Mutaz Essa Barshim was one missed attempt away from bowing out of the competition at 2.35m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in New York on Saturday (14), and what a loss that would have been.
Having cleared his first three heights flawlessly, at 2.35m he suddenly hit problems and had two failures. With a hard swallow and deep breath, Qatar’s world indoor champion sped into his approach and cleared the bar.
He bounded to his feet and pumped both fists into the air. A date with destiny was still on.
The 22-year-old Barshim and Ukraine’s world champion Bohdan Bondarenko would go on to duel in the greatest men's high jump competition in the history of the sport, one which saw the bar raised to a world-record height of 2.46m.
Neither man cleared it, but both came tantalisingly close, making clearances at 2.40m and 2.42m that had the crowd at Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island on its feet and roaring. Bondarenko would wind up the winner thanks to Barshim’s failures at 2.35m, but his clearance at 2.42m equalled the European record and established Diamond League and meeting records as well as a world leading mark. Barshim's clearance at the same height is an Asian record.
Bondarenko and Barshim's jumps are the best in the world since world record-holder Javier Sotomayor of Cuba cleared 2.42m in Seville on 5 June 1994.
Only Sotomayor, on four occasions, has jumped higher than these two men.
"I know for a fact this was the greatest men's high jump competition in history," Barshim said. "High jump is in golden days right now. Everyone is watching high jump and cheering for that and of course that is really positive for us.
“To come down and have the whole stadium on its feet clapping, as a high jumper that is amazing."
The drama began to build at 2.35m, a height Bondarenko cleared easily on his first attempt.
USA’s Olympic silver medallist Erik Kynard went out at that bar while Barshim and Ukraine's world indoor bronze medallist Andriy Protsenko needed third-attempt clearances to remain in the competition. For Protsenko, it also established an outdoor personal best.
He would miss his first attempt at 2.38m, but Barshim soared over on his first attempt, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Bondarenko, known for being a selective jumper, passed at the height and waited until the bar rose to 2.40m. Protsenko missed both of his final two jumps at the new height and finished third.
Barshim then missed his first try at 2.40m, as did Bondarenko, but when the Qatari floated over cleanly on his second try, it seemed to put the pressure on Bondarenko.
However, the lanky Ukrainian calmly responded with a second clearance of his own, the first time two men had ever topped the 2.40m mark in the same meet.
"High jump is a chess match," commented Barshim. "You can never predict who is going to win. Whenever there is a strong field, you know there is going to be a good result, but who is going to win is the most important thing. Right now, we don’t even really look at height any more. We just want to win."
The excitement continued to build at the next bar, when both men easily cleared 2.42m at the first time of asking for a brace of continental records.
At this point, the traditionally sprint-centric crowd would have been tuned in to the men's 100m and 200m races closing out the programme on the track, but all eyes were glued on the infield.
"This was a good competition," Bondarenko said. "It was a fabulous stadium, and for me today, this was my best competition. I wanted to win today. I wanted to jump high."
Strategy came into play once again as Barshim missed his first attempt at 2.44m. Knowing that he had the victory sealed if neither of them made another bar, Bondarenko passed at that height, and told the judges he would attack a world record 2.46m.
It was here that attrition also became a factor.
Barshim, who was to eventually take 14 jumps to Bondarenko's eight in the competition, had his best chance at a world record clearance on his first attempt, clipping the bar with his heels. He floated into the bar on his last jump.
None of Bondarenko's attempts at the record were terrific, and his third was aborted.
"I think I had energy left," said Bondarenko. "I took less jumps to 2.40m, and up to 2.46m this was better for me. This is a competition with strategy at the end of the day."
Barshim said he didn't regret jumping so much early on.
"I jumped a lot, but I wanted to jump at the lower heights as a warm-up so it was like a training for me," he said.
"It's all about the experience, taking on that many jumps and seeing with my coach how we can improve these jumps. I think the competition was really good. There were meet, and national and area records. It was amazing."
Bondarenko said that the pressure to jump a world record was something he felt throughout the competition.
"Many people have been saying, 'world record, world record,'" he said. "All day, I have had questions, 'When will the world record [be broken]?' This is very hard. We don’t know when this will happen."
But Barshim is now more convinced than ever that Sotomayor's world record of 2.45m will fall soon.
"The world record is not easy," he said. "We are humans. We can't jump on this level every time. One time we might feel good, another time we might feel bad. It depends on the body and the day.
“The world record takes more than just preparation. It takes the perfect day," added Barshim. "But I am more convinced that day can happen this season."
Joe Battaglia for the IAAF