Javier Sotomayor

To jump higher

Words: Werner Jessner und Arek Piatek
Illustrations: Alex Williamson

… than Javier Sotomayor. But not by much—We’ve nearly reached the limit.

Why has Javier Sotomayor’s high-jump world record — set at a track and field meet in Spain 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 takeoff 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 center 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.


Current world record
2.45 m/8.03 ft. (Javier Sotomayor, 1993)

Predicted world record
2.50 m/8.2 ft.

All these factors can be measured and varied. Using these building blocks—plus a couple of unknowns that you can only feel as an athlete — the challenge now is to generate the formula for a world record of 2.46 m/8.07 ft. 

Two young stars are working intensively to achieve this: Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko and Qatar’s exceptional high-jumping talent, Mutaz Essa Barshim (whose personal best is 7.97 feet; see box at 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.”

“After my career, I predicted that one day someone would surpass the 2.5 m/8.2 ft. mark.”
Dick Fosbury

High jumper Dick Fosbury, 68, won gold at the 1968 Olympic Games and is famed for inventing the “Fosbury Flop,” a technique that revolutionized 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 2.5 m/8.2 ft. mark. And now I even think I’ll live to see the day.” But 8.2 feet may well be the end of the road; in this discipline, man seems to have come very close to his absolute limit.

Mutaz Essa Barshim beim Training
“Not perfect”

A racewalker as a boy, Mutaz Essa Barshim switched his focus to the high jump at 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 2.43 m/7.97 ft. 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 at a high level of intensity and with the added help of modern equipment like slow-motion cameras. “It only helps correct minor errors and improve small details,” he says.

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

“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.” And not every day is the same. “The heights we reach are already seriously extreme. It helps to be a little crazy. 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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