As the world of track & field say its last goodbyes to two superstars of the sport – Usain St. Leo Bolt and Sir Mo Farah – pundits, commentators and supporters alike continue to ask that same, familiar question: to whom does the sport turn to next?
Global icons of sport come and go. From the retirement of 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson in 2014, to Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar taking to the crease for the very last time a year earlier, and track & field’s own Michael Johnson crossing the line for the final time back in 2008. But someone new always comes along, do they not? Athletics now has those doubts. What I argue below is that the sport may well have found its answer.
“There’ll be pressure, but I love that”
The kind of words that become synonymous with interviews in the world of sport; though easy for someone to say, proving such an acclaim is what separates the great from the good.
A statement we would expect to hear from Bolt himself, equally so from Sir Mo.
Speaking immediately after his emphatic Diamond League success, and just a week on from earning a very first global outdoor title at senior level, those were the words Qatari high-jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim told the thousands inside Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium, as he looked to the future, and to the next IAAF Outdoor World Championships on home soil in 2019.
A formerly unassuming character, the 26-year-old is now presenting the kind of charisma that comes so naturally to so few. Athletics needs big personalities right now more than it ever has before. Barshim could be just that.
Now a national and continental record holder, Barshim shot onto the scene at the age of 19, as he became the 2010 World Junior Champion in Moncton, Canada, just four years after first switching to the sport because it was ‘the least painful’ of athletic disciplines.
Following a disappointing 14th place finish in qualification at the IAAF World Championships in the same year and on home soil, the Qatari athlete rose to prominence at the senior level by sharing an Olympic bronze medal with Canadian Derek Drouin and home favourite Robbie Grabarz at the London 2012 Games.
With a “father and son”-like relationship developing with Polish/Swedish coach, Stanislaw ‘Stanley’ Szczyrba, proof of the young man’s progression came again two years later, with a first global medal at the World Indoors in Sopot, Poland.
And it took the same length of time for Barshim to shine on the world stage once more, upgrading his bronze to a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
However, it has been in 2017 where those outside of the high jump circle have taken notice of the 6 ft 3 ½ in athlete, as he has dominated his event throughout the season – seemingly cruising on his route to becoming world champion and recording eight of the top ten Diamond League jumps this year.
Features of a ‘Great’
Much like Jonnie Peacock following his World Para Athletic Championships title in the T44 100m, Barshim had not trained since winning his latest gold, but that seemed to matter little as he flew over the bar – set at 2.40m (7 ft 9 in) – to record a new world lead as Birmingham hosted its latest meet for the world’s elite.
Barshim had caught the bar on not one but two occasions at the lower height of 2.31m – a jump that rival and world bronze medallist Mejd Eddin Ghazal successfully negotiated at the first attempt.
However, the world champion went clear on his first attempt at heights of both 2.33m and 2.35m, forcing Ghazal to concede a victory that was so nearly his own; a realisation the Syrian athlete is becoming all-too familiar as he again took Barshim further than any other man could.
And though his athletic and mental prowess during the competition shone through, what I experienced from the stands at the Alexander Stadium was an athlete who played the crowd to his advantage, he used their energy to fuel his own, keeping his chances alive at first, before driving him to levels that his fellow competitors could not come close to emulating.
What followed from this most graceful of competitors was a type of innate character that we associate with the likes of Bolt himself, as Barshim insisted: “I’m taking the bar home; I’m not joking”. A statement that further endeared him to the adoring thousands inside the Stadium, who may have been excused for looking past the 26-year-old’s efforts, as they awaited the arrival of one of their own, Sir Mo Farah, on what would prove to be his last race on a British track.
I’m taking the bar home; I’m not joking
What Barshim must do now is go on to dominate his event, as well as his sport; a feat that could be facilitated as the athlete looks ahead to 2019, and to a home World Championships in Doha, the place where it all started for a man who was inspired to take part having followed his father to training as a young boy.
Though several of Barshim’s main rivals are awaiting a return to the top of their sport following illness and injury, it would not be unreasonable to predict that the high jump could become a one-athlete show, much like we have witnessed from Usain Bolt in the world of sprinting, from Mo Farah and Tirunesh Dibaba in the world of middle- and long-distance running, and from the outstanding Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie in the pole vault.
However, Barshim will know as well as anyone that he will remain well short of receiving regular recognition alongside those above; at least, that is, until he pushes new boundaries in the high jump event.
What could support those events would be by adding three centimetres to a personal best that will take him beyond Javier Sotomayor’s world record jump of 2.45 (8 ft).
And how better to achieve such a feat than on Qatari soil at the 2019 World Championships?
By ticking two boxes at the same time perhaps, with an Olympic Games in Tokyo just a year later.
Mutaz, the stage is yours.