Athletics: New world for the old tsar

Vaulted ambition reigns as Bubka heads for the great British indoors to scale an elusive barrier; Simon Turnbull assesses the enduring appeal of an athlete who is a living legend
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The Independent Online
FOR ALL his staggering accomplishments - six world titles, 35 world records, soaring to the greatest heights man has reached without mechanical assistance - one achievement has yet to be added to the curriculum vitae of Sergei Bubka, supreme athlete and high-flying businessman. He has never won an indoor competition in Britain. Then again, the pole vault in the Bupa Grand Prix meeting at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham tonight will only be his second. In his first, the AAA Championships 13 years ago, Bubka was beaten by Bubka.

Vasily Bubka cleared 5.60m to win the English title in the former indoor home of British athletics, a converted hangar at RAF Cosford. His younger brother took the silver medal with 5.40m. Andy Ashurst, the Commonwealth pole vault champion in 1986 and right-wing these days for Aldwinians Rugby Club in northwest division one, was sixth with 4.70m. "I can remember it most of all," he said, "because I turned up on the Thursday to train and the concrete in the vaulting box was wet. Bubka had been there the night before and insisted it was changed. It wasn't the right depth."

It was a rare occasion on which Sergei, the more celebrated of the vaulting Bubka brothers from Donetsk, was concerned about depths. When he first competed in Britain, clearing a world record 5.90m outdoors at Crystal Palace in 1984, he asked for the bar to be raised to 6m. The supports would lift it no higher than 5.92. Not that the Ukrainian's gravity-defying upward mobility has been restrained by fixtures and fittings. On his most recent trip to Britain, for the Grand Prix final in 1993, he sailed over 6.05m at Crystal Palace and registered a narrow failure at 6.14, the height at which his outdoor world record has stood since 1994. His indoor best, five years old now, is 6.15.

The son of a Red Army sergeant, Bubka almost drowned at the age of four when he fell into a barrel of water used for salting cabbage. At 19 he emerged with an unexpected gold medal from the inaugural world championships, in Helsinki in 1983, and has since propelled himself to living legend status. Indoors and out, he has broken 35 world records, eclipsing even the prolific deeds of Paavo Nurmi, the great Finnish distance runner.

Add his six world titles - no other vaulter has stood atop the medal rostrum at the world championships - and Bubka can stake a claim to being the finest athlete of all time. Certainly, no other has ever dominated his or her event so imperiously for so long. "Why?" Andy Ashurst said. "He is simply an exceptional all-round athlete." Bubka's compact 6ft, 121/2st frame is packed with the agility of a gymnast, the power of a weightlifter and the speed of a sprinter; he was once timed for the final 10m before a vault at 0.978 sec (slightly faster, that is, than Ben Johnson's average velocity in the 1988 Olympic 100m final).

It is possible, though, that we will never see the very best of Bubka. It has not been in his interests to take a quantum Beamonesque leap. His vaulting ambition has become index linked to a bonus payment of $100,000 per record courtesy of his chief sponsor, Nike - hence the gradual inching towards his upper limit. The worry now is that Bubka, though still on top of the world at 34, has passed his peak. As his coach, Evgenyi Volobujev, remarked before the record-breaking hit its present hiatus: "The tragedy is he is capable of vaulting 6.40 but no one will see how good he really is."

Bubka, though, can hardly be blamed for becoming the ultimate high earner. As a 15-year-old he lived in a factory dormitory in Donetsk; in the absence of a fridge, he hung food out of the window. He now lives in a $2m apartment in Monte Carlo and has a string of business interests, among them a travel agency in Stockholm and a chain of bread shops in the Ukraine. His riches, however, have been earned at a price. Denied a cut of his fortune, the Russian mafia has issued death threats against him. Bubka travels with a bodyguard at his side.

His portrayal as a calculating mercenary is not strictly accurate. He funds a sports school in Donetsk, providing employment for 35 of his countrymen, and in July last year he staged a charity exhibition vault for flood victims in the Czech town of Prostejov. His rare appearance in Britain tonight, only his sixth, could be described as charitable too. The budget for the first major domestic meeting since the financial fall of the British Athletic Federation is unlikely to accommodate Bubka's standard $60,000 fee. "He is doing us a very big favour," the meeting director, Ian Stewart, said.

"I never think about money," Bubka insisted. "I am still competing because I love sport, because I was born for it. I think 6.20m is possible for me in the next two years. There is the world championships in Seville next year and then the Olympics in Sydney in 2000." All of which is bad news for would-be world-beaters who thought Bubka's reign was finally coming to an end at the world championships in Athens last August.

After two years of injury troubles and an Achilles operation, he crashed into the bar with his first attempt at 5.70m. The young pretenders were dumbstruck when the old tsar recovered to strike gold again. "Welcome to the funeral," Bubka joked with them after soaring over 6.01m. No wonder L'Equipe named him Champion of Champions for 1997, ahead of Michael Jordan and Pete Sampras.

"He has to be the best athlete there's ever been," Nick Buckfield, one of his beaten rivals in Athens, said. The UK record holder will be a Brit in awe of the champion champion tonight. There will be a Brits in awe too. Okkert Brits, the South African who stands second on the world list with 6.03m, has given up trying to ignore the man who simply is the pole vault. Indeed, Brits now lives with Bubka: Bubka, his pitbull terrier, that is.