There is a strong case to be made for Sergey Bubka as the outstanding athlete of all time, a man whose performances and personality transformed his sport and whose domination of the pole vault is unlikely ever to be repeated.
His legacy is a career in which he won every honour possible, repeatedly setting and breaking new world records. Yet even as world records fell and his medal count rose to new heights, the first man to clear six metres ensured that his feet stayed firmly on the ground.
Today, the Ukrainian hero is approaching 50 and, although his competitive days may be long behind him, his love of sport is undiminished. His team at the Ukraine Olympic Committee, where he has been president for the last eight years, talk of the difficulty of pulling him away from autograph hunting crowds because of his determination never to turn his back on the public.
Bubka said: “I know that I would never have been able to perform in an empty stadium. It was the presence of the crowd and their encouragement which gave me the motivation to do better and better.
“They were a major part of my success and I guess we gave each other memories for life. It would be crazy to ignore people who have done so much and been such a big part of my life.”
Bubka’s enduring presidency of the Ukraine Olympic Committee is complemented by his roles as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s executive board, a council member of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), a member of the Laureus Academy and a UNSCO ambassador. As a result he is constantly on the move from city to city, project to project around the world.
Born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union and the state influenced every aspect of everyday life – even as an internationally recognised elite athlete – the system and its influence were seldom far away from Bubka.
He explained: “We would travel to grand prix meetings in different countries but any money which we won would go to the government. When we were travelling we knew that somebody would report back to the KGB on who we had met, what we had said and how we had behaved.
“I had never even heard of the pole vault but an older neighbour of ours had started vaulting and enjoyed it. When the coach said I couldn’t join in pole vault training until I was 12, the neighbour kept on insisting until I was given an opportunity. I sprinted 30 metres, did 15 pull ups to demonstrate upper body strength, and I was in…even though I really knew nothing about the sport.”
Bubka’s new home was a three-bedded room in a dormitory block at a factory making weapons for the Soviet forces. The young athlete had effectively been made part of the factory sports club and was expected to do laundry, cook, clean and go to school as well as developing his athletic talent.
No surprise then that education, and the power of sport, teachers and coaches to change young lives are at the core of his IOC presidency campaign, where he is one of six candidates in a vote to take place at September’s IOC Session in Buenos Aires.
“There is a huge need to engage kids at a time when they have so many distractions. National Olympic committees must do more than select and send teams to the Games. They are at the forefront of efforts to educate young people and help them to become involved in sport and adopt healthy lifestyles. To do that we need to work together globally, because if we don’t we will be in trouble and risk losing the younger generation.”