“I’ve made history being on top of my game for the past decade, but I still thrive for more.” Mutasz Essa Barshim told World Athletics before the Doha Diamond League opener in May and there is no doubt that the Qatari athlete has already sealed his place among the pantheon of high jumpers.
A chase for an unprecedented 4th successive world title ended in disappointment however, having to settle for a bronze medal in what was an uncharacteristically poor performance. Perhaps the warning signs were there when he failed with his first effort at 2.25m, a height in which he typically clears with ease and this immediately gave the momentum to his competitors.
He cleared 2.29m at his first attempt alongside Gianmarco Tamberi and JuVaughn Harrison and it looked as though it would be a three-way battle for the gold. All three sailed over 2.33m without a blemish, and with a thrilling finale looking certain, all he had to do was hope for mistakes by his rivals to claim another gold. Unfortunately for Barshim, it wasn’t to be. He failed at his first two attempts when the bar was raised to 2.36m while Tamberi cleared with his first and Harrison with his second.
His third attempt was lacklustre and his glory-laden six-year rein at a major outdoor championships came to an end for Barshim as Tamberi, his great friend and rival, secured his first world title.
A record-extending 4th world crown proved to be one step too far, yet there is no doubt that the 32-year-old has been a beacon of hope for not only Qatari athletes but also the entire Gulf region for what he has achieved in the sport. It hasn’t come easily, however, facing plenty of challenges along the arduous road to success.
Two Olympic silvers in 2012 and 2016 (the former being upgraded from an initial bronze) were sandwiched between a runner-up finish at the 2013 Worlds and this suggested he was making inroads towards becoming one of the greats.
When the 2017 World Athletics Championships rolled around, Barshim was ready to conquer all in front of him. In the same stadium in which Barshim secured his first Olympic medal five years prior, he cleared every height perfectly and won his maiden world title, although he ended his competition by missing three attempts at 2.40m. It didn’t matter as Barshim had already secured the win. With a world title under his belt and five consecutive years at clearing 2.40m, his next goal was to break Javier Sotomayor’s world record of 2.45m.
Such adversity may have destroyed a weaker man
A potentially history-making moment soon turned into a nightmare as he suffered a serious ankle injury which ruled him out of the remainder of the 2018 season and with Doha playing hosts to the subsequent World Championships, Barshim faced a race to be fit.
Speaking on the Mind Set Win podcast regarding the injury, he said: “I found one doctor, he had been operating on sports injuries for 30–40 years, told me ‘This is the worst I have ever seen.’ He said any chance of coming back is ‘maybe one per cent, it’s impossible!'”
The Doha-born star now faced the prospect of missing not only the worlds in his home country but also having to end his career prematurely when it looked as though he was about to explode into the stratosphere.
Such adversity may have destroyed a weaker man, but Barshim is no mere mortal. With records to chase and an elusive Olympic gold medal to win, the high jumper stormed to a historic gold in front of a packed crowd at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha. He cleared a height of 2.37m to become the first jumper to win successive world titles and his ascent into a local deity was nearly complete.
It would be a two-year wait for the Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting various sporting events but when it finally arrived, Barshim created more history and for once, it wasn’t down to his jumping ability.
Olympic glory at last
The Olympic Games and Qatar haven’t exactly had a glory-laden relationship. Indeed, the country has won only eight medals since they began competing at the games in 1984.
Under the lights at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on 1 August 2021, with a pulsating crowd behind him, Barshim had the chance to make history. Deep into the competition, Barshim and Tamberi were neck and neck.
The duo had cleared each height on the first attempt and when the bar was raised to 2.39m, both could smell glory. What happened next was a mark of true sportsmanship rarely seen at the highest level. The pair both failed with their three attempts at the aforementioned height and if going by the rules, a jump-off would be needed to declare a winner.
“Can we have two golds?” Barshim nonchalantly asked the official and when he said it was possible, all hell broke loose. The Italian burst into a thousand emotions all at once, seeing a dream come true due to the remarkable act of sportsmanship from the Qatari athlete.
Medals and records are what world-class athletes train for every day in life, sacrificing everything for that one opportunity to make themselves a hero. Barshim has enjoyed these moments more than most, yet sharing gold in Tokyo will perhaps be what he is best remembered for. Finishing third in Budapest and missing out on a 4th consecutive world crown ends his dominance of the sport but he has certainly made his mark in the high jump.
What next for Barshim? Sotomayer’s world record of 2.45m must now firmly be in his sights.