Sergey Bubka, athlete supreme, the man who was never limited by the heights that he literally achieved, is in India, as the brand ambassador for the Tata Mumbai Marathon on January 21, 2018. A profile of the prolific man’s running story by Capt Seshadri.
Picture in your mind, for just a moment, a man jumping from the ground to the roof of a two storeyed building. Now, this is no Superman or comic book hero performing a stunt, but a living, breathing individual who vaulted his way to fame, clearing 6.15 metres or, 20 feet 14 inches. A world champion pole vaulter for 21 years, the first man to breach the 6.0 metre barrier, while breaking the men’s record 35 times and bettering his own, untouched record 14 times, thus making his name synonymous with the pole vault.
Sergey Nazarovich Bubka, born on December 4, 1963, in Ukraine, part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, began his career in athletics with the 100 metres sprint and the long jump. He started competing on the international athletics scene in 1981 as a pole vaulter at the European Junior Championship, where he finished a moderate seventh. His leap to fame however, took an upward turn in 1983, with his world championship gold at Helsinki, clearing 5.70 metres (18 feet 8 inches). During the next couple of decades, he became simply unbeatable.
If the cliché ‘raising the bar’ were to be epitomised, he would be the lone author. His maiden world record of 5.85 metres, was set on May 26, 1984, a date coinciding with the conquest of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary, precisely 31 years earlier. After them, on earth, there were no more frontiers to conquer; for Bubka though, his achievement was but a small beginning. Just over a year later, on July 13, 1985, he cleared 6.00 metres (19 feet 8 inches), a feat that had been considered impossible by any human. Not one to rest on his pole, he went on, over the next ten years, to consistently break his records time and again, pushing himself on his own, despite the fact that there were no opponents to challenge him.
In the days before Perestroika, Soviet athletes who set world records were rewarded with bonus payments, every time they set a new record. Bubka made a name for collecting these bonuses at every meet, by beating his own record, many a time by as slim a margin as one centimetre! This constant improvement made him a star attraction and an object of much speculation at athletic meets.
The gap was too wide, too high, for the rest of the world. Until January 2014, no other pole vaulter on earth had jumped beyond 6.07 metres; Bubka, however, had cleared 6.10 metres as early as in 1991, in San Sebastian, Spain, such was his dominance over the event. On July 31, 1994, at age 31, when most athletes would have faded out, or when the world would have consigned them to retirement, Sergey Bubka reached his best ever leap of 6.14 metres (20 feet 1 ¾ inches), which still stands as the highest ever outdoor pole vault. He was not to be outdone indoors either. On February 21, 1993, at Donetsk, Ukraine, close to the town of his birth, he set the indoor world record of 6.15 metres, which stood firm for a couple of decades, till Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie cleared 6.16 metres. Ironically, this was at the same meet, at the same venue, in the same month, but 21 years later.
For an athlete of his calibre and achievements, the Olympics were a severe disappointment, his only gold coming in Seoul 1988, where he cleared 5.90 metres, far below his usual standard. It was probably a matter of pride for this great star that he retired from the pole vault in 2001, during a ceremony at his Pole Vault Stars meet in Donetsk, the very place where he established his world record.
Bubka’s secret to success could probably be attributed to a few key factors. For one, he possessed enormous strength and speed, combined with the agility of a gymnast. He would also grasp the pole at the extreme height to gain extra leverage. His style is referred to as the Petrov / Bubka technique, in which the vaulter concentrates on putting maximum energy into the bar on the upward move. This, combined with high running speed, allows the vaulter to benefit most from the recoil of the pole, thereby increasing energy into the swing.
This sporting genius was twice named Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News and is one of 24 athletes inducted as inaugural members of the IAAF Hall of Fame. Now well into his retirement, Sergey Bubka is the Senior Vice President of the IAAF and President of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine. He is also an Honorary Member of the International Olympic Committee.
A little point of interest: Like many siblings who do not take after their parents, Sergei Jr is a professional tennis player.