At some point during the qualifying rounds on Tuesday, a camera focused on Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim as he lied down on the pink track at the Khalifa International Stadium safe in the knowledge that he has a foot in in today’s high jump final.
Barshim glanced at the camera and winked with a hint of smile.
Given his demeanour and the ease with which he cleared 2.29m without any faults for a shot at defending his world title, one could be forgiven for assuming that it must have been just as serene and calm on the inside, as it looked from the outside.
“I was pushing myself the whole season to jump well at home. Despite the fact that the people are sometimes very critical, I am happy to compete here,” Barshim said after he sailed over the bar four times on Tuesday for a spot in the medal round.
Much has been spoken and written about the 2017 Athlete of the Year’s injury last year. In his effort to set a new world record, Barshim had the bar pushed up to 2.46m in Hungary in July last year, but was instead left clutching his ankle after one of the attempts. He missed the rest of the season, the start of the World Championships season, the Asian championships at home, and bulk of the Diamond League season, before making a return in Sopot with a 2.27m this year.
And yet the spotlight has never deflected from the two-time Olympic medallist even as he stayed away from competition to recover from a serious ankle injury.
Whether it is his capability – he is the only high jumper to go six straight years with a 2.40m-plus effort since 2013 and has come closest to Javier Sotomayor’s 2.45m world record, or his calm and cool highly-marketable endearing persona on and off the field, or even his relationships with fellow athletes – ask Italian high-jumper Gianmarco Tamberi – Barshim has always had a spotlight ever since he won a bronze in 2012 London Olympic Games.
In January last year, the 2016 world indoor champion Tamberi, also known for sporting a distinct half beard at major competitions, wrote in the IAAF magazine about how his “friend Mutaz” taught him the importance of jumping “for yourself, in your own time”.
As Tamberi cried behind closed doors following his dismal performance in Paris in 2017 when he could not even clear the opening height, Barshim told the Italian, “Don’t try to rush it. You had a big injury, you’re already back in the Diamond League. No one expected that. But now you need to take your time, don’t expect too much too early from yourself. Just see what happens.”
The 28-year-old has had to apply the same maturity as he made his return to competition from his ankle injury. And by the looks of it, he has.
Barshim missed the Asian championships in April even though he “really wanted to do it” because circumstances demanded he give his body some more time.
He has had a few weeks more ahead of this year’s World Championships given that Doha 2019 began later than the usual slot.
And by the way things turned out on Tuesday, it’s working out fine for the Qatari star. After Abderrahman Samba’s bronze in a high-quality men’s 400m hurdles final on Monday, the hosts have gotten their hopes high for yet another moment of glory.
“I always want to win, it does not matter where it is. Every athlete wants to compete at home, so it is special,” Barshim said after the qualification round.
“It is really great to jump in front of the home crowd when you have your family, wife, in the stands and it was very important for me. I just want to do this for them. It definitely makes these Championships special to me and it gives you extra motivation.”
Only two other athletes – authorised neutral athletes Ilya Ivanyuk and Mikhail Akimenko – boasted a perfect card in the qualification round.
Belarussian Maksim Nedasekau has this year’s world leading effort of 2.35, but struggled before finally clearing 2.26m on Tuesday.
Even though many have a higher season’s best effort, no one apart from Barshim has tasted the air 2.40m above the ground in their careers.
As for Tamberi, he was just glad “to compete with my good friend Barshim” in today’s final. “I am happy he is back at this level. I wish him all the best. He deserves it considering everything he has been through,” Tamberi said after he too jumped a best of 2.29m on Tuesday.
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