ON THE ROAD TO ATLANTA
Sergey Bubka speaks of what it takes to be the best
Sergey Bubka, 32, was born in Luhanske, and trained to be a pole-vaulter in Donetske, which today he considers his hometown, although he spends part of the year in Monaco. He, generally, is acknowledged as the greatest pole-vaulter of all time. Some consider him the greatest athlete of the modern age because of his combination of speed, upper body strength and grace going over the bar.
Mr. Bubka has won numerous championships, including the Olympic gold in 1988 and most recently the 1995 world championship. He holds the indoor and outdoor world records and is the only person to have cleared 20 feet. He has set 35, world marks (18 indoor, 17 outdoor), a feat unmatched by any person in any other sport. He will compete for Ukraine in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The Ukrainian Weekly Staff Editor Roman Woronowycz conducted the interview, done in English, two days after Mr. Bubka took gold at the Atlanta Grand Prix international track and field meet that opened the Olympic Stadium on May 18. Mr. Bubka won there with a vault of 19 feet 9 inches, the best mark in the United States this year.
Q: To what do you ascribe your overwhelming success in the pole vault? Do you think it's your athletic talents, or your training technique, a special diet?
A: Today, talent alone is not enough. You need to work very hard, you have to spend a lot of time practicing your sport - six to seven hours daily. That is only for training. I think that, generally, you need to live with your sport 24 hours a day. You must think and concentrate and forget many things. Your life must be completely different. You must say no, no, it's not possible, maybe next time [to outside distractions]. It has to be sports, sports and sports.
And, of course, method is very important as is a high-quality specialist (trainer) working with you to keep you going in the right direction for your improvement and to help create results.
Q: Some say a lot of your success has to do with the way you grip the pole, you hold your hands further up, which gives you better leverage. Do you agree with that?
A: No. It is very difficult for people who do not know the pole vault to understand. You must have the ability, if I may say so, to use such a high grip. You must have perfect technique. Then you can move to a higher grip. But it is very difficult, it is not enough. At its most basic [success] is due to the right movement and technically perfect jumps. This is basic. The grip automatically grows from that, but it does not make such a big difference.
Q: How about another thing that people mention, that you are a master psychologist during a meet? That you place importance on when and at what height you start, that you will stroll around, look disinterested. Then suddenly you're there and many times it's almost over at that point. Is this part of your competitive strategy?
A: The pole vault is a very complicated event, there are many things involved. Of course, the psychological part, the tactics, is very important. You spend many hours thinking about what the approximate winning height will be.
It is not enough to be strong, you must work with your mind and be a clever person who can calculate. It's like having a small computer in your head.
When [unexpected things] happen, or somebody is jumping well, pressure increases, but you must continue with your own strategy. Often you need to take some risk, but it must be a realistic risk, you can't take a crazy risk. You can't pass at a certain height [in a strategy to go for a win] like, let's say me trying to reach 20 feet on a day when it is not realistic.
Q: I'd like to talk a little bit about Donetske, a place people say is dear to you. You have a sports club there. Please tell us a little about it: when did you decide to organize it, what is it doing nowadays?
A: I decided to create a sports club during the Soviet times. It was my dream. Why did I decide this? I wanted to create something for my city, where I grew up. The city helped me, the sports societies gave help. I wanted to give something back.
We are growing in this city and this region. Before, everything was in the capital, which was then Moscow. It was my idea to change this a little bit. My main idea was to create a sports facility for the basics. This is why I established the club.
Q: Does it encompass only track and field, or soccer, or all sports?
A: It is more track and field. I began with track and field because this is what I know. You must be a specialist to do this properly.
So I was focusing on athletics, and more and more [political] changes came. The former Soviet federation and the sports committee didn't like what I did. I started the club and said that now I want to continue with the club, I do not want any support, any money, from the government side, from Moscow. I became a big enemy to them.
They became angry with me and started to put incorrect stories about me in the newspapers. They tried to kill me.
Q: You mean they tried to kill your club, kill you financially?
A: You know, by my way [of thinking], it was an example for others. During that time there was [Gary] Kasparov, the chess player, hockey players and tennis players, who started to think and make changes in sport. I was the person in athletics.
They did not want to have many examples of thinking athletes. It is better to have stupid sportsmen, young ones who do not know what is going on. Sports life is very short. They [the Soviet regime] discarded [older athletes] and took new ones, and they used them for the system. My policy was just to give good things for sports in my region (Donetske).
A second thing was that I tried to help athletes who [were not allowed] to travel to international competitions. We had a lot of invitations, but the federation never let us go. It was my policy to create a club and to manage the athletes, let them have the freedom to compete and show results. Of course, for this they also didn't like me.
We started with that, basically to help kids, and then we created a pole vault school, which is part of the club and exists to this day. The club and school exist.
Today I have 35 people who work in the club and associated businesses. We sponsor kids' competitions, and we provide equipment for kids. I have bought pole vault equipment, the landing areas, posts, which costs a lot of money. We pay for coaches.
We have a nice pole vault competition. The best athletes from around the world attend.
Q: And you finance all of this yourself?
A: Basically, everything comes from me. It's me and the help that I received at the beginning to establish the club, which was from the Nike company. And still now they help me with this program.
Q: A little bit about your childhood. Were you born in the Donetske area?
A: I was born in Luhanske, 100 kilometers from Donetske. I moved to Donetske in 1979. There were better facilities so my coach changed clubs and we moved with him.
Q: Your family still lives in Luhanske?
A: My father and mother live in Luhanske.
Q: And your brother, Vasiliy, who also is a vaulter?
A: Yes, me, Vasiliy and one other guy, Tserkadish Klera, who works in my club today, we moved together to Donetske.
Q: What made you become a pole vaulter, it is a rather unusual type of sport?
A: I wouldn't say that it was my decision. It happened because of an older friend who lived on the same street as us. He began earlier on to pole vault. He saw that I was good at sports, that I played soccer and was very quick.
He invited me to pole vault. Through him I discovered the sport, I had never seen it before.
Q: At what point when you were in the special sports schools did coaches realize that you had a very special talent?
A: In Donetske, the pole vault school was very good, but it was not enough. The strategy of my coach and me was that we looked at pictures of all the best pole vaulters from around the world, and we took the best parts from them, and we created a person that had never existed. We then started to work toward being such a person. Through this we improved techniques and in the end had good results.
Q: Do you consider what you developed with your coach something new and different from what had been done before?
A: I think that the technical part we developed more and did it better than others. It was the technique.
I do want to add that what I got I got from amateur sports and I like that. Today it is a little bit different. It is more a job, a business. Even now I want to keep my amateur spirit, to spend my time, to be in the sport with all my heart. I think that focusing on the money, on the business, is not enough.
Q: Have you given any thought to retirement?
A: I think about retiring from the sport. If everything remains all right, then I will continue a minimum of two years. After two years I will decide what to do. It depends on my results and on my physical condition.
Q: So even if you win gold in Atlanta this year, you will continue?
A: I think I will, I like it. What is nice about this sport is that I am responsible for most everything. I am alone, some people help me, but, basically, I can do what I want. Beyond sports, many people are involved and it then becomes difficult to see the results. It's very tough. When it comes to business, many people are involved.
I have spoken with many former athletes, and they tell me the best time they had was in sports. I listen to them and use their experience in my career.
Q: Who do you think is your main competition going into the Atlanta Games?
A: I think its (Okkert) Brits, the South African guy, and the Russian pole vaulters, (Rodion) Gataulin, (Maksim) Tarasov, and maybe the Frenchman (Jean) Galfione.
Q: Give us a prediction as to who is going to win.
A: That is difficult. It is in Atlanta, it depends on the weather. The Olympics are always a special competition, it is very difficult to predict what will happen.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 2, 1996, No. 22, Vol. LXIV
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