Freek Huigen catches up with IAAF Presidential hopeful, Sergey Bubka
For many people here, the main draw of the upcoming IAAF Athletics World Championships in Beijing is to see whether Colombia’s leaping lady, and absolute favourite, Caterine Ibargüen can take the title. But there is more at stake. On August 19 – the day before the championships start, the 214 members of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will elect their new president.
Both the World Championships and the election come as the athletics world is reeling from major doping allegations. The IAAF have hit back hard at revelations in the UK’s Sunday Times and Germany’s ARD that one in three medallists in major championships show abnormal blood test results.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the cloud of accusations will hang heavy over outgoing president, Senegalese Lamine Diack, who, after 16 years at the helm, no doubt hopes to be remembered for more positive things. The 82-year-old is not running for re-election, so the battle will be between two former Olympic gold medallists. Sergey Bubka, Seoul 1988 gold medallist in pole vault and Lord Sebastian Coe, 1500 metre champion in Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984.
Both men are campaign veterans – both have served as MPs in their respective countries, and while Coe led London’s successful 2012 Olympic bid, Bubka put in the hours on the campaign trail while running for the presidency of the International Olympic Committee in 2013.
Bubka took time out from electioneering to speak to The Bogota Post when he visited Cali for the IAAF World Youth Athletics Championships. The charming Ukrainian was impressed by Colombia during the tournament, “I’ve been to Colombia twice this year and have been amazed by the commitment of those who compete, those who coach and those who govern – in the sport of athletics, as well as in other sports. I’ve seen amazing progress in terms of sporting infrastructure and sport events’ management during the IAAF World Youth Championships.”
He added, “It was the first time that South America has hosted the IAAF World Championships. I visited Cali during the preparation period and have been amazed at how the Local Organising Committee has overcome the challenges they faced.”
In this type of head to head campaign, both candidates need to convince the president of each country’s’ athletic federation that they are the right person for the job – meaning they will grow the sport internationally and also look after each individual nation. Bubka, with an easy humour and a laugh that seems almost shy, is all seriousness when he gets down to the brass tacks of his campaign.
The former pole vault world record holder, who held the record for more than 29 years, recognises that every country is different and if he is elected, he promises not to lump Colombia in with other nations, “I will use an individual approach for every National Federation just as a coach uses different techniques for the different athletes he trains, creating tailored Development Plans for every country. One of the key pillars of my program, ‘Taking Athletics to New Heights,’ is to arrange the visits of IAAF officials to every National Federation individually and meet the athletics family and the local governments to discuss ways to develop athletics.“
The 51-year-old promises cash towards professionalising the sport, “I pledge to provide a financial support program to ensure that all National Federations can employ paid administrators because I believe that paid sports administrators are essential.”
He also plans to create a Business Commission that will help to bring global partnerships to each National Federation – so countries like Colombia can attract additional funding.
Bubka became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1996, when he was elected as a member of the Athletes’ Commission. He is President of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. In 2001, his appointment to the IAAF Council brought him back to his roots and enabled him to focus on his main passion: athletics. He has been Vice President since 2007 and now he is chasing the biggest crown of his sport.
One of the big hurdles the IAAF – and other sports – have to jump if they are to survive is to make themselves relevant to generations of young people who are often more interested in TV and computer games.
“If I am given the honour of being selected as the next IAAF President, my main task will be to ensure that we re-engage young people. We will enhance the role of the IAAF School and Youth Commission and Kids Athletics program, which are among the key initiatives introduced by President Lamine Diack, and support athletics in schools, universities and grassroots programs at national, regional and international levels.”
He is passionate about the importance of coaches. Caterine Ibargüen had to go to Cuba to get the training she needed to enter the world podium of athletics, and Bubka wants to make sure that Colombia has the right quality of trainers available here. “The coaches are the ‘gold reserve’ of our sport! We can’t allow their knowledge and skills to be lost! Every National Federation needs to run courses for coaches in all disciplines involving international experts. We will also arrange a better system to exchange knowledge between coaches through online seminars as well as by providing grants for athletes and coaches to attend High Performance Training centres – one of them was recently launched in Cali – and Regional Development centres. “
In Cali, the visibly enthusiastic Bubka sees the opportunities the organisation of a tournament like the World Youth Championships will give Colombia. “The legacy of Cali 2015 will surely serve athletics in Colombia and in South America for decades ahead. The country received modern athletics equipment, new training facilities, as well as experience of hosting a major athletics event for everybody – from city government and sport administrators to athletics officials and volunteers.”
He added, “Cali 2015 demonstrated the true potential of Colombia and South America for hosting major IAAF events.”
Bubka is animated as he finishes by sharing his joy at the growth of his sport, “But what is even more important is the fantastic promotion of our sport for the youth and their parents, who witnessed high class performances of the future athletics stars, and the beauty and excitement of our sport. I am sure Cali 2015 inspired thousands of Colombian and South American kids to join athletics groups, and soon the continent’s new sport stars will emerge on the international level as a legacy of the event.”
With only a short time to go until the elections, sports pundits are already making their predictions – and some of Coe’s advocates say the race has already been won – but anyone who has watched a hundred metre sprint knows that there is no way to be sure of the outcome until the runners cross the finish line.
The IAAF elections will take place in Beijing on August 19, where either Sergey Bubka or Lord Sebastian Coe will be chosen for a four-year term presidency of the IAAF.
By Freek Huigen