Javier Sotomayor

Jump Higher

Words: Werner Jessner and Arek Piatek
Illustrations: Alex Williamson

…than Javier Sotomayor. but not by much – We’ve nearly reached the ceiling  

The Red Bulletin takes a look at mankind’s current records – and how far we are from our absolute peak. Part 3 - Jump higher 

Why has Javier Sotomayor’s high-jump world record – set at an athletics meet in Salamanca in 1993 – not been broken? The question has baffled sports scientists for 22 years. 

The Cuban’s technique (long strides in his run-up, a well-timed take-off and both arms swinging) wasn’t only inimitable, it was, in its unique way, probably also perfect. So should it be copied in an attempt to break records? Was it actually perfect? 

Science still can’t answer these questions, as a number of technical subtleties come into play where the high jump is concerned. There’s the length of stride, the angle of the knee bend, the centre of gravity, the run-up, the leg and arm movement, the angle at which the body tilts, the angular momentum, and then getting over the bar. All these factors can be measured and varied. 

High jump

Current world record: 2.45m (Javier Sotomayor, 1993)

Predicted world record: 2.50m

 Using these building blocks – plus a couple of unknowns that you can only feel as an athlete – the challenge now is to generate the magic formula for a world record of 2.46m. 

Two young stars are working intensively to achieve this: Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko (personal best: 2.42m) and Qatar’s exceptional high-jumping talent, Mutaz Essa Barshim (personal best: 2.43m – see box, right). Current record-holder Sotomayor thinks Barshim, in particular, is more than capable of establishing a new world record. But what does the Qatari athlete himself think? “Everything has to be perfect on the day,” says Barshim. “But I know that will happen soon.”.“

“I predicted that one day someone would surpass the 2.50m mark. And now I even think I’ll live to see the day”
Dick Fosbury

US high-jumper Dick Fosbury, 68, won gold at the 1968 Olympic Games and is famed for inventing the “Fosbury Flop”, a technique that revolutionised the sport. He shares the view that Sotomayor’s record will be broken soon. “After my career, I predicted that one day someone would surpass the 2.50m mark. And now I even think I’ll live to see the day.”

But 2.50m may well be the end of the road; in this particular discipline, man seems to have come very close to his absolute limit.

Mutaz Essa Barshim beim Training

A keen racewalker as a boy, Mutaz Essa Barshim switched his focus to the high jump at the age of 16. Now 24, he has his sights set on breaking Javier Sotomayor’s 22-year-old world record.The two men are worlds apart athletically  – “He was muscular, whereas I’m slim and agile,” says Barshim – so copying the Cuban would be pointless. “I can’t remember the last time I watched his jump on YouTube,” admits the Qatari contender.

But after setting a new personal best of 2.43m in Brussels last year, Barshim knows the record is within reach, and the high-jumper has adjusted his training regime (“especially my running style. It’s all about speed”). 

Barshim works on his jumping only twice a week, performing 10 jumps each session as the high level of intensity would make any more than that pointless, even with the help of modern equipment like slow-motion cameras. “It only helps correct minor errors and improve small details,” he says. “At the end of the day, the high jump is an art form. To pull off a good jump, you have to listen to your inner self and be in your own world.”


“To pull off a good jump, you have to listen to your inner self and be in your own world.”
Mutaz Essa Barshim

And not every day is the same. “The heights we reach are already seriously extreme. It helps to be a little mad. Some days, things just work; on others, they don’t. The mental aspect plays a huge role.” It even affects the way you eat. “When I’m training, I eat a lot, but I try to lose weight when competitions are coming up. I’m a Muslim, so I’m used to fasting. That makes training easier.” 

Knowing that he has a tough rival in Bohdan Bondarenko is an added motivation, as is support from Sotomayor himself. “He has said I’m capable of breaking his record, and that his own jump wasn’t perfect.”

The Upshot 

Barshim and his rival Bondarenko are closer to the record than any high-jumper has been in a long time. If they fail, Sotomayor’s benchmark could remain unsurpassed for a lot longer.

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