Capping a stunning comeback from a career-threatening injury, Mutaz Barshim successfully defended his world high jump title before a near-capacity crowd at Khalifa Stadium.
Judging by the thunderous roar that followed the Qatari hero’s every jump this evening, it was abundantly clear that he was, on this night, the most magnetic figure in the small Gulf nation. Their support was further awarded by its preface, Dalilah Muhammad’s world record in the 400m hurdles. His winning leap, a massive first attempt clearance at 2.37m, came just minutes after.
Indeed, it was Barshim, the 2017 World Athlete of the Year, who was these championships’ unofficial poster boy ever since the Qatari capital was named to host these championships in 2014. That’s a lot of pressure for any one athlete to carry, never mind one who suddenly found himself sidelined by a serious ankle injury just 14 months before the start of the championships. Ruptured ligaments and a subsequent surgery in July of last year began what turned out to be a frustrating race against the calendar, and then against the clock.
His form in the qualifying round suggested he was winning that race. That momentum continued as the competition began tonight as he sailed clear on his first attempts over the first four bars: 2.19m, 2.24m, 2.27m and 2.30m. But he had company, as authorised neutral athletes Mikhail Akimenko and Ilya Ivanyuk were chiseling together the finest competitions of their lives. Both matched Barshim over the first four heights before Akimemko took command with another first attempt clearance at 2.33m to match his lifetime best. Indeed, his run put him firmly in the driver's seat, albeit briefly, after Ivanyuk and Barshim missed twice.
But on this night Barshim would not be stopped. Digging deep and pumped by the roars of the crowd, he bounded down the runway to produce his biggest clearance of the night, finally finding the rhythm he'd been chasing for more than a year. That quickly, the momentum of the competition changed entirely.
Ivanyuk sailed over as well, moving the competition to 2.35m. Barshim sailed over on his first try again sending the crowd into another mad frenzy. Akimenko answered in kind, extending his perfect scorecard to a 2.35m personal best to maintain the lead. Following suit, Ivanyuk too cleared on his first try, adding two centimetres to his lifetime best.
But Barshim simply kept the pressure on with another solid first attempt clearance at 2.37m, finally a bar too high for the challengers. Qatar's first gold of the championships had been sealed. Barshim called it a night to take a lap-long bow.
"For me, it was just a dream. At home, it was just amazing. Everybody was there, my family, friends the Emir himself," said Barshim, who became the first man to win back-to-back world titles in the event.
"I was not one hundred percent ready but when I came here and saw all of those people cheering for me, even if I was dying, if they take me out with a wheelchair or with an ambulance, I would do everything I can."
In a relatively soft year for the event, the season's final competition was the finest.
Maksim Nedasekau of Belarus topped 2.33m to finish fourth. Cuba's Luis Enrique Zayas improved his career best to 2.30m to finish fifth, edging Australian Brandon Starc (sixth) and Canadian Michael Mason (seventh) at the height on countback.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF