Five of the greatest high jumpers of all time gathered in front of the media before the 2014 World Athletics Gala in Monaco on Friday (21) to celebrate a season in which the event – and the rivalry between Mutaz Barshim and Bogdan Bondarenko in particular – has captured the imaginations of track and field fans around the globe.
The opening question was addressed to 1968 Olympic champion Dick Fosbury, famously the inventor of a new technique still in use today, about Javier Sotomayor’s still-standing world record of 2.45m.
When you started with your new technique did you ever think anyone would jump that high?
Dick Fosbury: “When I was competing, I attempted to break the world record [of 2.28m] set by one of the IAAF’s new Hall of Fame inductees, Valeriy Brumel. I didn’t manage it, but I predicted then that in my lifetime someone would jump 2.50m.
“I said that partly because of my intuition and because I believed it was possible. So now I’m really pleased that these young guys are pushing each other to try to break Soto’s record.”
Fosbury’s answer prompted the inevitable question to Sotomayor: are you starting to feel the heat?
Javier Sotomayor: “I always knew the record would fall one day. Records are made to be broken. For my event it is, of course, very good that we now have two very talented high jumpers who are close to the record.
“When I broke Patrik’s record I never thought it would last this long and I think it has because there wasn’t the competition like there was, but now with Mutaz and Bogdan there is competition again, and that’s why it is under threat.
“When I was competing, the level was so high it motivated me to jump higher. And now it is back up there thanks to these guys. They know if they are going to win, they have to jump 2.44m or 2.45m. It is not easy.”
The man who got closest of all this year was Barshim, who leapt 2.43m despite a long season that stretched from Malmo in January to the Asian Games in Inchon at the end of September. How did he manage to keep going so long and jump so consistently?
Mutaz Essa Barshim: “It wasn’t easy. It has been a very long season but thanks to the man over there, my coach [Stanislaw Szczyrba], he always knows when I should stop because sometimes I just want to jump, jump, jump.
“And this year I used my experience a bit. I have grown up mentally, I think, and that meant this season I could push 100%. Unlike previous years, I had no problems and could keep going. Thanks to the other guys we pushed each other to go higher and higher.”
One of those other guys, of course, was the world champion, Bogdan Bondarenko, Barshim’s main rival throughout the year, who was never placed below second place in contests.
Bogdan Bondarenko: “I had a very long season last summer and didn’t compete in the indoors, but I was training a lot so when I came to jump in the summer I was feeling strong.”
All five jumpers were asked to explain what they love about the event. Former world record-holder Patrik Sjoberg admitted his love had been re-ignited this year: “This year and last the high jump has gone back up there as a major event. It has made me start to watch track and field again because in the last 10 to 15 years I’ve not done that.
“I’m really happy high jump is back in the right place again. When Javier and I were competing, there were 10 guys who could break the world record on their day, and now again we have five who are jumping 2.40m and more. I’m sorry to say for Javier that I think next year his record will go.”
JS: “The high jump is a technical event and that’s what people are interested in. It’s not just competitive, it is also an art, it is an artistic event as much as a sport.”
DF: “I think there is a lot of truth in what Soto says. When we were young our teachers would have us try all the events, and after a while we’d get to see which ones we were good at, which we enjoyed the most and love to do.
“I always wanted to try new things, and found with the high jump I had a talent and a real desire to express myself through the event. It was the best event for me.”
MB: “I agree with Soto that the high jump is an art. Everyone has different techniques and strategies. That makes it interesting.
“It has a hold on you. As the bar goes higher you start to feel more joy and want to go higher and higher yourself. The next day my knee can be whining and my back hurting, but I love it. You can keep football and any other sport. High jump is it.”
BB: “This year you could jump 2.40m and still finish in second place. It was fantastic, I think. And you could jump 2.37m and finish fourth. We are at the next level now.”
Does the high jump require a different mental state to other events?
PS: “I did the triple and long jump up to junior age to quite a good standard and the difference is that in the high jump we never know if it’s going to last one hour or five hours, so you have to be mentally prepared for whatever happens.
“People say I never watched the other jumpers when I competed. But that is not true – if you want to win, you have to watch the other guys, to know if they are going to pass, or go for next height.
“I love the high jump because of that mental game. I’d love to be the world record-holder for the 100m but those guys are only out there for 9.5 seconds; in the high jump you can stay out for hours.”
DF: “In other field events you have six attempts, period. But in the high jump you have the mental challenge of understanding that you may be out there competing for several hours depending on whether you stay in or go out.”
JS: “I believe that mentally high jumpers need to be extremely prepared. High jumpers know what they are trying to achieve with each jump, they know where the bar is and that they have to jump that height, so they have to be prepared for that each time.”
PS: “The conclusion is that you need to be very intelligent to be a high jumper.”
MB: “You also have to be really highly focused, because you can go from winning to maybe last place. It happened to me before. You have to have mind first, then speed, power and focus.
“The emotion comes when you clear the bar. If you do a bad jump at a low height you are frustrated. But then find you find your rhythm and think ‘OK, now I’ve got it, I need to follow that rhythm now.’”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF