Heard about “Raising the bar”? In all probability, most will have heard it at some time or the other. It means to either up the ante or set higher standards. Whenever, I think of “Raising the bar”, there is only one name which often comes to me. That is Sergey Bubka. Bubka is a personification of “Raising the bar” and he repeatedly did that through out his career – both figuratively and literally. This pole vaulter has the distinction of raising the bar, the maximum number of times in his career. To the extent, he broke the world record for men’s pole vaulting 35 times in his career.
Raising the Bar – Sergey Bubka’s story
Bubka was born in Voroshilovgrad in what was then in Soviet Union. As a young kid, Bubka showed good inclination for athletics. He preferred the 100-m dash and the long jump. Bubka’s association with pole vaulting happened quite accidentally – he was invited by his friend to join the vaulting club. The coaches in the club were pretty impressed in what they saw of the young boy. Very soon, Bubka began training with Vitaly Pertrov. This association later on went to produce the Petrov/Bubka model (a technique) of pole vaulting which was considered key to his success.
During those days, pole vaulting was an obscure sport, lackluster event which neither had the crowds nor the cheers and applause like other athletic events. Bubka’s first stint with International athletics was in 1981 when he participated in the European Junior Championship. He finished 7th in that competition. The 1983 World Championship held in Helsinki, however, proved to be a turning point for the pole vaulting history. Bubka, still internationally unknown, won the gold medal clearing 5.70 meters. And this was just the beginning. The years that followed witnessed complete domination where Bubka just seem to be raising the bar every time he took field.
His first world record came in 1984 when he successfully cleared 5.85 meters. A week later, he broke his own record by clearing 5.88 meters. And a month later, he again broke his record by clearing 5.90 meters. Suddenly, pole vaulting began to catch people’s attention and from a boring event it became a much anticipated event.
Those days, clearing 6.0 meters was considered “unattainable” by any stretch of imagination. This was akin to the old belief that you cannot run a mile in under four minutes, till Roger Bannister proved otherwise. In 1985, Bubka took the world by storm by clearing 6.0 meters. The impossible had been achieved. Bubka was virtually running out of opponents now and he had only himself to compete with. Clearly, the bar has been raised very high. By this time, Bubka had transformed pole vaulting to be a very engaging game with people – full of cheers, applause and anticipation of a world record.
For the next 10 years, Bubka kept bettering his record and became the first man to clear 6.10 meters in 1991 at Spain. He then went on to create his career best and a world record of 6.14 meters in 1993 at Ukraine.
Some Baffling facts of Bubka’s constant raising the bar attitude
1. When Bubka cleared the bar at 6.14 meters, the commentators and experts had already pronounced Bubka to be in the decline of his career.
2. The world record of 6.14 meters could not be broken for 21 long years, even by the so called modern athletes. It was finally broken in Feb 2014 (this year) by France’s Renaud Lavillenie who cleared 6.16 meters.
3. The number of times Bubka has cleared the 6.0 meters mark is more than the combined total of all the athletes who have cleared the 6.0 meters in the history of pole vaulting.
How could he keep raising the bar always
Most athletes rely on getting maximum bend of the pole by placing it heavily on the ground, before they take off. Bubka’s technique, called the Petrov/Bubka model, was however different. First, Bubka had great strength and speed. So, he would grip the pole higher than his contemporaries which gave him some extra leverage. Second, he used to run fast, continuously putting energy into the vault before rising. The Petro/Bubka model by itself focused more on driving the pole up combined with high approach speed rather than the bend which conventional athletes relied on.
The unfortunate blemish
A sporting career, in which he so much dominated, practically decimating his opponents had to bear an unfortunate blemish too. Bubka’s record at the Olympics was abysmal and unfortunate. The first Olympic games, after he entered the international arena, was boycotted by Soviet Union in 1984. Bubka went on to win a Gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In the 1992 Barcelona games, he failed to clear the bar in his three chances. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a heel injury forced him to withdraw from the competition without even taking a single jump. And in 2000 Sydney Olympics, he failed to clear the bar in his 3 chances.
His has been a truly glittering career where he pushed himself and kept raising the bar to his competitors’ disbelief. He was twice named “Athlete of the Year” by Track and Field News. In 2012, he was amongst the 24 athletes inducted as inaugural members of the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall of Fame. His habit of constantly raising the bar saw him break the world record 35 times (17 indoor and 18 outdoor records). He became the first to demonstrate to the world that a vaulter can soar past the 6.0 meters mark. Bubka officially retired from his pole vaulting career in 2001.
We all keep looking for examples and inspirations on how to always keep raising the bar in our own field. Well, Bubka has shown us that we can, if we believe in ourselves. Next time, you think of raising the bar, think of Bubka. Who knows you may soar past the highest level the bar had been set.