The traditional pre-meeting press conference at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels brought together the two highest profile protagonists in the men’s high jump and women’s 100m on Thursday (8).
Mutaz Essa Barshim has fond memories of the Belgian capital as it was here, two years ago, that he cleared 2.43m to move up to second on the high jump world all-time list.
“In 2014, it was like living my dream. My coach wasn’t surprised, he said, two or three jumps before, ‘you can jump 2.43 and, if there are good conditions, you can get the world record.’
“When I jumped 2.43, he was like ‘see I told you!’ It was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t sleep that night; it was a moment of greatness. I have to say the stadium that night was amazing. Everyone was cheering and there was a great atmosphere.
“The conditions were there for the world record, and I think I could have jumped the world record that night, if I hadn’t been so happy with my jump at 2.43. Once you’ve done something like that, a wave of satisfaction flows over you, and I was feeling like ‘I’m done’.
“Since then I have had a lot of problems, my body isn’t so strong and I’ve had problems with my knee, my ankle and my back. I have had to reduce my training, I have had to cut everything down just to recover, I’ve been jumping off four steps and I am still jumping off four.
“At least now I am now a more experienced high jumper from two years ago, I’m more mature, more educated and I know more about what to do at what time.
Barshim getting back to top form
“But I think I just need time to feel again like I did in Brussels two years ago."
Barshim has now jumped 2.40m nine times – only world record-holder Javier Sotomayor has jumped that high more often than the Qatari – and he feels number 10 could be on its way on Friday.
“2.40 at the first attempt could win the Diamond Race," he added. "It’s very close with four men in contention, but I think that’s a height that could do it.”
In contrast to the ebullient Barshim, his great rival Bogdan Bondarenko cut a more sanguine figure when he presented himself at the press conference.
“As some people know, one week before Rio I started to suffer sinus problems and I started to take antibiotics. In Rio, I felt bad, it was a long competition and by 2.38 I was starting to feel very tired and dizzy in the head.
“I’m getting a lot of pain,” he added, pointing to just below his left eye. “It’s especially bad when I fly and the changes in the air pressure make it very painful. I might have surgery at the end of the season and this is definitely my last competition of the year.
“I went to Lausanne but then I realised that there were still four men in contention for the Diamond Race so I stopped my antibiotics and I’ve come here.
“The only good thing is that I’ve lost weight, I’ve lost two or three kilos and I’m now down to 76kg,” he added with a modicum of gallows humour, not that Bondarenko had much spare flesh on him anyway.
Thompson targeting Fraser-Pryce's meeting record
Elaine Thompson ran in Brussels last year when she finished third over the 200m, and – unlike Barshim and Bondarenko during their epic 2104 seasons – is just getting used to being the star of the show rather than in the chorus line after her feat of winning the 100m and 200m double in Rio.
“It’s hard to be the champion but I’m staying focused," she said. "There is now a pressure that wasn’t there before, I haven’t been back to Jamaica since the Olympics and just came to my European base in Italy. We felt that the journeys would be too long and we still had some races to do.
“It wouldn’t have been a distraction going back to Jamaica and I think there are going to be some things planned when I get there so I’m looking forward to celebrating with family and friends."
On Friday night, she has the target of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s 100m meeting record of 10.72, set in 2013.
If she beats it, it will be with mixed feelings. “She’s my soul mother, she taught me so much,” said Thompson, thinking about the Jamaican sprint icon whom she beat to gold over the shorter distance in Rio. “However, I’m looking for a fast time, it’s my last 100 of the season (and Thompson is unbeaten over 11 races at the distance in 2016) but I’m still healthy and in good shape."
Her main rival, Dafne Schippers, has about 1500 orange-clad supporters travelling over the border from the Netherlands hoping to cheer on their idol to what might be considered an upset win in the wake of the Rio results.
“That’s going to be fun and that’s what also made the Europeans in Amsterdam so special,” said Schippers, looking back to the continental event in July, where she won the 100m in front of a home audience.
Naturally, a lot of the questions in Brussels focused on her combined events past, not least because the Olympic heptathlon title was won by the Belgian heroine Nafissatou Thiam.
“I’m now very happy with being in the sprint world, because it’s not easy," she said. "In the heptathlon, it’s a very small, easy world; all the girls are very relaxed and we talked about things. In the sprints, I get on with the European girls but it’s a much bigger world and, after last year, there is more pressure, but I think I can handle it.
“I know Nafi, we’ve competed together and she’s very special. She had a perfect heptathlon in Rio, five personal bests, and I know to have a perfect heptathlon is not easy. She had seven very good events, some good heptathletes never do that in their whole life, and she did it when she’s so very young.
“In Rio, I watched almost every minute of the heptathlon," added Schippers. "I still love watching the heptathlon, but I never wished to be out there, that’s something in the past. My world is sprinting now.”
Phil Minshull for the IAAF