“Height casts a spell on me,” Yaroslav Rybakov once said attempting to explain his fascination with the event he’s spent his life trying to perfect.
Last night in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, the 1.98m tall Russian found a bit of magic to spirit the world High Jump title away from three fellow Europeans on a cold damp evening fit more for wizards and witches than international competition.
Three times Rybakov has come to an IAAF World Championships in touch of gold, three times he has come away only with silver. It felt as if the spell had been cast on him, he says, if he was destined never to win.
But this time he got his hands on the real treasure thanks to a first-time clearance at 2.32m following just one failure at 2.28m that handed him the advantage as his rivals struggled to cope with the conditions.
The winning height may not trouble the record books – there’s good reasons for that – but for Rybakov the victory is of far greater value.
“Some stage in my life is complete,” he says. “I’ve had three second places outdoors and three seconds indoors. Now I have the gold. Finally.
“Now, I have achieved my goal, I am free. I can continue jumping, even experiment with my technique, because this has set me free.”
First gold, a long time coming
The 28-year-old Muscovite has waited a long time for his first global outdoor title – all his life, he says – but he was forced to wait even longer last night as the competition was delayed by an hour and a half thanks to a thunder storm and torrential rain which sent the jumpers hurrying for cover well before the scheduled start time.
Even when they returned, and despite the best efforts of officials and stadium staff, the high jump curtain remained wet throughout the rounds – “cold, slippery and dangerous,” according to Germany’s Raul Spank who took a bronze.
But Rybakov managed to keep his head, and his feet, throughout a difficult competition. “The weather had a really bad influence but all the guys were in the same situation,” he says. “We just had to cope. I thought I could have jumped higher but the field was so wet it was difficult.
“I’m a little disappointed with 2.32m but the delay was one reason and the weather made it hard as well. I also have an injury to my foot and I was feeling the pain at the decisive moment of every jump. I just focused on myself and tried to collect all the elements of my jumping life together each time.”
On track from an early age
He may be young, but Rybakov’s jumping life has been long already. Born in Belarus, he is coached by his father, Vladimir, a former high jumper himself who cleared 2.07m in his time and was trained by Vladimir Djachkov, mentor to 1964 Olympic champion Valery Brumel. His mother, Ljudmila Lushchenkova was also an athlete, a Belarussian Heptathlon champion under the old Soviet Union.
It’s not so much that Rybakov has sport in his blood, however, as in his upbringing, for much of his early life was spent at the training track or following his parents to competitions. Athletics has been his environment ever since.
Indeed, father Vladimir started training him as young as 10. And at 14, the family moved to Yaroslavl, near Moscow, because conditions were better. Back then the young Yaroslav was doing everything – running, throwing and, of course, jumping. He showed potential as a decathlete, but it was the high jump that had weaved its magic on the teenager.
And pretty soon he began to spellbind his competitors, winning Russian championships at every age group through the teens. In 1998 he went to the world juniors in Annecy, France, where he was fifth. Three years later, aged 20, he won the first of his trio of outdoor world silvers, in Edmonton, Canada, setting a personal best of 2.33m, one centimetre more than the height he cleared to take gold last night.
Suddenly, as if by a magician’s trick, the young Rybakov had arrived on the world senior stage, jumping from 40th to third on the world lists.
Yet, despite winning European gold in 2002, silver seemed to become his colour as he finished second at the 2003 and 2004 world indoors, at the 2005 European indoors, and at the 2005 World outdoor championships. Only in his home town in 2006 did he finally win a global title, taking the world indoor crown in Moscow with 2.37m to deny Stefan Holm a fourth successive title.
It should have been a breakthrough, and in Osaka two years ago it looked as if he would wrestle with Holm again for the top honour only for the little known Bahamian Donald Thomas to surprise the world. After knee surgery in October 2007, he finished second for a third time at last year’s World indoors before taking bronze at the Olympics in Beijing.
This season his form has come slowly with his only previous victory before tonight in Sollentuna while he was second at the Russian championships and at the Moscow Open. Indeed, the more likely Russian victor last night appeared to be Ivan Ukhov who won the European indoor title in March.
But Rybakov says he knew early in the competition that Ukhov was not on top form. “I could see others were in good shape though, and they were going to be fighting,” he says. They did too. All four medallists – Sylvester Bednarek of Poland shared the bronze with Spank – cleared the same height, and all came close to 2.35m. It could have been anyone’s game.
But, in the end, as the Cyrpiot silver medallist, Kyriakos Ioannou, said: “Yaroslav has tried many times to win; I think tonight it was his time.”
Inded, it was. You can see why he walked slowly around the blue track on his lap of honour, the Russian flag passed to him by his father held proudly above his head – after so many silvers he was entitled to savour every moment. The event was meant to start at 19:15 but it was well past 23:00 when Rybakov , his spikes packed away, the autographs signed and well-wishers hands slapped, finally made his way off the track.
Even now, however, Rybakov will have to wait a little longer, as his medal ceremony has been held back until Saturday evening. Perhaps, only then will his spell be truly broken.
“I can’t wait to get my hands on the gold medal,” he says. “When I finally get it, that’s when I will feel like celebrating. I have waited so long to strike gold and now I will have it.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF