Mutaz Essa Barshim has been on top of his game for more than just a few years. He has come the closest to breaking the world record of 2.45m, is the only high jumper to successfully defend the world title, and has won athlete of the year honours. And now he has the only medal that was missing from his cabinet — an Olympic gold.
On Sunday, he achieved that too, and won hearts and earned plaudits for his sportsmanship when he asked to share the gold with his friend and competitor Gianmarco Tamberi after both were tied at 2.37m.
on Wednesday, in a lengthy chat, the Qatari superstar spoke about his struggle, his shared journey with Tamberi, the Olympic win, thoughts on retirement and a lot more.
How different was the competition at the Rio Olympics and the last World Championship in Doha?
In Doha, the level was good, but the challenge at the time was that I was returning from an injury. There were fears and questions. Will I succeed or not, especially since there was no time or tournaments to prepare. There was a pressure factor from the audience at Khalifa International Stadium. But thank God for the win.
You are often seen sleeping and relaxing during competition, between jumps. Do all the players do so?
No, I just do it after every jump to relax, gather my thoughts and focus on my jump or the next one, which I find is better than watching other guys jump because that distracts me.
When you made the decision to share the gold medal, it was within a few seconds. How did you make that decision, and how did you feel during those moments?
Gianmarco Tamberi and I have been friends for 11 years; we were in the youth category, then professional and we have a friendship that is not just on the field. He suffered an injury in 2016 and I suffered the same in 2018, and we both underwent the same operation. When something like this happens, it is very difficult to come back, especially with the psychological pressure, and run and jump at a high level. The referee came to explain the new law that allows two players to win gold.
Such situations can be like ‘adventures’, and so it is important sometimes to refusing to take risks, especially since you are competing at a high level. There were qualifiers and then a final, and you might go for a new jump and suffer an injury. So when I asked, he (the referee) said yes and the celebrations started. Gianmarco was screaming and me too, and the atmosphere was very wonderful.
After I had got out of my operation for what is one of the most serious injuries ever, the doctor had told me ‘I do not know whether you will be able to return or not’. The same was true for him (Tamberi). Those were difficult moments with immense pressure, and we shared that, and so it was one of the reasons for making this decision.
What did you think about the Tokyo competition coming into the event, and who did you consider your No. 1 competitor?
When I came to Tokyo, I was sixth or seventh in the world ranking by virtue of my performances. I knew that to reach the final I had to jump my best this season, and to get a medal I had to jump the best jump in the world this year. So the focus was on the level and not any player. A player may lead you at a small tournament, but in the world championships and the Olympics, the competition is different. So a player is not the focus, but the bar is my opponent.
After winning three Olympic medals, and two world titles, have you thought about retiring?
At this level, when you last 6 or 7 years on top, every player thinks about retirement. I had started thinking about retiring after the injury, but at the moment I cannot decide that thing. In fact, before I got the Olympic gold, I felt that there was something missing. Even if I had stopped before I had achieved it, it was enough that I tried, but thank God I achieved the Olympic gold. Now, I have the ambition to continue, if there are no injuries. In order to keep up with my body, I have to play two or three tournaments a month, not five or more.
There is the final Diamond League event in Zurich (September 9), and our focus is on it. Then there is a break, before the 2022 season begins. There are two world championships — a world indoor championship in Serbia in March, and the world championship in America in July. So there will be pressure next season.
Is the world record on your mind?
Of course, I would love to be the world record holder during my career, but there is no specific time. When the body is suitable, the atmosphere is suitable. Every championship has its own circumstances, and there is risk if you attempt at competitions where the weather is not good. Maybe in a tournament that does not have qualifiers like the Diamond League, or a one-day event, everything is good and we can try that.
Do you feel that you have reached world glory?
Even after three Olympic medals and two world titles?
As a player, no matter what achievements I have, I celebrate for a day or two, or a week and then think about what’s next. Maybe after retirement, I will go back to see what I have achieved during my career and perhaps then I will feel that, but now as a player I am thinking about what is next.
Camp life, what does that mean to you?
It is a very difficult life, but it is necessary. When in Doha, there are often invitations to attend various events, sometimes even on a Friday. If you don’t attend someone gets upset. So when you are in a camp, you are in a more professional atmosphere, preparing for the upcoming events. Travelling for 6-7 hours also make it difficult, so it is better to go through long camps in Europe.
How long did you spend in camps in preparation for the Olympics?
We began in November 2020, I spent three months and then returned to Doha for 2-3 weeks. Then again for two months, and returned to Doha for another 2-3 weeks. Since Ramadan I went to Doha only for a few days. So maybe 6-7 months in camps.
In Olympic competitions, the results and numbers are lower than, say a world record. Why?
Because at the Olympics, the focus is on winning medals. Also, Olympics is held every four years, and one mistake can waste all your efforts. A lot is at stake.
How do you feel after the whole world lauded your sportsmanship for sharing the gold?
It’s a wonderful feeling when people interact with you positively through sports. That moment will be historic and I will be certainly proud of it for my whole life.
What about the tweet by His Highness The Amir when he described you as a role model for Qatari youth?
It is not an ordinary thing when the recognition comes from His Highness The Amir, makes you feel you have done something. It is a huge motivation.
After winning the gold, you went to celebrate with HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani, President of the Olympic Committee, and the Qatari delegation, how did you feel?
Those were wonderful moments, like a dream. When I began in sport, my ambition was to participate in the Olympics, then the dream grew and became bronze, then it became silver and now gold. This is a very big and indescribable feeling. When I see the video again I cannot believe.
Now that you are a champion athlete, what is the most important message you will give to students and athletes?
The most important message I can give them is that nothing is impossible. When I was at Aspire (Academy), the Moroccan Olympic champion Hicham El Guerrouj came to us. When you sit with him, you find him talking to you about difficulties and injuries, and about diligence and work, and you feel that he is a human being like you. You think about the possibility of repeating an achievement like his, and this is the most important thing.