Bubka aims to put young pretender in his place

Only one athlete has ever won the pole vault world title, but his reign may be under threat at last. Norman Fox reports

Sergei Bubka will be giving another master class this afternoon, when the Ukrainian bids for his fifth successive world pole vault title. The World Championships, begun in 1983, have never had any other champion in the event and though a young challenger, Okkert Brits of South Africa, has emerged at last, he remains very much a pupil and follower of the relentless world record-breaker.

Bubka has steadily improved the world record from 5.85 metres in 1984 to the present 6.14m achieved last year. In all he has broken the outdoor record 17 times and the indoor record 18. Almost always the improvement is by a mere centimetre, just enough to up his appearance fee for future meetings and raise another bonus from the sponsors.

He comes from a modest, tough upbringing in Donetsk, but denies that as a result he has a huge appetite for making a lot of money. However, that is not the impression he gives. He lives mainly in Berlin and Monte Carlo. He owns a red Ferrari and a Mercedes, both given as prizes for breaking world records. His wife and two sons are soon to move from their 13th floor apartment in Donetsk to Monte Carlo. For the past 10 years the 31-year-old has been almost permanently on the road, and he says it is time for all of them to enjoy the fruits of his efforts.

He thinks that in many ways he was happier in the old days of the Soviet Union, because even though his winnings went largely to the athletics federation, life in Ukraine was more hospitable. "People have no money at all now and are unhappy," he said. When at "home" he feels embarrassed by his own wealth, although apparently he gives large amounts to assist children in their sporting ambitions. He has encouraged them by buying children's poles at pounds 200 a time and at the last count had purchased more than 100. He is also in the process of funding a pole vault landing area at the local "Sergei Bubka Sport Club".

The accusation that he always breaks records by the minimum amount in order to maintain his great income is one that overshadows the resilience of an astonishing champion, whose only serious errors in major competitions came in the 1992 Olympic final, when he failed at the first height, and the European Championship of 1990, when he was only sixth.

He last improved the world record in Sestriere in July of last year but any suggestion that perhaps his extraordinary talent is on the wane gets a terse reply. "This summer the conditions have not been right for records," he said. But what of conditions here at the Ullevi Stadium? "Probably too windy". It would hardly be the height of cynicism to think that with no prize money at stake here his only need today is to make sure that he keeps the young Brits in his place.

Brits recently achieved six metres for the first time. Bubka still beat him. But Brits has exceptional confidence, gymnastic ability and strength, all of which saved his life last year in Nice when a prank went wrong and he was left dangling by his fingertips from a hotel windowsill several floors up and was eventually rescued by his coach.

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