Athletics has always been an important part of Sergey Bubka's life, in which he reigned for more than four decades.
Sergey Bubka excelled at sprint and long jump as a young boy. He took up the pole vault when he was nine years old and explained: “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 start training until I was 12, my neighbour kept on insisting until I was given the opportunity. I sprinted 30 metres and did 15 pull ups even though I really knew nothing about the sport. It sort of happened by accident but I was comfortable, and once I had started I never considered giving up.”
When his coach, Vitaly Petrov, was transferred to Donetsk from neighboring Luhansk, Bubka's hometown, six years later, Sergey, along with his older brother who was also a vaulter, followed. Virtually unknown when he competed at the World Athletics Championship in Helsinki in 1983, he won the event with a vault of 5.70 metres which announced him as a world star.
Bubka first set the outdoor world record in Bratislava in May 1984 and broke it twice over the next few weeks. Once considered unattainable, he cleared 6.00 metres for the first time in July 1985 in Paris. Dominating the sport for more than a decade, he broke the world record 35 times and still holds the outdoor world record of 6.14 (1994) metres. That’s taller than most giraffes, the tallest animal in the world.
The Olympic Games provided mixed fortunes for Bubka. He was prevented from competing in Los Angeles in 1984 due to the Soviet boycott – a decision which still hurts him today.
In Seoul in 1988, he won gold but a loss of form and injury hindered his hopes of winning more Olympic medals. He made up for it in the IAAF World Athletics Championships, winning the pole vault event in six consecutive editions from 1983 to 1997.
Gripping the pole higher than most vaulters, Bubka also used speed and strength to create the recoil force that allowed him to be so successful. “You have to be physically and psychologically very strong. On the ground you have to be a sprinter, then a jumper and gymnast – your brain has to work all the time,” he explained. He officially retired in 2001 during a ceremony at his Pole Vault Stars meeting in Donetsk.
Sergey Bubka first got involved with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1996 when he was elected as a Member of the Athletes’ Commission, providing input into the governance of sport from the perspective of an active athlete. Almost 20 years later he is still involved as an Honorary Member.
“I knew that I wanted to be involved in running sport and, in particular to be involved in the Olympic Movement,” he said. He became an IOC Member in 1999 and has been involved in a wide range of Commissions, including Chairman of the Evaluation and then the Coordination Commissions for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010.
As President of the National Olympic Committee in Ukraine since 2005, he has transformed the organisation into one of the most progressive in the world. It has staff based in all of the nation’s 27 regions with each taking responsibility for delivering an array of programmes designed to bring youngsters into sport, realise the potential of the most able and promote the Olympic Movement and its values.
A National Olympic Day, the Olympic Stork which provides Olympic-themed education to more than 250,000 school classes across the country, televised annual awards and an Olympic Academy have all been established under Bubka’s reign.
“NOCs must do more than select and send teams to Olympic Games,” says Bubka. “They are at the forefront of efforts to educate young people and help them become involved in sport and adopt a healthy lifestyle. To do that we need to work together globally because if we don’t we risk losing the younger generation.”
Bubka has also been involved with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) since 2001 and has served as a Vice President since 2007.
During this time, he remained on the Athletes’ Commission and is also a Council Member for ASOIF, the Association for Summer Olympic International Federations. Bubka commented: “I have been working at the IAAF for a long time and my work is not limited to one area. The good of athletics is something deep in my heart.”
Sergey Bubka always had a bigger plan beyond competing as an athlete.
Despite having made a living from his sport, he never forgot his roots or the struggles he faced when growing up in the Soviet era.
“I knew I was coming to the end of my career and wanted to be ready,” he said. “Physically I had a programme to downgrade my training from my competitive state and beyond that I was ready to retire and take new steps.” A year after he had officially retired from top level competition, Bubka became a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Advisor for Youth, Culture and Sports.
He spent four years working for the Ukrainian government and also developed a range of business ventures, which he and his family still run today. Among them is Sergey Bubka Sports Club, established in 1990, which provides training and support for hundreds of young people, many of whom have gone on to win medals at top competitions. “I decided to create a sports club during the Soviet times. It was my dream.”
Along with his brother he runs a bakery business and has had interests in other ventures, such as gas stations, real estate management companies and food stores. Unsurprisingly for a man who cherishes loyalty so highly, a number of staff members are friends from his early days as an athlete. “Many of the people I trained with didn’t get to be professionals so some came to work with me at the club. We understand each other and because I know how they feel I will try to help them. I cannot just stand by and do nothing.”
The son of a Red Army praporshik, Bubka almost drowned at the age of four when he fell into a barrel of water used for salting cabbage.
He met gymnast Lilia Tutunik when she was a teenager and he was just 21 and they married in 1984 and have been together ever since. “For me, family is incredibly important and in my own family, everyone is very close. We understand each other, we love each other and we respect each other,” says Bubka.
“My family is a reflection of my life and they make me very proud. My wonderful wife, a former athlete as well, is strong and wise and provides great support for us all. She shares my passion about the importance of sport for society.” They have two sons, Vitaliy, born in 1985 and Sergey Jnr born in 1987. Lilia encouraged both of them to take up tennis from a young age and although Vitaliy decided to grow his career in business, the younger of the brothers is still playing at a high level on the professional circuit.
“We never told them ‘you must do this…”, adds Bubka. “We gave them guidelines and they grew up better than. Just as my father let me find my own path, I have done the same for my two sons. They have strong personalities with great motivation and their own vision of life. They make their own lives. I am always there to provide support and guidance when they ask for it and I am very proud of what both of them have achieved and who they both have become.”
Sergey Bubka has always wanted to share his passion for sport with the widest possible audience. As a UNESCO Ambassador and a Laureus World Sports Academy Member, he has served tirelessly to help young people.
Bubka was designated UNESCO Champion for Sport in 2003 in recognition of his role in the promotion of peace and tolerance through sport and the Olympic spirit, his humanitarian activities in favour of young people, his action to enable disadvantaged children to benefit from physical education, and his dedication to UNESCO ideals.
In 2008, he was awarded the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition for the work he has done both in Ukraine and beyond, having also worked as a World Health Organisation Ambassador to promote the fight against tuberculosis and support child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
He also recieved a prestigious Prince of Asturias Award in Spain which recognises athletes who make notable achievements. He was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame and won numerous international awards in relation to his sporting achievements.