In sport sometimes you have to suffer from the dark downfalls within the competition in order to appreciate the finer performances and their value even further.
Last night as Justin Gatlin, who served a four year ban for a positive drug test, posted the best ever double up in history, it would have been very easy for viewers to switch off their television sets and fans to vacate their seats in the fury that this achievement was still feasible. Yet one thing in particular not only stopped but overawed the events on the track, just as it has done all season, the men’s high jump.
Once more we were treated to another titan battle between the equally talented but oh so different Mutaz Essa Barshim and Bohdan Bondarenko as one after another, they raised the bar higher and higher, edging ever closer towards a world record attempt.
After 7 athletes had cleared 2.31m, only 3 progressed to 2.34m at which point Ivan Ukhov reached his evenings limit; leaving the two stars of this season’s epic event to battle it out. A stumble at the beginning of the competition and again at 2.37m from Barshim, gave his Ukrainian rival the ascendency but it was one he could not quite convert.
1st time clearances from both at 2.40m ensured that we would see 2 athletes compete above that height for the fourth occasion this year.
What would be their next target? Would it be a shot at the world record or a more realistic progressive stab towards a personal best and greater assurance of victory and in turn the Diamond League title?
Unsurprisingly it was indeed the latter that took preference, with Barshim the first to take the leap of faith at 2.43m, almost as if he had been jumping the opening height of 2.25 again, the world indoor champion floated over the bar with more than a few inches to spare to become the 2nd best jumper of all-time and produce the best jump in 21 years, to his words take on the mantle of the prince of high jumping.
Suddenly Bondarenko wasn’t sitting so comfortably at the top and after one failed attempt at the height he decided to pass, meaning he would need to clear a world record 2.46m for victory. Just as with all his other attempts at the height this year it wasn’t to be, but nonetheless he was getting closer.
For Barshim, three unfruitful attempts at the same height will not have been such a frustrating prospect, on a night where he claimed the Diamond League trophy from his rivals grasp and moved clear of him in the all-time standings, to become the best jumper of the 21st century, on paper.
As a regular athletics viewer I am used to perhaps glancing at the field to see what’s going on knowing that almost always the action will be done before the biggest track races get underway, rightly or wrongly.
This year strength in depth has meant that often the high jump can virtually become the meet crowning event, which for once everyone is looking at.
So refreshing is it to see the yoyo effect of one or two athletes carrying the event to new heights far greater than you could have imagined even two years ago.
To put in perspective the improvement of some of the athletes since London 2012, I suppose it’s best to consider it from then and now perspective by looking at how the five medallists from that summer plus a few special extras are now fairing.
Gold medallist then, Ivan Ukhov once looked imperiously perched at the top of the pile, now he faces stiff competition to even make the European top 3, in 2012 he won with a jump of 2.33, a year later a jump of 2 centimetres further wasn’t even good enough for a medal at the world outdoor championships. This year he jumped a massive 2.42m during the indoor season, but could only convert that into one 2.40+ jump outdoors as 4 other athletes matched or eclipsed his achievements.
Just outside those five 2 metres 40 plus jumpers now sits Erik Kynard, Olympic silver medallist, although he has jumped as high as 2.37m this year, he is now considered by many considered with only an outside chance within each competitions he enters.
While his North American counterpart and early season clearer of 2.40m, Derek Drouin only ever really goes into the Diamond League as the 3rd or 4th favourite, despite his World and Olympic bronze medals as well a recent Commonwealth title.
As for the surprise bronze medallist in 2012, Robbie Grabarz, with whom he shared the 3rd place rostrum alongside Mutaz Essa Barshim, things have not progressed for him in the same way. While the others have all moved onto bigger and better heights, the British athlete has suffered from injuries and a slight stagnation in performances just at the wrong time.
For Barshim the story speaks for itself as his year on year elevation within the event continues to be mesmeric, in 2011 he had a personal best of 2.37m now three years on, he is 6 centimetres and 3 medals better off. Rising up the podium, he’s gone from Olympic Bronze to world outdoor silver to indoor gold, with now only
a global outdoor title missing. Beijing 2015 may be a more important target but first he will be able to test himself again the very best in Marrakech for the Iaaf Continental cup.
So what about the world champion and his great rival European Bondarenko, how has he progressed you wonder?
Almost even more impressively than the rest after disappointing 7th in London where he only missed out on sharing Barshim’s medal on count back, the Ukrainian has since gone onto to first take the world title in 2013 before adding to it with European gold this summer, while on his way, he has also collected a 2.42m personal best as well as the 2013 Diamond League title, to become arguably the most consistent athlete on the tour. Which with the bunch behind him, is quite some title, thought must also go to his compatriot Andriy Protsenko, 9th in Olympics, who has come from almost nowhere to become a contender. He too has jumped above 2.40 this season and was also the runner up to Bohdan at the European championships.
With such an intense level of performance it is perhaps no surprise when Barshim says his focus is on victory rather than records, because after all who knows a record just might come with a win one of these days: “When you’re out there in the field and the competition is so strong, it doesn’t matter what the height is, you can put the bar at 2.50m, it doesn’t matter you just want to win.”