The Man Who Inched Away at History

On July 31, 1994, a Ukranian man named Sergey Bubka was on a work trip to the small Italian village of Sestriere. And he likely came home with a brand new Ferrari. That’s because from 1988 through 1995, Sestriere hosted an international track and field competition. Ferrari, the sponsor of the event, gave away a new car to anyone who broke a record during the events. And Bubka, a pole vaulter, set a world record, reaching a height of 6.14 meters, one which would stand for nearly two decades.

But Bubka probably wasn’t overly excited. While it’s not every day that an athlete does something no one else has, for Bubka, there was more to the story. He wasn’t setting records because he was the best and simply did better than everyone else ever had. His world record chase was part of a larger plan — one to make him some extra money.

Pole vaulting isn’t like most other sports. In general, Olympic athletes can’t control whether they set a record — they just do their best and if it works out, it works out. Take sprinters, for example. When they run a race, they run as fast as they can. The winner is the one who crosses the finish line first, absent false starts, lane violations, positive drug tests or anything like that. Run fast enough and you may even set a world record — all you have to do is run the race in less time than anyone else has, ever. Setting that record is probably not something you can do on purpose, though; even if you were entirely cognizant at the moment as to your speed, you’re going as fast as you can. Similarly, slowing down would risk putting you in second place.

But the same isn’t true in pole vaulting. Vaulters get to specify the height they wish to attempt; if they’re successful, they get credit for achieving that height. If you want to attempt a record-setting jump, you don’t have to worry about the competition or anything else. You just need to set the bar high enough.

For Bubka, this curiosity of his chosen sport became an opportunity — an opportunity to make some extra money, that is. Track and field stars earn money in a variety of different ways — prize money from winning competitions, appearance fees just for showing up (if you can draw crowds, in particular), signing on with a corporate sponsor, and various bonuses typically paid out by your sponsor. That was all true for Bubka, but it was the bonuses that were a bit dicey. Many athletes get a bonus from their corporate sponsor when they win a competition — the victory is a boost for the sponsoring brand, and therefore, it’s worth forking over more cash. But most of his career, Bubka was so much better than the competition that everyone expected him to win; a Bubka victory didn’t garner much additional buzz.

World records, on the other hand, did. And that gave Nike, his sponsor, an idea: a bonus for breaking a world record. It’s unclear when in his career the bonus went into effect or how large it was; some sources claim it was $40,000 or so if he broke a record, but at least one other lists it at $100k. Regardless, one thing is clear: starting in either 1991 or 1992, when Bubka set a new record, it came with a check. So, he maximized the times he could break his own record. In 1988, Bubka held the outdoor record — the mark was 6.08 meters. From 1991 through 1994, he topped his own mark nine times, each time besting his previous mark by only 0.01 meters. He did almost the same thing with the indoor record, setting seven new records, with all but the first two similarly extending the previous best by only 0.01 meters. (The other two were by 0.02m and 0.03m.)

That day in Sestriere the 35h time that Bubka set the world record in pole vaulting. But Nike didn’t seem to matter — having an athlete set a world record is pretty great, even if he’s milking the brand for all he can. And that added up; according to the New York Daily News, Bubka’s “nibbles” earned him at least $600,000 in bonuses.

Bonus fact: Pole vaulting — the idea of flinging yourself forward on a stick, that is — probably wasn’t originally about height, but distance. Imagine there’s a marshy, wet barrier between you and where you want to go; running forward, jabbing a stick into the soft wet ground, and thrusting yourself forward isn’t a terrible way across. (It’s also not a great way, but it works.) Generations ago, people in the Netherlands used to do that to get across various waterways, and it’s likely that’s why Olympians pole vault today. But if you want to see the sport as originally designed, you’re in luck: there’s a sport called Fierljeppen (literally, “far leaping”) where people use poles to vault themselves over marshes.

From the Archives: A Nugget of Speed: How track star Usain Bolt runs so quickly. (Okay, not really. But he sure has weird eating habits.)