Ukrainian Sergey Bubka a legendary candidate for IOC president

Friday August 16th, 2013

Bubka set 35 world records, including the existing indoor mark of 6.15 meters that has stood since 1993.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

One of the greatest athletes in history is now the man with the manifesto. Ukrainian pole vault legend Sergey Bubka is one of six candidates to become the new IOC president on Sep. 10, replacing Jacques Rogge whose 12-year tenure will end this year. He sounds like a polished politician. "All my life has been connected to sport," Bubka told SI from Moscow where he is attending track and field's world championships. "Since childhood, I always tried to play sports. Then I wanted to stay in sports. For me it's been a great privilege of my life and I cannot see myself without it."

Other candidates have strong athletic pedigree, too. German Thomas Bach, considered the favorite by many, won a gold medal in team foil fencing in 1976 and Switzerland's Denis Oswald was a three-time Olympic rower. The others are Ricardo Carrion of Puerto Rico, Ng Ser Miang of Singapore and Wu Ching-Kuo of Taiwan. Some other IOC presidents were successful athletes and Olympians themselves -- Rogge represented his native Belgium three times in sailing -- but Bubka would be the first one with a star's resume, much the way Seb Coe became the first Olympian of renown to head a summer Olympic organizing committee when he ran the London Games in 2012.

Bubka set 35 world records, including the existing indoor mark of 6.15 meters that has stood since 1993 and outdoor record of 6.14 that has stood since 1994, won six world titles and the Olympic gold medal in 1988. He was named to the IOC's athletes commission in 1995, has been an IOC member since 1999 and a member of the 15-person executive board has been president of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee since 2005 and was a cabinet minister there for three years and a member of parliament for four years. It is as if Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky took over as commissioner or the NBA or NHL, except with more varied responsibilities and often conflicting constituencies to try to please.

Bubka rattled off his priorities as assuredly as he cleared bars throughout his career. At 49, the youngest of the six candidates talks about making the Games even more appealing to Generation Next, further reaching youth as spectators and especially practitioners. He sees himself as a modern man pushing for a modern world of Olympics. "If we don't engage young people in sports, we will lose the next generation," he says. "In the world, there is obesity and diabetes. The young generation plays sports in front of TV or on computers. They engage very much with social media, but we need to use social media to bring them to sport. It's important to speak with the young generation in the same language, to create a youth council that has access to the IOC members." As X-Games style sports make their way onto the Olympic program, Bubka sees room for more of the same in the future. "The world is changing," he says. "We must be in the same line with the people who are participating and watching on television, to make an exciting program that is more attractive and interesting."

Bubka wouldn't necessarily increase the number of sports on the summer program. He likes caps of 28 sports and 10,500 athletes in order to restrain costs. "If the Games are not too expensive, they will open to more hosts," he says. "But it should not be a strain on the cities." So look for existing sports to have to fight for events and weight classes, while other existing sports that can add BXM-type events may expand. "Traditional sport is important and core of program, but we also have to look at those sports that have very many disciplines and you need to make sports more attractive."

Determining costs of staging Olympics is nearly impossible because line items such as security and improvements to a city's infrastructure and transportation can be funneled into different non-Olympic budgets. Costs of staging the Games have increased, even as Rogge spoke against so-called "white elephants," venues that remained unused, such as many of those in Beijing, after the Games finished. Estimates for the Sochi Olympics in February are said to have ballooned to $50 billion because of cost overruns and funds that appear to have vanished. 'If we want to be in different parts of the world," Bubka says, "it's critical to manage costs. Temporary structures are very important. You can build them in beautiful, attractive places of the city, and you can use the same venue for different sports."

Earlier this year, Bubka began overseeing the IOC's newly created Entourage Commission, a sub-group that is set upon levying sanctions on the people around athletes, including coaches or trainers, who help carry out doping offenses. Admittedly, this has hit Bubka's sport of track and field extremely hard. Just before the world championships, sprinters Tyson Gay of the U.S. and Asafa Powell of Jamaica failed out-of-competition tests.

"I consider athletics in good shape," Bubka says. "If we look at Games 2008 and 2012, the audience is growing. It is still the No. 1 Olympic sport. The IAAF is one of strong leaders in doping. It is too much for the national Olympic committees to face by themselves. We need to engage government and the medical profession. When we see positive tests, I'm not happy, but the system works. We protect more and we catch more. We need to go to a biological passport and have harsher punishment not just for athletes, but also for the entourage. Someone respects the rules; someone cheats. We have to eliminate the cheaters. Regarding the athletes, I consider a four-year ban for all offenses would be appropriate. Also now we can preserve the doping samples for eight years. I expect that will be increased in ten years in November when we have a new WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) code. The science is better. In this way, the biological passport will make us stronger. We need to be more in front to stop the doping."

It sounds good, but although entourage members can be denied credentials at competitions, it isn't clear how non-athletes would be sanctioned during training periods or how such sanctions could be enforced when people are out of view from regulators. "We can start with the competitions," he says. "If these are your handlers and they are not there, then only your rivals will have handlers."

Bubka says he would call for more active IOC members who would be more visible and accessible to the public, with a possible increase of the general membership from 100 and a certain increase in the executive board from its current number of 15. "Our membership is parliament of talent," he says "The role of members should expand. If some countries don't have members, they can promote the movement in neighboring countries so the smaller countries feel they have a voice. The Olympic movement should be in our life 365 days a year. I want each member to be proactive in promoting the IOC and Olympic values in their area."

That notion of Olympic values and the inclusion and non-discrimination mentioned in the IOC's own Olympic charter, has come under challenge from Russia's so-called anti-gay laws, enacted after Sochi was awarded the Games. Though several national Olympic committees and some gay athletes, such as retired diver Greg Louganis, have dismissed calls for a boycott, the capacity of the IOC to protect the ideals of inclusion may seem limited. "I don't think so," Bubka says. "There is quiet discussion and we are confident Russian authorities will not have any discrimination at the Games. It's already in the charter that we protect everyone." The last thing officials want, he points out, is an incident during the Olympics that would draw attention to the law and thereby hurt Russia's future Olympic interests. At least, Bubka believes future bidding cities will need to make clear references to inclusion just as they have improved access for female athletes in nations that don't encourage females to participate in sports. "For the first time, all the teams had women participation at the London Games," he says. "Sport and Olympics are really helping to move in this direction . . .

"It's clear through charter if a country or city is bidding, must follow Olympic charter. The world is changing and the Games bring a positive impact. Developing countries love sport because sport doesn't have barriers. When I competed. You don't even speak the same language, but you understand each other. It doesn't matter the religion, the language. Olympians are great ambassadors to spread this philosophy all over the world."

And spreading the word today entails some degree of technological proficiency. "In my day-to-day, you have iPhone, iPad, you respond and communicate," he says. "It has made the world more transparent. I have two sons 28 and 26. If it's not connected by Wi-Fi, they're in trouble. As president of a national Olympic committee, I always pay attention to our website, Facebook, Twitter. This is very important to promote activity. You cannot live without it. It's so great for us to deliver information, training programs, nutrition, the history of sport and Olympism. I grew up when things were much simpler, but the world changes and the Olympic world changes."

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