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20 Sep 1988
Seoul 1988

Bubka leaves it late to prove pole vault supremacy

Look back at the career of Sergey Bubka, and the statistics rightly paint a picture of crushing dominance. So imperious was the Ukrainian-born pole vaulter, so filled with confident exuberance and barrel-chested showmanship, that he remains the only person to have won gold at six consecutive world championships.

Yet on one balmy, sultry afternoon in Seoul 23 years ago, even the great Bubka almost fell victim to the kind of heart-racing tension only sport of the highest calibre can generate.

Bubka, competing under the flag of the USSR, entered the 1988 Olympics as just about the hottest favourite for any gold medal to be contested in South Korea.

He was five years into a reign as world champion which would finally stretch to 1999, he was at that time the only vaulter to have eclipsed the magical landmark of six metres and the contest in Seoul appeared to most observers to be a contest for the silver medal.

But the Olympics is sport’s grandest theatre, and Bubka’s faltering journey to gold provided some of the highest drama the Games had seen.

Bubka set a new world record two weeks before the 1984 Olympics started in Los Angeles, but the boycott of those Summer Games by the Eastern bloc robbed him of his first serious tilt at gold.

Four years later and Bubka was in no mood to accept anything but victory.

The omens did not look good for the Russian when he needed two unconvincing attempts before clearing his opening height of 5.70 metres, his successful clearance striking the bar hard before it finally settled in place..

Never short on confidence however big the stage, Bubka then passed at the next four heights.

So when team-mate Rodion Gataullin cleared 5.85m, Bubka was out of the medals and his aura of invincibility suddenly looked vulnerable.

Two failures at 5.90 heightened the tension to unbearable levels before he mustered the focus needed to prove the champion he was.

His eyes fixed on the bar at the end of the runway, Bubka knew one mistake would lead to disaster.

He pounded down the track and launched his body skywards; his lithe frame soared over the bar by a huge margin.  An elated Bubka howled with delighted knowing gold was his.

Astonishingly, for a man who broke the world indoor and outdoor record a total of 35 times it was to be his first and only taste of Olympic success.

He went out early in the 1992 final in Barcelona and an injured Achilles tendon forced his withdrawal from the qualifying round in Atlanta four years later.

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