka Shock," Birmingham Evening Mail (Birmingham, England), (September 27, 2000): 93.
Partland, Warren, "Markov Aims for Stars," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (March 5, 1998): 96.
"Bubka and Son … Poles Apart," The Age, January 21, 2003, http://www.theage.com.au/ (January 27, 2003).
Sketch by Kelly Winters