Sergey Bubka’s advice to the young athletes is simple: “Work hard and dream of winning the Olympic gold medal, don’t dream of the silver or the bronze. Don’t get discouraged by defeats.” The legendary pole vaulter talks of the importance of sport and more in an interview with Nandakumar Marar.

Long after achieving fame as an Olympic gold medallist (1988, Seoul) and world record holder, pole vaulter Sergey Bubka realised that sporting achievement and the resultant popularity had tangible value.

After the dissolution of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in December 1991, there was economic uncertainty in states that broke away from the Union. The people of Ukraine too felt the pinch. “After the break-up there was no one exp erienced to run the country. It is because of sport that I survived. I competed in athletic meets then and earned enough to feed myself and my family,” said Bubka, who still holds the world record of 6.14 metres, set in July 1994.

As the Chairman of the Co-ordination Committee, the Ukrainian is busy overseeing the preparations for the 2010 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Bubka also attended the Closing Ceremony of the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune as a special invitee.

For Bubka sport remains a tool for social empowerment and he is set to launch the Sergey Bubka Podium Foundation in Monaco later this year. He flew into India to check out the first Indian beneficiary of the Sergey Bubka Podium Foundation Award — which comes under the organisation named Community Aid & Sponsorship Programme (CASP) — and interact with the outstanding young achievers.

Talking of the project, Bubka said, “Creating the Sergey Bubka Foundation Award for CASP means I can give children from this area a chance to really pursue their sporting dreams. These awards are not only about sporting prowess, but also seek to promote the values of sportsmanship and respect, which I consider to be particularly important.”

To a question from one young CASP sports performer about the route to becoming an Olympic champion, the champion pole vaulter’s advice was: “Children should be encouraged to dream. Work hard and dream of winning the Olympic gold medal, don’t dream of the silver or the bronze. Don’t get discouraged by defeats.”

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: Yelena Isinbayeva has turned pole vault into a great spectacle. At one time, you were a crowd-puller; you made pole vault stand out at athletics meets with your record-breaking feats. Do you foresee any future developments (in technique, training or others) in vaulting?

Answer: Each event is exciting partly because of the personalities of the competitors involved. Stars can become heroes for young people. In pole vault, perhaps the number of participants in each competition could be limited and a time limit set for each attempt. The bar could also be raised more each time than is being done now so that the heights reach the peak more quickly. But pole vault is a great event as it is.

Telecasting international athletics is considered tough due to a wide range of events spread over long hours. The sprints are like a show on prime time while the 3000m steeplechase attracts a very specific audience. Your views on changes needed, if any, to ensure higher TRPs and better fan following?

The IAAF is looking to make the athletics programme shorter and more attractive, and that will help in its telecasting. It is important to get the right balance between television viewers and audience.

In the Beijing Olympics records were set by Steve Hooker (Games record) and Yelena Isinbayeva (World record). Was this possible because of the intensity of the competition or self-motivation? Can you describe your own experience at the Seoul Olympics?

The Olympics is, without doubt, the pinnacle of sports competition. It only comes once every four years and you prepare for it intensely. The atmosphere at the Olympics is totally different because of the excitement it generates.

Seoul was a magnificent memory for me because you know how many people were watching the event and how important the Olympic spirit is. My career changed after Seoul.

(A favourite to win the men’s pole vault, Bubka came within one miss of finishing out of the medals, but then he easily cleared 5.90m to win the gold.)

The Seoul Olympics is also known for Ben Johnson’s famous raised finger after the 100m finish, then he failed the dope test. Where were you when it happened and your reaction to this incident?

You can look at it in a negative and a positive way. The negative part was that an athlete was caught taking performance-enhancing drugs to win.

The positive part is more important because drug testing became more serious after Seoul. You get cheats in all aspects of life. When driving, for example, some people do not obey traffic rules. It does not mean all drivers are at fault. Those who refuse to obey rules on the road deserve to be punished. The same principle applies to athletics.

The Beijing Olympics saw the world’s leading sprinters looking leaner than ever before. Is this a sign of things to come where the focus will be on human performance instead of doping controversies? How many times were you tested?

WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) is doing a great job with reducing doping in sport and so are the IOC and the IAAF. Engaging governments to provide the best of technology and the best of scientists to detect and research doping advances will always be very important.

I was tested regularly but I never took a drink from an open bottle — only from sealed ones so that no one could tamper with my drinks. I was extremely careful not to take any risks that would compromise my natural ability and determination to win fairly.

Financial incentives at Grand Prix events and endorsements may lure emerging talents to take short cut to fame. As a former chairman of the IOC Athletics Commission, what is your dream about the future of athletics as a clean sport?

I hope that young people dream of winning, of breaking and setting records in the right spirit of sport. I hope they compete with respect, honour and integrity.

When you are at the start of your run-up, with the pole in your hand, what thoughts swirl in your mind? How do you approach the run-up and the take-off? What sort of mental makeup does a pole vaulter need?

I did a lot of visualisation because mental preparation is extremely important. It’s such a mentally challenging event and so you have to be emotionally strong and focus on the technical aspects as well.

Indian athletics made headway in Asia, but struggles to make an impact on the world stage. Your views on the subject?

India is doing very well at the CYG (Commonwealth Youth Games) and I understand that they have improved greatly over the years. As we saw with China, which dominated the Olympic medals table this year, it is about inspiring young people.

China has had times when it has not dominated the medals as it did at the Beijing Olympics.

By making young people realise how important sport is to their lives, champions are discovered. That is why I am in Pune, to hopefully inspire some young children and make them realise that competing in sport at any level will dramatically enhance their lives in social, educational as well as sporting ways.

BUBKA FACTFILE

■ Born in Luhansk (Ukraine), Bubka took up athletics at the age of 10. He moved to Donetsk when he was 15 for better training facilities.

■ Dominated pole vault for 20 years till he retired in 2001.

■ Won the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

■ Is the only athlete to win six consecutive World titles.

■ The first human being to vault over six metres, he holds both the World outdoor (6.14m — set in 1994) and indoor (6.15m — set in 1993) records.

■ Broke the World record 35 times since bursting on to the international scene as a 19-year-old, winning the pole vault title at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in 1983, clearing 5.70m for a personal best at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki.

■ Was a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and on the Cabinet of Ministers as the Prime Minister’s Advisor for Youth, Culture and Sports.

■ Was Chairman of the IOA Athletes Commission. He is currently a Senior Vice-President of the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) besides being a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board.