"We are Super Men," effused the very pumped Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim after an epic duel with Ukrainian world champion Bohdan Bondarenko at the June 14th IAAF Diamond League track meet in New York City.
Though tall buildings were not leapt in a single bound, both men cleared 2.42 meters (about 7'-11-3/4"), the highest any mere human has launched himself since 1994 and just three centimeters off the world record of 2.45 meters. Bondarenko was declared the winner based on his eight jumps versus Barshim's fourteen.
Not only has that whisker-short-of-eight-feet height not been cleared since 1994, but jumps of this stature have always been the result of one very springy guy having a good day against a door frame-high bar: This was the first time two men of steel went supermano a supermano. Thus the vociferous crowd at Icahn Stadium was treated to a show of supreme athleticism and shrewd strategy with the 20-year-old world record teetering on the brink.
High jump is as much about jumping higher than other competitors as about outlasting other competitors. Barshim jumped more frequently, incrementally increasing his efforts. He claimed the numerous jumps acted as a warmup for the 2.42 meter height, which was a personal best for both him and Bondarenko. But jumping fourteen times within a two-hour time span may have fatigued his limited-use fast-twitch muscles. After both he and Bondarenko cleared 2.42 meters, Barshim opted to try 2.44, but missed.
This gave Bondarenko the liberty to go big, which he did, passing at 2.44 and going straight for a world record height of 2.46 meters. The stomping, cheering crowd demanded it— what could he do?
Bondarenko has a reputation as a very selective jumper, passing at early and some intermediate heights. It's a confident, go-for-broke strategy that banks on opponents tiring themselves and missing, and being able to literally rise to the occasion should a competitor last til the bar resembles a goal post. Fewer jumps also limits the damage to his nearly constantly injured body. Since he started jumping at age 13, the 24-year-old has missed entire years to injury and admits to frequently competing in pain.
His IAAF biography noted an interesting DIY therapy employed between the qualifying and final rounds at the 2012 Olympics:
"Although 2.26 was enough to achieve the Olympic final I felt terrible. My foot was burning! Unfortunately our team doctor had to be in hospital with another athlete and I remained alone with my injury problem. I just put a hot plaster with snake venom and waited for the final."
High jump is an elegant sequence of speed into the bar, explosive power and hair-breadth timing, the jumper's head snapping back as his lead shoulder clears, causing his back to arch and his hips to ripple over. Once the hips have cleared, his head bends forward, dropping his hips and driving first the knees and finally the heels over the trembling length of aluminum. The whole complex chain takes less than two seconds.
Though neither man cleared the 2.46 meter bar, Barshim actually came closer. Euphoric over personal bests and the rapt attention of the crowd (notably absent in most high jump competitions), both men predicted Cuban Javier Sotomayor's 2.45 meter world record would fall before this 2014 season is over.
But it's not over til the fat lady sings. Six feet, five inches and 181 pounds, Sotomayor was originally sent to a Cuban sports school for basketball. He switched sports at 14, and by age 19, he was the number five ranked high jumper in the world. Cuba boycotted the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, but Sotomayor won gold at the 1992 Games. He set the world record in 1989 and bettered it in 1993 to 2.45 (8' - 1/4") meters, and is still the only person to jump higher than eight feet. Also a very selective jumper, that world record was accomplished in only four jumps.
He absolutely dominated high jump from the late 1980s to 1999, posting 17 of the top 25 all-time highest jumps. Though an outspoken anti-drug figure, in 1999, he tested positive for cocaine and was stripped of his Pan American Games gold medal. El Presidente Fidel Castro claimed Sotomayor was framed by the Cuban-American mafia. He officially retired from the sport in 2001 which he said was unrelated to a positive test for anabolic steroids.