By 1988, Sergey Bubka was the greatest vaulter in the world, and possibly the best of all-time, rivaled only by Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, who never got to compete at the Olympics. Bubka had won the 1983 and 1987 World Championships, the 1986 European Championships, had set nine world records (outdoors), and was the only vaulter to clear 6 metres, a mark he had bettered numerous times, and no one else had.
The qualifying round was unusual. Fifteen of the 21 vaulters cleared 5.40 (17-8½). There were then objections by vaulters in Group A that the bar in Group B was being raised at different increments. So the 15 vaulters over 5.40 (17-8½) were advanced, leaving aside the qualifying height of 5.55 (18-2½). In the final, Bubka opened at 5.70 (18-8¼), clearing on his second attempt. He then passed the next four heights.
Two other Soviets were still in the competition. Grigory Yegorov had cleared 5.80 (19-0¼), while Rodion Gataullin made 5.85 (19-2¼) on his third attempt. Bubkas cleared 5.90 (19-4¼) on his third attempt to win the gold medal, Yegorov failing at that height. Gataullin passed to 5.95 (19-6¼) but could not clear, winning the silver medal.