Sergey Bubka still striving for greater heights at Tokyo 2020 Games

The Olympic pole vault gold medalist and six-time world champion embraces the diverse challenges of his myriad roles and responsibilities at the Tokyo Olympic Games

Sergey Bubka on the pole vault runway where he won his 1988 gold medal at Seoul Olympic Stadium in Sept. 2018. (Ukraine NOC)
Sergey Bubka on the pole vault runway where he won his 1988 gold medal at Seoul Olympic Stadium in Sept. 2018. (Ukraine NOC)

For more than 20 years and while competing at three Olympic Games, Sergey Bubka maintained a singular dedication and focus with simply one goal in mind – thrust himself skyward as high as possible.

Now, 33 years after the legendary pole vaulter soared to an Olympic gold medal at Seoul 1988, Bubka remains equally as passionate and driven. However, these days, the 57-year-old Ukrainian takes a broader focus, striving to excel in his multiple sports leadership hats.

The Tokyo 2020 Games are Bubka’s 14th Olympics. He has attended every edition since his final appearance as an athlete, competing for Ukraine at Sydney 2000. In Tokyo, he is fulfilling his longstanding roles as IOC member, Ukraine NOC president, World Athletics vice president and naturally, pole vault fan.

For less experienced individuals, it could all seem like a matter of which way is up. Not Bubka.

“It’s a big responsibility – it’s not easy to manage, but its really a great honor and pleasure because the Games are unique, a fantastic time,” Bubka tells Around the Rings, about multi-tasking in the Japanese capital.

“You are working hard, you enjoy the competitions, the victories of the athletes and atmosphere. This is my life – I love to be in sports.”

Bubka’s first roles in sport governance began while he was still competing.

He was a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission beginning in 1996 and was elected to the IOC Executive Board as the first active athlete representative in 2000. In 2002, IOC president Jacques Rogge appointed him chairman of the Commission.

This past week in Tokyo, Bubka enjoyed seeing young pole vault sensation Armando “Mondo” Duplantis leaping to an Olympic gold medal, at age 21.

“It was a really nice competition and a super victory for Mondo,” Bubka said. “My guess was a world record, he was very close.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's Pole Vault - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 3, 2021. Armand Duplantis of Sweden in action REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's Pole Vault - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 3, 2021. Armand Duplantis of Sweden in action REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel

If not for the Soviet Union’s boycott of Los Angeles 1984, Bubka, the 1983 pole vault world champion, might have achieved the same feat as the 21-year-old rising star. Perhaps Bubka, who set the pole vault world record 35 times, sees similarities between himself and Mondo, who broke his first world record in Feb. 2020.

“He has a great opportunity, a great chance to be a big star,” Bubka says about the young Swedish talent. “It is great for athletics, great for sport, great for the Olympics.”

IOC voice and leader

Bubka, a full member of the IOC since 2005 and an Executive Board member between 2012 and 2020, credits Tokyo 2020 organizers and the IOC for making the Games happen during a pandemic despite the Japanese public’s overwhelming lack of support.

Newly elected European Olympic Commitees (EOC) president and IOC member Spyros Capralos with Ukraine NOC president and fellow IOC member Sergey Bubka at the EOC general assembly in Athens in June 2021. (EOC)
Newly elected European Olympic Commitees (EOC) president and IOC member Spyros Capralos with Ukraine NOC president and fellow IOC member Sergey Bubka at the EOC general assembly in Athens in June 2021. (EOC)

“The value is so big, so important and of course I consider that the Games needed to be done for the worldwide community, with good positive messages, unity, good emotions, and this is the value of what the Olympic Games bring to the world in these difficult circumstances,” Bubka says.

Bubka addressed the difficult question as to why there hasn’t been a higher vaccination rate among the Japanese population in the lead-up to the Games.

“This nation is so special, with its own history, big culture, for that you cannot ask why they didn’t do so much for the nation,” Bubka says, noting his numerous visits to the country. “They have their vision and own medicine and while here, I spoke with our people working at the Embassy.

“They need to test themselves, any vaccine must be tested in Japan on Japanese people and after that they start. This is Japan, I respect them.”

On a lighter topic, Bubka says he approves of the five new Olympic sports, put forth by Tokyo 2020 organizers and approved by the IOC.

“These sports that are popular give us a new flavor and also motivation for their athletes,” Bubka says. “It’s a good opportunity for these five sports to be in the Games.”

Leading and supporting Ukraine’s athletes

Bubka has been president of the Ukraine National Olympic Committee since 2005 and stresses that he is just as committed to supporting his country’s athletes 16 years later.

“I spend a lot of time with my team, when we celebrate or when I see they need help,” Bubka informs. “I spend time with our leaders to share psychological support and about the environment of handling the Olympics, and how the athletes should focus during these Games.”

Sergey Bubka with members of Ukraine's bronze medal 10m air pistol mixed team (Ukraine NOC)
Sergey Bubka with members of Ukraine's bronze medal 10m air pistol mixed team (Ukraine NOC)

For what probably seemed like an eternity to Bubka and the NOC, Ukraine athletes remained stagnant in the medal table with one silver and six bronze for numerous days, while seeking an elusive gold medal.

“We’re doing the best to support our team and I believe our Olympians will come through,” said the four-time Olympian, at the time.

They certainly did. This week, Ukrainian athletes surged, attaining seven medals, including the first gold. Greco-Roman wrestler Zhan Beleniuk grappled to gold, in the 87kg class, defeating his Hungarian opponent 5-1.

Sergey Bubka about to present gold medal to Ukrainian Greco-Roman wrestler Zhan Beleniuk. (Ukraine NOC)
Sergey Bubka about to present gold medal to Ukrainian Greco-Roman wrestler Zhan Beleniuk. (Ukraine NOC)

Beleniuk’s fellow Greco-Roman wrestler Parviv Nasibov and karateka Anzhelika Terliuga contributed silver medals, while bronze medals were added by athletes in artistic swimming, canoe sprint, freestyle wrestling and fencing.

Bubka also noted that he was “very impressed” following productive and enlightening meetings with fellow NOC leaders from Cuba and Namibia.

“They found me and told me that our NOC is well-organized, well-structured and with branches in every region of your country,” Bubka relayed, regarding a 45-minute meeting with Namibian NOC president Abner Xoagub. “Please share with us your ideas, tell us about your Constitution, they asked – it was a very fruitful discussion.”

World Athletics vice president on Tokyo heat: “you must be prepared”

Athletes have battled extremely hot and humid conditions on the track and in the field, yet despite the searing heat, Norway’s Karsten Warholm and American Sydney McLaughlin shattered world records in the 400m hurdles, while Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas did the same in the women’s triple jump. Perhaps surprisingly, 11 Olympic and 25 continental records have also fallen.

Bubka, a World Athletics (formerly IAAF) vice president since 2011, said although weather conditions at Tokyo Olympic Stadium may be tough, the best athletes will overcome any adversity.

“It can be difficult, but you prepare yourself for that,” Bubka said. “Everyone understands when you need to arrive (at the stadium), how you must prepare and everyone is in the same situation.

“Your mind and body must be ready. It’s a tough challenge, but this is the Olympics and you must be better than others.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's High Jump - Qualification - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 5, 2021. Yuliya Levchenko of Ukraine in action REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's High Jump - Qualification - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 5, 2021. Yuliya Levchenko of Ukraine in action REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Bubka expressed his sympathy for the American pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, during a difficult time for him. The 2019 world champion tested positive for COVID-19, was immediately placed in quarantine and missed his chance at a second Olympic medal.

“I felt sorry for him – he said ‘I feel fine, I don’t have any symptoms,’” Bubka said. “It is a very big challenge for us – we must be strong, we must be healthy. It’s not easy for him, but we must accept that.

“The Japanese organizers and the IOC are doing our best. We are lucky that the Games happened, but we cannot avoid some cases.”

Sky is the limit

It seems apparent that Bubka still aspires towards new roles and future challenges as evidenced by his unwavering passion and steadfast determination.

Photo: Instagram/@noc_athletecomission
Photo: Instagram/@noc_athletecomission

In 2013, Bubka ran for IOC president, but lost to Thomas Bach. In 2014, he ran for IAAF president, but lost to Sebastian Coe.

What Bubka will run for next may be unclear. However, as the world sports community witnessed for many years at track and field competitions around the globe, never count out the high-flying pole vaulter when it comes to a third attempt.

Follow Brian on Twitter - @brian_pinelli