Some athletes crumble under pressure. Others, like Mutaz Essa Barshim, thrive.
In an athletics discipline that almost always ends in failure – even for the winners – high jumpers have to be mentally strong. And this year Barshim has proven himself to be the strongest in the world in his event, both mentally and physically.
Not only has he gone undefeated for the whole season – a feat last achieved in the men’s high jump back in 2004 by Stefan Holm – but Barshim’s winning streak has also included the IAAF World Championships London 2017, where he won his first senior global outdoor title.
Having achieved his main goal for the season, Barshim headed to the UK’s second city one week later and jumped a world-leading 2.40m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Barshim said after clearing 2.40m for the 10th time in his career, a tally bettered only by world record-holder Javier Sotomayor. “I knew I was in good shape, I just didn’t know how recovered my body was. I hadn’t trained at all since the World Championships. At that point of the season, resting is training. You need to recover.”
The 26-year-old Qatari surrendered his lead in Birmingham when world bronze medallist Majd Eddin Ghazal cleared 2.31m on his first try, while Barshim needed three attempts. But that was exactly the kind of pressure Barshim needed to go higher.
“I was a little bit tired and felt I wasn’t really kicking off but after knocking down 2.31m a couple of times, I started to find some of my rhythm again.
“I find it difficult to jump when there’s no pressure,” he added. “That’s why, once I’d won the competition, I moved the bar up to 2.39m. Then after a couple of attempts, I thought there still wasn’t enough pressure for me, so I thought I’d move the bar up to 2.40m. That was a challenge for me, so I’m really happy I did it. The meeting record was my target.”
The jump also meant that 2017 was Barshim’s fifth consecutive season of 2.40m jumps; a record streak for any high jumper in history.
“It’s 2.40m, it’s a magical number,” he said. “I’m so happy I got it this year. I knew I could do it, I knew I had the power.
“I think I was in better shape during the World Championships, but the target there for me was the gold. It was a championship, so it’s the medal that counts. Once I got that gold, I was so happy and I couldn’t really focus to jump higher, so that’s why I didn’t jump 2.40m in London.”
His win on Sunday was Barshim’s third consecutive victory in Birmingham. The next time he competes in the British city will likely be at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018.
“I love it here; I had the meeting record here from 2014 and I also won in Birmingham last year so it is a lucky place for me,” he said. “This is a good sign. I’ve never jumped indoors in Birmingham, so I’m looking forward to competing at the World Indoor Championships.”
After sailing over the bar with absolute precision, Barshim leapt off the high jump bed and was embraced by fellow competitors Ghazal, Gianmarco Tamberi and Luis Castro Rivera. Barshim then headed back towards the uprights, picked up the bar and walked off with it.
“I’m taking the bar home; I’m not joking,” he said. “I like that jump that I did; for me it’s special. I want to remember that jump every time I look at the bar.”
Before Barshim’s breakthrough world U20 title in 2010, Qatar didn’t have much of an athletics tradition. And while several athletes have won medals for Qatar over the past decade, Barshim is the country’s leading home-grown talent.
He hasn’t always been a high jumper, though. When he started in athletics, Barshim followed in the footsteps of his father, who was an international level endurance athlete, competing in long-distance running and race walking events.
He eventually discovered jumping events and stuck with the high jump because, he says, it was the one that hurt the least. Even then, it took a few years to make a mark.
“In 2007, when I was about 16 years old, I realised I had talent and I started training more seriously,” he says. “When I jumped 2.14m at age 17 to qualify for the World Junior Championships, that was big for me. I went to the World Junior Championships the following year and I won it.”
Barshim took Olympic bronze in London two years later and has featured regularly on championship podiums ever since. He is now just the fourth man in history to have won world titles indoors and outdoors in the high jump.
Given all that he has achieved, it is easy to forget that Barshim is still just 26 years old.
“I’m not in any rush,” he says. “My coach (Stanislaw Szczyrba) tells me that I’m still young and I’m not yet at my peak. I’m still getting stronger mentally and physically. Injuries have slowed me down a bit, but I’m happy that I’m starting to build back from that and I’m now healthy.
“The only target I have now is the world record.”
Questions about the world record have been a regular theme at high jump press conferences over the past few years, ever since the 2013 and 2014 seasons where numerous athletes jumped 2.40m. Of that crop – a group that includes the likes of Olympic champion Derek Drouin, 2013 world champion Bogdan Bondarenko and 2012 Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov – Barshim is the only jumper who is currently at full health.
He doesn’t take anything for granted, though. And, if anything, Barshim would love for his rivals to be back to top form.
“I don’t like to underestimate anyone,” he says. “If you’re getting more people in the field jumping high, we’ll push each other on to jump better heights. When there’s a strong field, you just want to win, then all of a sudden you realise it’s a great height.
“I still think the world record is possible,” he added. “I don't want to put any limits on myself.”
Following his nine wins from nine competitions in 2017, and having produced eight of the 10 best jumps in the world this summer, Barshim has two more competitive outings left for this season: the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich on Thursday, then the high jump meeting in Eberstadt two days later.
“I hope I’ll recover well,” he said after his Birmingham win. “We’ll see how it goes, but I’m taking it day by day.”
Already his attention is starting to turn to the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019 on home soil.
“I thought about it a couple of times after London,” he says. “It’s always nice to jump on home soil and of course having a home crowd is an advantage. It’s going to be great. I just hope I’m going to be healthy and ready to fight.
“There’ll be pressure, but I love that.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF