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Sergeï Bubka, 1996 © Gérard Rancinan / Courtesy Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Sergueï Bubka: An Ukrainian Icon

Sergey Bubka is the most famous Ukrainian champion in history. In this period of support to his country, Jean-Denis Walter, former editor-in-chief of French sports newspaper L’Equipe Magazine tells the story this picture, made by the photographer Gérard Rancinan.

It was in 1996, during the winter before the Atlanta Olympic Games, in the countryside around Donetsk, Sergey Bubka’shometown at the time. That winter of 1996, all the great champions of the time had passed in front of Gérard Rancinan’s lens. Sergei Bubka had agreed to pose and had proposed a meeting at his home, during “his” meeting, in Donetsk in Ukraine, a competition which traditionally took place in February, in indoor of course.

Bubka, is in the twilight of his career but still crushes his discipline, the pole vault. He is the current world champion and has already won Olympic gold in Seoul. Sergey Bubka is a star, a real one. He is now an IOC member.

“When I arrived in the room where the meeting was going to take place, Bubka offered me to pose there, like this…”, says Gérard Rancinan. “It took time for me to show him other images, for him to perceive the ambition of the project so that he agreed to give more. I had previously done a little scouting around the city and I had seen this tree standing in this winter landscape, a few kilometers from the stadium. When I asked him about it, he made his conditions: ‘Okay, but I need a heated bus so I can change and bring my pole’. I don’t remember how I was able to rent a bus in the same day, in a city I didn’t know.”

“When we arrived at the location, the temperature was around -20°C, the tree had frosted over and the setting had become truly magical,” the photographer continues. “Sergey Bubka posed for a minute with the pole up and then returned to the bus freezing. I knew that I didn’t really have the image, it was missing the little thing that would give it more grace, more elegance. I asked him to come back out and pose this time standing on his tiptoes. He accepted reluctantly, just long enough to take three shots… Back in France, I was a bit worried, hoping that everything would come out well on the film. When the lab called me to tell me it was ready, I just asked: ‘How is it?’ ‘It’s white,’ I was told. ‘But how white is it, what does it mean?’ ‘Well, white…’ ” 

Yes, indeed it is white but not only. I saw the first photos on the contact sheets, those where the champion has his feet flat… It’s crazy how one detail can transform a good photo into a great one. We are in 1996, at the time of analog photography, Gerard can’t see his image, but he knows… He knows he has a trick but not the trick.

Asking Sergey Bubka to stand on his tiptoes, as all pole vaulters do several times before starting their run-up is pure genius. Of course, the curve is not the same and the final posture goes from clumsy to elegant. 

A “small” print (80×120 anyway) was sold to someone in Toulouse, France a while ago. I remember that I was so worried about its transport (framed in an American box with museum glass) that I went to deliver it personally in my trusty Renault Kangoo.

I’m not sure I’ll do that all the time.

This photograph, which is also about Ukraine, is available for purchase on the website of the Jean-Denis Walter gallery.

Cover image caption: Sergeï Bubka, 1996 © Gérard Rancinan / Courtesy Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

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