Sergej Bubka is without doubt one of the most celebrated and talented athletes of all time. Between 1983 and 1997, the Ukrainian pole vaulter was crowned world champion six times in succession, also winning a gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games and clearing the mythic six-metre mark 40 times. Overall, he set 35 world records during his career and still holds the outdoor (6.14m) and indoor (6.15m) world records.
Bubka visited the Home of FIFA on Friday to meet with FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter. Speaking afterwards to FIFA.com, he discussed his passion for football, how he has been keeping busy since ending his sporting career and the other athletes in his family.
FIFA.com: Sergej, what brings you to the Home of FIFA?
Sergej Bubka: I was in Lausanne for a meeting of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations and I wanted to take advantage of my trip to visit my friend and IOC (International Olympic Committee) colleague President Blatter. We discussed sport in general, football and the Olympic movement, and I passed on friendly greetings from the presidents of the Ukrainian and Russian federations. It was a very amicable meeting.
What positions do you hold at the moment?
I'm President of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee, Entourage Commission Chairman and IOC Executive Board Member, and Vice-President of the IAAF, the international athletics federation. Sport was my whole life, so I've remained very active in it. I'm happy that that's allowed me the chance to give back to sport a little of what it gave me throughout my career. That's the reason why I set up the Sergej Bubka Sports Club. Since its foundation in 1990, it has introduced more than 300 children to athletics. Some of those have already won competitions in several different age categories. We encourage them to follow their dream of taking part in the Olympic Games one day.
Do you also take an interest in football?
Of course. The club from the town where I was born, FC Zorya Luhansk, won the Soviet title in 1972. It was extraordinary. When I was younger, I spent all my free time playing football. I only discovered athletics by chance in 1974, and it was a discipline that attracted me immediately. Nevertheless, I continued to play football quite regularly, both to warm up and at the end of my training sessions.
What was your favourite position?
I played all over the pitch, always for the good of the team (laughs). Actually, above all I didn't want to lose. In theory I was a forward, but sometimes I would end up in goal if I had a feeling that would make us win.
Who was your favourite player?
Naturally, I was a big fan of Lev Yashin and Oleg Blokhin, but the player I had more admiration for than anyone was Pele. For me, he was the best. I had the fortune to meet him a few years later. It was great. Today, Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the most talented footballer around, and he's modest as well, which I like.
Do you have a favourite club?
On the one hand, I'll always be a fan of FC Zorya Luhansk. But I moved to Donetsk at the age of 15 and after that I became a supporter of Shakhtar Donetsk. They're a club that's become one of the best in the country while playing football of a very high quality.
What do you make of Shakhtar's chances of reaching the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals after their 2-2 draw with Dortmund in the first leg of their last-16 tie?
We have a good team that has undeniable strengths in how they play. I'm very optimistic and I honestly think Shakhtar have a good chance of qualifying.
Did you watch any UEFA EURO 2012 matches in Ukraine?
Of course. I was in the stands to watch Ukraine's matches against France and Sweden. I also got to watch the game between Germany and the Netherlands live, as well as the final in Kiev. It was an incredible experience and a great festival of football. For Ukraine, the tournament was a genuine success.
How important was that tournament for a country like Ukraine?
We're a country that's passionate about sport, and it was a huge honour for us to host a tournament of such importance. It gave us the chance to prove to the rest of the world that we're capable of organising an event on that scale. We were delighted to welcome football fans from all over Europe and to let them discover our hospitality. The people who visited were happy to be there and went home with a smile afterwards. It was a fabulous experience which surpassed even my wildest expectations.
Ukraine have made a mixed start to qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Can the national team still book their ticket to the finals?
They're not in an easy situation. I hope that, despite everything, our players will be able to qualify because Ukrainians love football. The whole country is behind the team and encouraging them.
One of your sons is now a professional tennis player. Has he inherited your talent?
Maybe. Either way, I'm delighted that my two sons share my passion for sport. Sport teaches you values and builds character, and sport is important in terms of developing youngsters and children. It provides them with a framework and it's good for their health.
Ukraine has produced several great sporting figures over the last few years, like yourself, Andriy Shevchenko and the Klitschko brothers. How do you explain that?
Like I said earlier, we're a country that's passionate about sport. Ukrainians take an interest in sport at a very early age. On top of that, we can draw upon a long and rich tradition: since 1952, we have won more than 600 Olympic medals. In Ukraine, sportsmen and women find themselves part of a system in which they can blossom. For us, the challenge is to keep producing athletes of the very highest level.
Is it important for young people in Ukrainian to have sources of inspiration, such as yourself?
It's essential, because these role models encourage youngsters to follow in their footsteps. They also help them understand that nobody is born a champion. Success comes through hard work and effort. That said, children need to enjoy themselves above all. The role of sport is to ensure that their development is a harmonious process, both physically and intellectually.
You still hold the world record for pole vaulting. Will someone beat your benchmark one day?
It will happen sooner or later. I'm very proud of my records, but my duties today lead me quite naturally to support the future champions in my discipline. That gives me pleasure and I'll be happier than anyone the day when someone beats my record.