Berlin -- As Sergei Bubka plants his pole and begins his 16-foot vertical flight, his young fans crane forward and hold their breath. But, at the last moment, the pole vault king's foot catches the bar, and he crashes unmajestically into the mat below.
"Why isn't he speaking German anymore?" asks Karsten, a 10-year-old fan, as the muscular man shakes his head and mutters angry remarks in a foreign tongue.
"Simple, stupid," answers his 12-year-old companion, Michael, who has come along to the practice session. "He isn't German. He's Russian. He just lives here."
Michael's two-year advantage over Karsten has cleared up the mystery -- sort of. Bubka isn't German and does live in Berlin. A Russian, however, he most certainly isn't. He is Ukrainian, a former Soviet citizen who grew up jumping washing lines in his back yard but who now pole-vaults for himself in the post-communist world.
In Barcelona, Spain, where he is the runaway favorite for the gold medal, he will jump for the Commonwealth of Independent States team, a shaky sports alliance of republics that once were part of the Soviet Union. In future competitions, he expects to vault for Ukraine.
Despite Bubka's crash while training in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, he finished off the day in a good mood, if a little tired by training and the crush of reporters and autograph hunters.
"I'm in good form. I think I can probably get a gold," Bubka said.
Barring injury, it is a gross understatement. Bubka is polite about his opponents. After all, some have even cleared 19 feet, 6 inches -- only a few sporting light-years short of his world record of 20- 1/2 , which he set in France last month. He figures he only needs to clear 19-8 to be sure of a gold next month.
When he is candid and less polite, Bubka admits that his opponents have become a bit boring.
"If I didn't have the world record to break, I guess I'd quit. Just one more title, it doesn't matter. I have them all now. It's the world record that matters," he said.
Even the world record has become old hat. Bubka, a broad, stocky 28-year-old from Donezk, has set 30 of them, including two this year. And again in Barcelona?
"Maybe. But the first thing is winning the gold medal. At the Olympics, that's the main thing. But it could be the right place for the world record, too," Bubka said.
Gold medals are unique, Bubka said, but world records can be set anywhere. They also bring in more money elsewhere, because track and field promoters pay hefty bonuses for crowd-drawing world records. Last year in Italy, for example, he received $150,000 for a record 20- 1/4 .
Even before the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, Bubka showed the sort of business acumen that could make Soviet central planners wince. He always has a gracious word or compliment to the host nation where he competes. After clearing 20 feet, the pole vaulting equivalent of the four-minute mile, at a competition in Los Angeles, he presented the victory "to the people of the USA."
This sort of public relations savvy makes promoters' mouths water, and Bubka, in his unassuming way, plays it to the hilt in his new hometown.
He isn't just a friendly asset to the Berlin sports scene, but also has become an ambassador for the city's application to hold the 2000 Games.
Even in training, he doesn't lose an opportunity to please his new German sponsors. Halfway through the practice, he beckons to an assistant, who runs off and soon returns with a T-shirt featuring the Berlin 2000 logo. Bubka puts it on and completes the afternoon session with the Berlin bear on his chest.
Berlin fits into his plans, Bubka said, because he needs a new, more stable place to practice.
"My country is my homeland forever, but now there are so many changes. I am happy here in Berlin," he said.
Berlin also provides a good location for the pole vaulting school he plans to open later this summer. Sooner or later, he said, he will have to quit the sport and wants to have something secure to fall back on.
For now, however, he seems set to continue adding to his string of world records. He has calculated that his top jumping limit is about 21-6. If he is careful, that should be after another 40 world records.