An average day for Sergey Bubka is spent at the office. As the president of Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee and the senior vice president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, he leads the life of the sports administrator, dealing with athletes’ training, uniforms, ticketing, replying to correspondence and planning for the future.
Pretty mundane stuff, which hides behind its seeming ordinariness, an athlete who was once the world’s best, who defied gravity and had an impossibility of achievements—with the secret of his prowess shrouded behind the mystery of the Iron Curtain.
The setter of 35 pole vault world records (17 outdoor, 18 indoor) in the space of a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, whose leap of 6.15 metres (indoor) set in 1993 could only be beaten 21 years later, has moved smoothly into a different role with the same meticulous planning that defined his sporting career.
“You need to understand that one day you will retire so you have to be prepared," he says softly, in thickly accented English. “Prepared not just mentally, but for the future too. So when you retire, you are busy, and have new goals. You should not wake up and say, ‘Oh, what will I do tomorrow?’ It’s too late already. If you retired at 30, then you have lost 30 years if you are only then starting to think about the future."
“It was not a difficult decision (to retire). It was a good integration from active sports career to sports administration and a smooth transition."
All that training of yore comes in useful for Bubka, in the city for the Tata Mumbai Marathon to be held on Sunday, as the event’s international ambassador vaults from one interview to the other, not always with delight. Dressed in the sponsor’s T-shirt, his slicked back hair mostly grey, the strength that lifted him to glory shows through those powerful forearms as he shakes hands firmly.
He is now also a successful businessman in Ukraine, with interests in a bakery, real estate and gas stations, started with the idea that he needed a job once he had hung up the pole.
“It’s what I developed during my career and with my family afterwards," says the 54-year-old. “It’s important we have some occupation and earnings for the future. It’s difficult to combine (sport and business) at the same time.
“My friend in France showed me what he is doing in real life outside sport and they produce yeast. He asked if I would be able to sell in Ukraine. We tried, developed a distribution chain and then the bakery, the frozen dough, one factory, the second factory…
“It’s not easy to manage," mumbles Bubka, whose older son Vitaliy pursues a career in business and younger son Sergey Jr played professional tennis till recently.
Bubka’s total domination of his event for over a decade, from the time he won the world title in Helsinki in 1983 as an unknown 20-year-old till 1997 when he won the IAAF Grand Prix final in Fukuoka, is one of sport’s unique achievements. He first set a world record in 1984, cleared the then unattainable six metres in 1985 and kept going till he finished at 6.15m in 1993 (his 6.14m outdoor record came a year later).
“Your opponents motivate you," he says. “When someone breaks your record, you want it back."
His unique technique—Bubka held the pole higher than most vaulters—combined with more speed on approach and flexibility of a gymnast gave him the necessary recoil force to go higher. He even used a heavier pole than most.
“My technique is the work of my coach (Vitaly Petrov, who worked with Bubka all through his career) and my team. After I understood it and had some experience, we looked up other athletes, how they do it and used the best elements.
“Technique has a significant contribution for everyone. It’s the reason why one is able to do it and the other is not. When you transfer (weight), you need to have good speed, for the transfer of energy from your body to the pole. With good technique, it gives you energy back. The pole has to bend when your legs are up and if you watch most pole-vaulters, the pole is already flat at this point. For that reason, the catapult energy is not transferred. That’s the key, the difference.
“It’s running on the ground and gymnastics in the air," summarises Bubka, who won the pole vault event in the IAAF World Athletics Championships six consecutive times from 1983 to 1997.
During his dominant years, when he was for all practical purposes competing only against himself, conspiracy theorists would claim that Bubka could have jumped far higher than he did. The only reason he held back, said these theorists, was to claim sponsor bonuses, which he would get for every record broken.
So he would add a new record slowly, going up centimetre by centimetre. For example, between 1991 and 1993, he beat his previous best 14 times. In fact, hazy old videos show Bubka clearing record heights with a comfortable margin in a sport where a hair’s width can send the bar crashing down.
“Potentially, sure, could be possible (to have jumped higher), but what I achieved, this is reality," says Bubka. “You can dream, you can try but sometimes, when I tried, I didn’t succeed. ‘Maybe’ does not count, only final results do."
By the time he retired (in 2001), after the 2000 Sydney Olympics in which he failed to qualify for the final, the Ukranian was ready with his post-retirement plan—of giving back to the sport as an administrator.
“I didn’t really announce (his retirement). I knew a long time ahead of the Olympics that this would be my last competition. I had plans for when I finished competition and continued to do what I wanted to," says Bubka who became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1999.
He does not believe his career would have taken a different path had he not lived through the Communist-Cold War era, at a time when, as a child, they had no facilities and played on the streets of Luhansk, his hometown. For an athlete representing the Soviet Union, all decisions were taken by officials, one of the reasons why he missed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics because of a boycott by the Eastern bloc.
“For me, top athletes’ sports life is the same. You must be professional, do your work, focus on how you recover and what you do between training. I don’t think I would have been any different if I was participating now (post the Soviet Union). The principle of sport is the same, the values and preparation, training, key elements to success are the same."
At his peak, he had to wait another four years for his only Olympic gold medal, in Seoul in 1988, with a jump of 5.9m. Winning just one Olympic medal can be termed as a blemish only in reference to Bubka’s sterling 18-year international career. His other Olympic attempts, in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney, were hampered by injuries and lack of form.
“No one asked us (about the boycott)," Bubka said on Thursday at a press conference. “It was the decision of the leaders. When you go through so many years, it becomes more painful. I never had such tough competition as in 1988."
“I tried for a world record (in Seoul) but I had no energy left (after the gold medal-winning effort). I would have fallen to the ground if someone had even touched me."
Bubka’s 6.15m indoor mark was broken with a jump of 6.16m in 2014, over two decades later, by Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie at the, ironically, Sergey Bubka indoor meeting in Donetsk, Ukraine. It was perhaps for the best, Bubka said at the conference, that the record did not belong to him anymore.
“I organized the event and what better present than to have the world record broken. When you retire, you have to be prepared that the new generation would do better," he said.