Ukraine’s fallen hero – POLITICO

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Sergei Bubka was Ukraine’s most iconic sportsman. Now his name is mud.

The legendary pole vaulter — a towering figure in post-Soviet Ukraine; dominating world championships and smashing records before becoming an elite sports politician — has been linked to business conducted in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories, while he lives it up in glitzy Monaco.

As Ukraine continues to fight off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion in the freezing, soggy Donbas trenches, there is no greater sin. Bubka, the former athletic hero and native of Ukraine’s east, is now seen by many Ukrainians as a Russian collaborator.

For the man who once soared, bringing pride to newly independent Ukraine, how did it all go so wrong?

A major investigation by Ukrainian outlet Bihus.Info during the summer revealed Bubka’s company, Mont Blanc, was officially registered in Russia after the Kremlin’s all-out assault in Ukraine began.

Mont Blanc sold fuel to Russian occupiers in the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian puppet state in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian media outlet discovered — and published — three contracts worth more than $14,000 at the time. While the money is comparatively small compared with the billions sloshing around in Moscow’s war economy, any dealings with Russian occupiers are a red line for Ukrainians.

The company owns at least six gas stations in the occupied Donetsk region and Bubka’s brother Vasiliy is listed as the company’s director on all contracts. After the reports, Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, opened an investigation, and Vasiliy has now been charged in absentia with collaborating with the Russians and “assisting a terrorist organization.”

In September, Bubka hit back at the reports, posting a video online in which he said: “I have always fought for Ukraine, but now a campaign to destroy my reputation has begun against me. I have not been to the occupied territories since 2014. I didn’t visit my relatives and I wasn’t even able to attend my mother’s funeral this year. I have nothing to do with any business in the occupied territory.”

POLITICO reached out directly to Bubka’s press team for comment but they did not respond.

Bubka’s protestations, however, have failed to convince Ukrainians — and some of the country’s most prominent athletes — that he’s showing enough support for Kyiv’s war effort.

A major investigation by Ukrainian outlet Bihus.Info revealed Bubka’s company, Mont Blanc, was officially registered in Russia | Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

“When the war began, all athletes cooperated and waited for a statement from Bubka at the very least. We drafted a letter, but it never bore Bubka’s signature,” Yaroslava Mahuchikh, the reigning world high jump champion, told POLITICO.

The athletes were demanding a ban on the National Olympic Committees of Russia and Belarus. Bubka is one of the influential 107 members of the International Olympic Committee.

“We called and wrote to him. He made a statement later but it was meaningless. Nothing more came from him,” added Mahuchikh.

Bubka threatened a lawsuit against the Bihus journalists, but so far that has not been filed. He wanted to “defend his dignity,” said Vadym Gutzeit, boss of Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee. In the meantime, the same outlet published two more contracts from May 2023 showing Bubka’s further business dealings in the Russian-controlled DPR.

While legal drama swirls in Ukraine, Bubka has been living on the French Riviera, according to reports in Ukrainian media and a person close to his family who was granted anonymity to discuss personal dynamics.

In Monte Carlo, Bubka attends AS Monaco football matches in the VIP zone. The Ligue Un club is owned by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is subject to Ukrainian sanctions but not EU, Monegasque or U.S. measures.

The rejection Ukrainians feel from Bubka extends down the ex-pole vaulter’s family tree.

Tennis players also sought help from the influential sports politician, as his son, Sergei Bubka Jr., was a professional tennis player himself and still works within the sport.

“We had a very meaningful conversation with Sergei [junior] during a tournament in Miami,” said the coach of a Ukrainian tennis player. “He promised to definitely convey our vision of tennis and the support we need from the NOC and the IOC to his father. Nothing happened.

“He still shows up at all the major tournaments but now doesn’t make eye contact with me. He continues to communicate with representatives of the aggressor countries, even with those who openly support the war,” the coach added.

POLITICO asked Sergei Bubka Jr. for a response, but he also did not reply.

Bubka Sr. also actively avoided Ukrainian track and field athletes when he encountered them at the athletics World Championships in Eugene, Oregon in July 2022, according to one person with knowledge of the incident. They were walking toward Bubka and as they were about to greet the former champion he turned his head away.

As Ukraine continues to fight off Russian invasion in the freezing, soggy Donbas trenches, Bubka is now seen by many Ukrainians as a Russian collaborator | Roman Pilipey/AFP via Getty Images

“I respect him as an athlete, but not as a person,” added Mahuchikh.

While Ukraine’s other superstar athletes including Mahuchikh, footballers Oleksandr Zinchenko and Andriy Shevchenko and legendary boxers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko have all backed the war effort and condemned Putin, Bubka’s remarks about Russia have been more tepid.

“I was traveling by train from Kyiv to Lviv. Some people nearby didn’t have food, and I shared what I had with them. I needed then to drive to Uzhhorod to cross the border. I felt what it’s like to be a refugee,” Bubka said, in his first statement about the war in April 2022, about two months after Moscow launched its all-out attack.

As Ukrainian law enforcement agencies told Ukrainska Pravda, Bubka left the country on March 1, 2022, with a special permit (men of military age are not allowed out of Ukraine without permission). After that, he exited the country two more times. The last time he left was on July 4, 2022 — and he did not return.

“The war must stop, peace and humanity must prevail,” was all he could muster about Russian aggression.

Bubka was adored by Ukrainians in the 1990s, as the most prominent athlete to emerge from the country following its independence after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

He was the first pole vaulter to clear 6 meters and held 17 outdoor and 18 indoor world records. During Bubka’s active career, he began organizing the Pole Vault Stars tournament in Donetsk, a city which erected a monument in his honor in 1999, where the Luhansk native spent much of his life.

After retiring in 2001, Bubka shifted his focus to politics. He became a member of the IOC in 2008. From 2002 to 2006, he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament, mainly representing the Party of Regions.

In 2005, he replaced Viktor Yanukovych — the controversial pro-Kremlin former president who triggered the widespread Euromaidan protests in winter 2013-14 and who lived in the same apartment building in Donetsk as Bubka did for years — as the head of the Ukrainian National Olympic Committee, holding his position until November 2022.

Bubka ran unsuccessfully both to be the IOC president in 2013 and lead the world athletics federation in 2015.

For those failed campaigns, Ukrainian athletes are counting their blessings.

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