viernes, 27 de abril de 2012

The Man who Set 35 World Records

Sergey Bubka, the most outstanding pole vaulter ever

             What is for you the biggest athletic feat of the 20th Century? Maybe it happened that evening in Mexico City when Bob Beamon remained hanged in the air and stopped the time for a moment before landing 8.90m beyond the board, that is 55cm more than the previous world record. Well, can you imagine Beamon, instead of being overwhelmed for the huge dimension of his own superhuman jump, surpassing some years later the mythic 9-metre barrier? And then remaining consistent in such distance to the point of jumping throughout his career, let us say 44 times over 9 metres? Talking about the present, everybody agree no athlete in the circuit is as dominant as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. He is so much in his own class he could allow himself to slow down in the last stages of the 100m final in Beijing Olympics, once he had secured his victory, and still broke the world record in the distance. Now his personal best are mighty impressive: 9.58sec in the 100m and 19.19sec in the 200m. Yet have you ever wonder how fast would he run with a pole of 5.11m and 100kg in his hands? For the moment Bolt has set thrice the universal best in the king of the athletic events and twice in the half-lap. Not bad for specialties which have been run for the likes of Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson. Yet would it be fair to ask the Jamaican ace for the good health of track and field to smash his unbelievable marks still a couple of times more, let us say another 30 brand new records, before he decides enjoy the Caribbean sun full time, together with a pair of beauties and a  barrel of rum? You can say I am too much demanding and unrealistic but back in 1983, when Sergey Bubka made his first appearance in an international senior competition, nobody could pretend a human would clear one day the impossible height of 6 metres with the help of a fibreglass pole. No way, someone would do it 44 times all along his athletic career; just like an astronaut who felt so delighted with his trip to the moon he travels back every day. Bubka did all this and more. Centimetre by centimetre, the Ukrainian high flier would be getting closer and closer to the stars until he reached 6.15 indoors in his 34th record and 6.14 outdoors in his 35th. Those heights seem nearly 20 years afterwards as unattainable for anybody else as they were in its time. In Sergey Bubka’s long reign, his competitors had enough with fighting for the silver medal and witness in awe the prowess of the king of the clouds. Nobody, believe it, showed ever such superiority inside a track and field stadium. Just say if you are looking for the most outstanding athlete of the 20th Century this one could be your man. 

                     Everything started the 14th August 1983 at the inaugural World Championships in athletics in Helsinki. For the first time since 1972 Munich Olympic Games there was not any sort of boycott, so every athlete who meant something in the track and field international field was there to confront the best in the world. Only a few injured as Sebastian Coe missed the contest. The Champs were so thrilling and successful many wondered why it took so much time to hold the first edition. Helsinki was the beginning of a stellar career for the likes of Carl Lewis and Heike Drechsler. Edwin Moses was there to keep going his amazing winning streak at the 400m hurdles which dated back from 1977 and also was controversial decathlete Daley Thompson. Steve Cram clinched gold in a high class 1500m over Scott, Aouita and Ovett, while Alberto Cova won the 10.000m for Italy thanks to his devastating kick. Among the girls, Marita Koch, short of preparation, only lined up in the 200m, so Jarmila Kratotchvilova enjoyed her chance emulating Alberto Juantorena, after completing the 400m-800m double, besides getting to dip in the former distance for the first time under 48sec. The first World Championships meant the biggest moment of glory for Mary Decker, before her infamous fall in Los Angeles Olympics, with resounding victories over the Soviet Union athletes at the 1500m and 3000m. Finally, for the first time in a global contest the women were running the longest of the athletic events, with the presence of Grete Waitz, the female who won nine times the New York City marathon. In such special full of marvellous champions competition, the surprising victory of that young Soviet at the pole vault passed almost unnoticed. However it was a quite remarkable one.         

Sergey Bubka competing at the 1983 World Championships
     All 27 entrants were meeting in the final, after the qualifying round had to be cancelled because of heavy rains. (1) The weather had not improved much: scaring winds of up to 20km/h had made become the outing a truly adventurous one. Anyway, a truly classy field was up for the challenge, so much to choose from: the last two Olympic champions Tadeusz Slusarski and Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz of Poland; the world record holders both outdoors (Vladimir Polyakov) and indoors (Billy Olson); the other athlete who had jumped 5.80 and also several times record breaker, Thierry Vigneron; his compatriots in a formidable team, the experienced Patrick Abada, and the man who was going to win the gold Olympic medal in Los Angeles, Pierre Quinon; the silver medallist in Moscow Olympic Games, Konstantin Volkov; and some other solid competitors as American Mike Tully and Atanas Tarev from Bulgaria. In spite of their pedigree, not everybody had the courage that day to face the awkward climatic conditions and the nerves of steel to endure the pressure of a contest which lasted seven hours. Olson, Tully and Quinon were unable to produce any valid jump and Vigneron, Kozakiewicz and Polyakov could only clear 5.40. With also Abada and Slusarki eventually out, three men were in contention for the medals in 5.70: red-hot favourite Volkov, European bronze medallist Tarev and little-known Sergey Bubka. Unexpectedly, the only one over the bar was that 19-year-old debutant, who owned the merit of having booked a spot in the strong Soviet team, but no one had taken him in consideration acknowledging the constellation of stars who had gathered for that pole vault final. However, as young and inexperienced as he was, Bubka had the courage to defy the wind and had the nerves of steel to keep focus and determination throughout that long and chilly evening. Specialists point out one of the main qualities which made Bubka a great champion was his recklessness. He proved it already that very first time under those dreadful conditions.    
Pierre Quinon and Thierry Vigneron with Coach Jean Claude Perrin in L.A.

     Actually everything started many years before. (2) Gavril Reyewski was a veteran of World War I who had ended his campaign prematurely, after receiving a German bullet in his neck. Years later he decided to overcome his disability, focusing his hopes and endeavours in create a school of champions in pole vaulting in Donetsk. One day he received the visit of a restless young man called Vitaly Petrov. The new pupil had had a troublesome childhood. His father died in World War II and everything went wrong for him until he finished up in a reformatory. When he went out of it, Petrov decided to leave his village and move to the big town of Donetsk for a change. Then he joined Reyewski’s school and pole vaulting was a mean for him to sort his life out. Petrov was not an outstanding athlete but, when he retired, he chose the way of coaching and in this profession he would become a legend. One day he received the visit of an uneasy young man as he was once. His name was Sergey Bubka. Since the very first time they met, Vitaly knew he was not like the other trainees he had had before.  "From all points of view, Sergey was the most unordinary boy I met in life. When he was only 12 years old and made his first jumps with a metallic pole I was sure that he was going to be a leading athlete in the world and achieve record heights.” (3)  
         Sergey Bubka was born the 4th December 1963 in Voroshilovgrad, a bleak coalmine city, which is the current Luhanks in Ukraine. His father was a sergeant in the Soviet army and her mother worked as a medical assistant in a hospital. As a kid, Sergey had the ability to irritate all the time his strict father with his behaviour. (2) As for example, his mates remember how he won a bet being the one who kept his head longer into a barrel full of water or the day he was hanging from a tree branch for hours. On the other hand, those “genialities” are also a good indication since his early days Bubka did not know fear and had a peculiar strength. Sergey also loved sports which was another reason to argue with his progenitors, who did not share their son’s leanings. The future pole vaulter had a ferocious competitive spirit in football or street hockey. Because of his special speed and coordination Sergey was selected for special coaching in gymnastics. Then his friend Slava introduced him to pole vaulting. Bubka liked it and started to practise the sport since he was 11, assisted by Vitaly Petrov, and also did his brother Vasily, who was three years his elder. Under the disapproval of their parents, both siblings decided to move, along with Petrov, to Donetsk in 1978 to enjoy the facilities of the Olympic Centre. Pupil and coach would stay together for some fruitful 16 years. In the beginning Petrov set an amazing method: “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.” (4) Much has been written about the intensive training to increase the already considerable speed and strength of Bubka and made him become a super athlete. Yet the vaulter pointed out it was gradual. In any way Petrov wanted to burn up phases but instead was planning a long-term career, setting the drills according with the natural development of his charge’s locomotive system and for example did not introduce weightlifting until he was sixteen. (2) Bubka’s first mark we know was 2.70. As he was 13-year-old, he jumped 3.50 and at 14 he cleared 4.40. Soon after winning the national junior championship of combined events in 1980, he was able of producing a leap of 5.10 in his first pole vault official competition in Sochi. It proved he had a bright future in the event before him. However, his first competition out of Russia, at the 1981 European juniors in Utretch was somewhat a disappointment, after he only could reach a 7th place. Anyway, Bubka’s quick rise to the elite continued in the following seasons, until he obtained a noteworthy second place at the national championship in 1983, which bounded him to Helsinki Worlds.

Michael Jordan eyed the 17-foot pole suspiciously, as if it might suddenly spring to life and jab him with an elbow.
"Where do you hold it, Sergei?"
"Almost at the top," said Sergei Bubka. He jumped to his feet, took the pole from Jordan and grasped it at the end. "Like this."
"Man, it's long," said Jordan. "Hey, maybe we could use it for the dunk contest. Give it some spice." He hefted it. "Must be heavy to run with," he said. "You ever break one when you were vaulting?"
"Oh, several times," said Bubka, nodding his head.
"You get hurt?" Jordan asked.
"Well, when you do it well, nothing will go wrong," said Bubka.
Jordan smiled. "I can tell you this, Sergei," he said. "That's not true in basketball."

Sports Illustrated, “Air Jordan meets Air Bubka” , July 1992  (5)

Due to the Soviet Block-induced boycott, Sergey Bubka could not participate at the 1984 Olympic Games. The sadly gone Pierre Quinon enjoyed his chance to clinch the title over Americans Mike Tully and Earl Bell and team mate Thierry Vigneron. However, the pole vaulter from Luhanks had set seven world records during the season, raising the standards to 5.94m outdoors, which was 19cm more than Quinon’s winning jump. Still Billy Olson and Vigneron tried to keep the challenge, regaining their records several times. Notably the French athlete improved it to 5.91m in a memorable face-to-face during the Golden Gala meeting, just to see Bubka flying over 5.94m some minutes later. Yet, by the end of 2005, the USSR athlete had already broken the 6m barrier at the Stade de France. That meant 17cm of improvement over the universal mark in only two years. Then he progressed indoors to 5.97m. Every athlete of his generation was done, including all the members of the most outstanding French school of pole vaulting in history. Quinon was left behind in 5.90m, Vigneron in 5.91m, and Collet in 5.94; while Olson’s all-time PB would be 5.93 and Joe Dial’s 5.96. The man who was predestined to reign in the specialty for many years, Konstantin Volkov, could not jump higher than 5.85 and Polyakov remained in his old record of 5.81m, now become obsolete.  In major championships the event followed similar trend. Bubka confirmed in the winter of 1985 his victory in Helsinki, winning with ease the European Champs indoors, then the first of his four titles at the newly introduced World indoor Championship. The following season he added to his curriculum the European outdoors, over his brother Vasily, and one year later defended his Summer World title in Rome, before becoming Olympic champion in Seoul with a 5.90m jump, making an all-Soviet podium with new wonders Rodion Gataullin and Grigory Yegorov.  

The rest of the vaulters felt useless and disarmed before such overwhelming rising of the young star from Luhanks. “You see him do something like that and you almost want to give up the event.” (6), said Dan Ripley, who had been world indoor record holder in 1979, reaching the then respectable height of 5.63. Volkov just referred to his compatriot as “Superman.” Olson was startled the day he first beheld Bubka's 17-foot cannon. "When I saw him with that pole I said 'Whoa! Is he really going to plant that thing?' Then he planted it and went sailing up in the air like a helium balloon." (6) Unlike in other athletic events where an implement is used, as shot put, javelin or discus, in pole vault there is an absolute freedom about length, weight, calibre of the pole and materials used in its fabrication. The only condition is it must be smooth. First the implement was built up in wood; then bamboo was believed more convenient. Nowadays, fibreglass is the fashion. Bubka competed with UCS Spirit poles, made exclusively by him in the United States, which were implements much more rigid than the ones used by his competitors and also longer. He carried poles from 5.11m to 5.29m, which is the longest ever used on an athletic track, with a stiffness of 225 pounds (102kg) and a calibre of 11.2. This kind of stick can only be bent for someone with the colossal power and arm-strength the Ukrainian champion had. “With the poles I use the rest of the vaulters would kill themselves. They would be unable of bending them, so they would not reach the mat but slam their head into the ground. Even me, I can only use them when I am in great shape.” (7) For additional leverage Bubka also gripped the pole higher than anybody else.

Bubka's muscles of steel in action
Photo: Mike Powell/ All Sport/ Getty Images

Pole vault is arguably the most difficult technically speaking athletic event and the one which demand in its practitioner the mastering of more different skills. Thus Sergey Bubka was an accomplished gymnast who could compete in the high bar with his Olympic friend Dmitry Bilozertchev. Bubka never gave up the daily practise of gymnastics since he was a little kid and it contributed to his upper body strength and also gave him flexibility and agility for the part in the air of his pole vaulting. His training sessions were also full of weightlifting and multi-jumping of all kind of obstacles. Overall, he could long jump nearly 8 metres and was clocked 10.2 in the 100m. Most important of all he could maintain this speed (35.7km/h) throughout his 22 strides with a pole in his hand, until the moment of planting it and take-off. The confluence of all this astounding qualities of superior speed, power, strength, coordination and agility in a single athlete made a big difference in the decisive moment of propelling this 80kg man over a 6m high bar, with those especially mighty UCS Spirit poles. Besides, the Petrov/Bubka model they created is superior to many others today because it allows the vaulter to continuously put energy into the pole while rising towards the bar. While most of the conventional models focus on heavy planting of the pole to the landing pad to create maximum bend in the pole even before they leave the ground, the Petrov/Bubka model concentrates on driving the pole up rather than bending it while planting it. While the traditional models depended on the recoil by bending the pole, the Petrov/Bubka model could exploit the recoil of the pole and exert more energy on the pole during the swinging action. (8) In the words of Hans Ruf, who was the coach of Spanish bronze medallist at Barcelona Olympics Javier García Chico “the difference is he is the only one who profits the energy which offers the recoil of the pole. Only Bubka arrives to the bar height with the pole still bent and this allows him to be propelled like a rocket. Once he gets up he does not need to do anything just to let go with the flow.” (7)  Finally, Ruf also unveils another decisive factor which makes the Ukrainian ace an outstanding champion, related with his impressive personality: “Bubka takes the highest risks. He throws his head down and adopts a vertical position in the same propulsion phase. Only a man with his courage can have the nerve to do such a thing.” (7)

The Olympic champion in Barcelona, Maksim Tarasov
     Another remarkable figure about Sergey Bubka is his longevity. The Ukrainian standout buried up every foremost pole vaulter of his generation and still had energy left to keep beating the upcoming athletes of the new one. In 1989 Rodion Gataullin raised the eyebrows when he became the second man over 6 metres and the first one to do it indoors. The vaulter from Tashkent also defeated the world number one several times the following season, including at the Summer European championsips in Split, where Bubka had the hindrance of an ankle injury. In a few years there was a bunch of upcoming athletes consistent over 5.90 and also some of them able to clear 6.00m. Gataullin achieved it seven times in his career and also did world junior record holder Maksim Tarasov. Many of the newcomers, strongly influenced by Bubka’s feats, came from the Soviet Union: Gataullin, Tarasov, Yegorov, Potapovich, Ryzhenkov, Trandenkov, Bochkaryov… Yet there were also some excellent pole vaulters coming from other countries as Jean Galfione, Istvan Bagyula, Okkert Brits, Lawrence Johnson and Dean Starkey. Answering to the challenge of these talented youngsters, Sergey Bubka overcame his unfortunate 1990 year and for the new season raised again his standards to his best ever. During the winter, Bubka grabbed the World indoor title, jumping 6.00m during the competition. The 15th Mars he went on to clear 6.10m in San Sebastián, thus overcoming the historic 20 feet barrier; then increased his record to 6.12m. During the summer he continued in the same impressive form, setting four more universal best, the last of them being 6.10m. At the World Championships in Tokyo, he got to clear 5.95 to clinch his third title, over Bagyula and Tarasov. Overall he surpassed 6.00m no less than 10 times and accomplished 25 victories out of 27 competitions in 1991, which was arguably the best year of his stuning career. (1)
Notwithstanding, Bubka suffered a severe set back at Barcelona Olympic Games where he failed to clear the bar at his initial height of 5.70. Maksim Tarasov enjoyed his chance to win a marvellous gold medal. Bubka always played that psychological game of starting his competitions at such respectable heights as 5.70, when most of his rivals had been eliminated. Yet it was undoubtedly a risk too. For one reason or another, Bubka was really unlucky in the Olympic Games. In the following edition in Atlanta, where Jean Galfione brought back the title to France, he could not even make a single jump due to an Achilles tendon inflammation and he was maybe too old for his last participation in Sidney. In all, the best pole vaulter in the history of the discipline could only accomplish one Olympic title, the one in Seoul. However, at the World Championships he followed up with his winning streak in Stuttgart-93, Goteborg-95 and Athens-97, for an amazing figure of six straight titles. He clinched gold every time he entered the contest and it is mighty impressive to point out that, 14 years after the first edition of the World Championships in Athletics, he was still the only champion in the pole vault event. At that time he had largely overcome the mark of 22 official world records, which made Flying Finn Paavo Nurmi the most accomplished record breaker in modern history of track and field. Eventually, he set his last universal indoor best at 6.15 in Donetsk in 1993 and the last outdoors at 6.14 in Sestrières one year later, which was his 35th world record overall. Despite so many highlights all over his career, there was always some kind of excitement for the pole vaulting legend. “Every record is special in its own way. Each one takes place in a different day, under different conditions, surrounded by different emotions.” (2) Bubka never accepted the concept of limits and claims he would had cleared 6.20m, had not been annoyed by injuries in the last stages of his career. Indeed, the Ukrainian reportedly jumped over a bar raised to 6.37m in training. 

Fabiana Murer is the fourth pole vault world champion guided by Vitaly Petrov
In the early nineties, Bubka quit Vitaly Petrov, the man who brought him to the top, and moved his residence to Berlin, where he was almost self-coached. Freed from his responsibility with Sergey, Petrov decided to look for new challenges too. He accepted an offer to prepare Italian pole vaulters and it was a resounding success: in 2003 one of his charges, Giuseppe Gibilisco won the gold medal at the World Champs in Saint Dennis. Nowadays Petrov’s name is associated with the high performance centre of Formia. The likes of Monika Pyrek, Yelena Isinbayeva or Fabiana Murer have joined him there. The experience of the two times Olympic champion with the reputed coach was kind of a disaster in the five years they were working together. Isinbayeva’s inability to adapt to Petrov’s method brought to her well-known crisis and return to Russia and former coach Trofimov. On the other hand, Murer has not ceased to improve under Vitaly. After winning the World indoor championship in 2010, the Brazilian athlete went on to climb to the top of the podium also outdoors in Daegu, thus becoming the 4th Petrov’s charge in doing so in this contest. Now Murer aims for her first Olympic title and would also like to be the second woman ever over 5.00m. For the current world champion, Bubka is her inspiration and knows everything about him. (9) For example she remembers how determined he was from the beginning, when he left home and his family so young to move to Donetsk with Petrov. Murer had the chance to go for a stage to the same Ukrainian centre his idol used to train. However, as she argues, now heating is available while Sergei had to make for one month and a half a year his workouts at -30ºC. The six times world champion had to rolled himself into a blanket, then go out for two jumps and return to his blanket for getting some heat. Murer’s rival, Yelena Isinbayeva, also has Bubka as her role model in almost everything. Just like her hero, she is the fastest, strongest and the best technically speaking of the whole female field. Also she improves her world records centimetre by centimetre, likes round figures and enters the competition when most of her rivals are out at 4.70m, which seems very close to Bubka’s 5.70m.
In his competitive years Bubka was either criticized or admired for being a communist who easily embraced capitalist fancy. Thus he used to beat his records by narrow margins just to enjoy bonuses for each time he accomplished one. Also there was talk about his expensive cars, his $2 million apartment in Montecarlo and his troubles with the mafia. (10) Nowadays this image is almost gone. He is most remembered as a man who proclaimed with pride his Ukrainian alignment in a time the USSR was still in the peak of its power. In the context of a strongly centralised sport in Moscow, he took an initiative to develop pole vaulting in his adopted town of Donetsk. He created a sports club there, investing his own money, with the collaboration of his sponsor Nike, in facilities, equipment and coaches to give a chance to Ukrainian youngsters to access the practise of track and field. He also launched a pole vault meeting in Donetsk which today attires the best men and women in the discipline. (9) Now Sergey Bubka is a member of the IOC, head of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee and IAAF Vice-President. Two decades afterwards his records stand out of reach for the rest of pole vaulters. Bubka still owns 23 out of 26 jumps in the history of the event over 6.05m or higher. He acknowledges the quality of current specialists of the discipline as Steve Hooker, who was the first man daring to attempt Sergey’s world record before being sidelined by recurring injuries, Renaud Lavillenie or Pawel Wojciechowski. Yet the best pole vaulter ever states nobody is able for the moment to take profit of the technique he and Vitaly Petrov introduced. Bubka believes today it might be possible to jump optimizing this technique over 6.30m or 6.40m. However it will not be easy to find again another athlete with the amazing qualities of Sergey Bubka for the pole vault discipline, good enough to target such impressive heights. 

Sergey Bubka clears the bar for another record
Photo: Associated Press 

T&FN: What do you think the ultimate height in the pole vault might be?  Six metres?
Kozakiewicz (laughs): No, I don’t think that high. In the next 10 years I think someone will jump 5.90. Maybe a new material for poles would help someone go higher, but not for many years. I would like to jump 5.80 one day. That would be all for me.

Track & Field News Interview: Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, February 1981  (11)

2 comentarios:

  1. Hola.
    No dejo de sorprenderme (¡en todos los sentidos!).
    Enhorabuena de nuevo por tu magnífico trabajo.
    Un Saludo.

  2. Hola Suso!
    Muchas gracias. Esto me anima a seguir trabajando con fuerza.
    Por cierto el otro día leí que "es extraño la escasa información que hay sobre Bubka en Internet". A partir de ahora esto ha dejado de ser verdad.
    Me costó entender lo de la técnica. No lo comprendí hasta que leí el artículo citado de El Mundo Deportivo. Por cierto, buena idea que hayan permitido el acceso a su hemeroteca on line, aunque no sea más que para comprobar la gran diferencia en el interés que daban al atletismo antes y el que le dan ahora. Lo mismo sirve para Marca. A ver si un día se animan a incorporar a formato digital los artículos que escribían en los tiempos de Pedro Escamilla.
    Un saludo