By Cathal Dennehy
As he walked off the track in the Grand Stade de Marrakech last night, his job successfully completed in winning the men’s high jump at the Continental Cup with a 2.37m clearance – giving him a 4-3 edge this season over close rival Mutaz Essa Barshim – Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko showed every ounce of this season’s exertions on his weary face.
Two things were foremost in his mind. One – the long break he would finally get to enjoy after a season in which he and Barshim took the men’s high jump to heights we could never have expected, and two – the party that he couldn’t wait to have back in his native Ukraine to celebrate this win, and indeed all the others this season.
“I’m getting a bus at 4am to the airport,” he said. “I won’t be going to the party with all the athletes tomorrow night, but it’s fine, I’ll have a better party at home.”
Barshim, who could only manage third last night in 2.37m, was equally relieved to be coming to the end of a long season that saw him soar over 2.43m this year. The 23-year-old will next compete at the Asian Games in a fortnight’s time, which will close his season.
“I need a long vacation,” said Barshim. “I’ve been away from home since May. I was hoping for better but my body didn’t give me it today. It wasn’t pumped as I expected. It was alright. There was not many technical mistakes so that’s good.”
Looking ahead to 2015, many predict Barshim may indeed be the athlete to finally remove Javier Sotomayor’s 2.45m world record from the books, but the Qatari is taking nothing for granted. He’s achieved his goals for this year, being crowned Diamond League Champion and soaring over 2.43 in Brussels a fortnight ago.
“That 2.43 was my plan this year. I need to rest and then we can start over again. I need to be stronger, improve my run-up, but that takes time. I have the right team – my management and my trainer – it’s definitely a team effort. My coach [Stanislaw Szczyrba] has a lot of experience. He is 40 years working as an athletic coach so he knows what he’s doing. He uses his knowledge and my talent, and it’s working.”
Bondarenko, meanwhile, feels he has several areas of improvement to work on through the winter, any of which could propel him to that world record next season. “Everything is bad,” he said, displaying in clear view the perfectionism that drove him to such great heights in the first place. “I can improve a lot. I think the world record is possible, but who can predict.”
Sandwiching Barshim and Bondarenko tonight in second place was Ivan Ukhov, the Russian who, at his best, has also looked more than capable of also taking the world record to new heights. However, most would now agree that if it is to fall, then Bondarenko and Barshim appear the most likely candidates.
Even if it doesn’t, though, the very fact it’s now constantly being talked about is evidence enough of how much attention and adulation the high jumpers have brought to their discipline this year. It’s something that hasn’t escaped Barshim, who in recent days has been the subject of both a funny and fascinating twitter craze that has seen members of the public photo-shop images of his Brussels clearance of 2.43m to put it in proper perspective.
“I’ve seen the stuff on twitter; it’s really cool,” said Barshim. “This year, myself and Bondarenko have taken high jump up to a better level. It’s good for high jump, and for athletics in general.”
Bondarenko is equally pleased to be a central figure in what is swiftly becoming the golden era of the men’s high jump. “They didn’t expect at all that we would put the high jump at such a high level all season,” he said.
For now, the 25-year-old will return to his native city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, where he will enjoy a long break and then commence training for the 2015 season under the watchful eye of his coach [and father] Viktor Bondarenko.
And the good news for all those fans of the sport who have been captivated by the pair’s duels this season: Bondarenko plans to keep the pressure on his younger rival, to go even higher and work just as hard to ensure the season to come delivers just as much as the one just past.
As he walked on through the mixed zone, a weary smile etched across his face, Bondarenko offered one last line which should ensure we see more of the same when these two renew their rivalry in 2015. “We promise we will do everything we can to do even more next year,” he said.
And wouldn’t that be something special?