Bubka troubled by Ukraine conflict as he seeks IAAF top job

LONDON (AP) Sergei Bubka has more than just votes on his mind as he campaigns for the top job in track and field.

While he pursues the presidency of the International Association of Athletics Federations, the pole vault great can't help but be distracted by the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine, where he was born and raised.

''It's tough. It's tough for me,'' Bubka told The Associated Press on Thursday. ''I'm human. I pray to have peace and to stop this war. It's really bad and tough for all of us.''

Bubka spoke in a telephone interview from his offices in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, a day after announcing he would campaign against former middle-distance champion Sebastian Coe to succeed Lamine Diack as IAAF president.

Bubka was born in Luhansk and grew up in Donetsk, then part of the Soviet Union. Both cities in eastern Ukraine are now held by Russian-backed rebels. Fighting between the separatists and government forces has killed more than 5,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April, according to U.N. figures.

''I feel this personally,'' Bubka said. ''I know the value of sport for peace, to show the people from different parts of the world that we need to avoid any conflict.''

Bubka, who won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and captured six consecutive world titles, set three of his 35 career world records in Donetsk. He was on hand in Donetsk last February when French vaulter Renaud Lavillenie cleared 6.16 meters (20 feet, 2 1/2 inches) to break his 21-year-old world record.

The Druzhba Arena where the record was broken - and where Bubka has held his annual Pole Vault Stars meeting - was looted and burned down by rebels in May. The meet won't take place this year.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has forced Bubka and other sports officials to take special measures to safeguard their teams and athletes.

Bubka, who heads the Ukrainian Olympic Committee, said leading athletes from the eastern part of the country have been given free lodging in other cities along with their coaches and families. The International Olympic Committee, European Olympic committees, and IAAF have also provided financial and other support.

''As far as we know, the top leading athletes are outside (of eastern Ukraine) and are safe,'' Bubka said. ''We try to do our best. We try to keep sport as a message for peace. We try to protect and give the athletes all the opportunity to train and keep up their careers.''

The European Athletics Team Championships will be in Cheboksary, Russia, in June. Bubka said no decision had yet been made on whether Ukraine will compete, adding that athletes and coaches will be allowed to make their own choice.

Meanwhile, Bubka will be pushing ahead with his bid to succeed Diack, who steps down this year after serving as IAAF president since 1999. The election will be on Aug. 18 in Beijing on the eve of the world championships.

Coe, who won gold medals in the 1,500 meters at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, announced his candidacy in November.

Bubka said he expects it will be a two-man race, although he heard a recent rumor that a third, surprise candidate might come forward.

The 51-year-old Bubka plans to release his election manifesto at the end of February or in early March after receiving feedback from national federations.

The campaign comes against the background of doping scandals, including allegations of systematic cheating and cover-ups in Russia.

''We know doping is the biggest threat of the 21st century, not only for athletics but for global sports,'' Bubka said. ''The zero tolerance policy is clear. We understand that the world is not perfect. We have some people who choose cheating. We will try to protect clean athletes and clean sports.''

While the new World Anti-Doping Agency code doubles the standard ban from two to four years, Bubka said tougher penalties could also be considered.

''If we need stronger sanctions, we will go for that,'' he said.

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Follow Stephen Wilson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stevewilsonap

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