Athletics: Much maligned mercenary who never fails to entertain

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The Independent Online
Adam Szreter on the tale of Sergei Bubka, who competes in Birmingham tomorrow

DESPITE the fact that the coffers of British athletics have been bled dry with the payment of exorbitant appearance fees by various promoters over the past 15 years, Sergei Bubka, one of the most bankable athletes during that time, will attend only his third meeting in this country tomorrow at the Bupa indoor event in Birmingham.

In the process of breaking the world pole vault record a staggering 35 times, indoors or out since 1984, Bubka has attracted his share of adverse publicity. His method of moving the record up by a centimetre at a time, ensuring a prize every time, has led to him being labelled a mercenary, but in a sport where cynicism has become the prevailing currency, this might just be a trifle rich.

Bubka himself will not tire of pointing out that for him, it is the competition that counts. After all, he set the first 10 of his world records while he was still living in his native Ukraine and hardly received a penny; and unlike one or two high-profile athletes of his generation, Bubka can seldom be accused of not giving value for money.

The first time he competed in England, at Crystal Palace in July 1984, he set the third of his world records, and the last time, at the same venue in 1993, he provided us with what is still the only six-metre clearance seen in this country. Tomorrow at the National Indoor Arena he will almost certainly attempt to break his existing record of 6.15m, also set indoors in his native city of Donetsk five years ago.

Now 34, his record-breaking days are numbered but Bubka has stated his intention of getting through to the next Olympics. Despite winning every World Championship since the inaugural one in 1983 - a feat unlikely to be equalled - he may feel he has a score to settle with the Olympics as a combination of boycotts, injury and, in 1992, a rare failure, has restricted him to one Olympic gold medal.

It was after the break-up of the old Soviet Union that Bubka moved to Berlin and then to Monaco, where he now lives. His friend Andrei Medvedev, the Ukrainian tennis player, is one of his neighbours. Bubka has spoken of a desire to become involved with sports administration when he eventually hangs up his pole, and with the headquarters of the International Amateur Athletic Federation now in Monaco he is handily placed.

It was in conjunction with the IAAF that Bubka offered his services in October at a seminar in Budapest, where his contribution to a discussion entitled Limits and Possibilities in Human Performance gave a fascinating insight into own development. "My interest in sport came from playing in the streets around my home with my brother and my friends," he said. "As a boy I loved to play all sports, especially street hockey and football. I would run like crazy because I just had to win. As long as I can remember, the spirit of sport was in my blood.

"By the age of 10 I had taken part in most sports and a friend of mine recommended me to a pole vault coach called Vitaliy Petrov because he knew I was strong for my age. Petrov was to be the greatest influence on my life as an athlete.

"I was with him for 16 years and no one in the world knows more about pole vaulting technique. "He showed me that the pole vault was really two sports: it was athletics on the runway, during the approach and take- off, and it was gymnastics once you were in the air and until you cleared the bar. Since 1990 I have had a gymnastics coach who helped me make great improvements in the second phase of the vault and I would say my ability in this phase is what helped me break world records."

Bubka has often been construed as aloof and unapproachable, but says this is just another aspect of his performance. "As an athlete I have had to learn to be reserved, to waste no energy that could be used in competition. I realised that I was sensitive by nature and that sometimes I let things affect me.

"I arrive at the stadium two hours before a competition because I want to look at every possible thing that could influence my result: how is the vault area, where are the stands located, what are the weather conditions? I need to think about technique, about running, about my warm-up. Finding motivation is something you must work harder at as you get older and become more successful."

Tomorrow in Birmingham, Bubka, along with Haile Gebrselassie and Maurice Greene, will be among the dying breed of athletes paid to appear in this country. There will be no Ferrari or Mercedes for a world record, as there has been before for Bubka, and whether he finds the necessary motivation remains to be seen. But if it is the last appearance in Britain by one of the greatest athletes of all time it would be a shame to miss it, whatever he does.

bubka's world records


5.85m Bratislava 26.5.84

5.88m Paris 2.6.84

5.90m London 13.7.84

5.94m Rome 31.8.84

6.00m Paris 13.7.85

6.01m Moscow 8.7.86

6.03m Prague 23.6.87

6.05m Bratislava 8.6.88

6.06m Nice 10.7.88

6.07m Shizouka, Japan 6.5.91

6.08m Moscow 9.6.91

6.09m Formia, Italy 8.7.91

6.10m Malmo 5.8.91

6.11m Dijon 13.6.92

6.12m Padua 30.8.92

6.13m Tokyo 19.9.92

6.14m Sestriere, Italy 31.7.94


5.81m Vilnius, Lithuania 15.1.84

5.82m Milan 1.2.84

5.83m Inglewood, USA 10.2.84

5.87m Osaka 15.1.86

5.92m Moscow 8.2.86

5.94m Inglewood 21.2.86

5.95m New York 28.2.86

5.96m Osaka 15.1.87

5.97m Turin 17.3.87

6.03m Osaka 11.2.89

6.05m Donetsk 17.3.90

6.08m Volgograd 9.2.91

6.10m San Sebastian 15.3.91

6.11m Donetsk 19.3.91

6.12m Grenoble 23.3.91

6.13m Berlin 21.2.92

6.14m Lievin, France 13.2.93

6.15m Donetsk 21.2.93.