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.”
Barshim in action in Zurich today
Zurich: Sixteen IAAF Diamond League champions will be crowned today at the Weltklasse in Zurich, the first of two 2017 IAAF Diamond League finals.
In all, 17 freshly-minted world champions and 14 reigning Olympic champions will be on the slate before a sell-out crowd of 25,000 at Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium. In eight events, the two will be going head-to-head in the battle for the Diamond Trophy and each discipline’s US$50,000 winner’s check in a new championships-style format introduced this year.
Athletes competing in Zurich – and those who will compete in the remaining 16 Diamond disciplines in Brussels on Friday 1 September – earned their spots in the finals by accumulating points at the 12 IAAF Diamond League meetings leading up to the two finals where the winners of each Diamond event will be crowned the 2017 series’ champions.
The three jumps on the men’s programme all feature newly-crowned world champions who are unbeaten in 2017: Luvo Manyonga of South Africa in the long jump, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim in the high jump, and Sam Kendricks of the US in the pole vault.
In the latter, the story line will follow Renaud Lavillenie, the bronze medallist in London, who is the only athlete to have won the Diamond Trophy in each of the series’ seven seasons. The 30-year-old Frenchman hasn’t won at a Diamond League meeting this season but arrives in the heels of back-to-back season’s bests: 5.89m in London and 5.91m in Warsaw one week ago.
Kendricks on the other hand, rides a 10-meet win streak to Switzerland’s northern reaches, and arrives as the world leader at 6.00m and clearly as the man to beat. Poles Piotr Lisek and Pawel Wojciechowski with 5.89m and 5.93m season’s bests, will figure prominently as well.
Barshim too arrives undefeated this season in nine competitions, and fresh off a 2.40m world lead in Birmingham. He’ll need to be pushed to go higher and perhaps even challenge his 2.43m lifetime best set in the Diamond League final in 2014. That’s not likely in a season in which Barshim is head and shoulders, figuratively and almost literally, above the rest of the field.
Mutaz Barshim in action on way to the gold medal at the Birmingham Diamond League meeting earlier this week.