Thursday, August 15, 2013

2013 IAAF World Championships, Men's High Jump Final

Bohdan Bondarenko on his way
to a well-deserved gold in Moscow

What: 2013 IAAF World Championships, day six

Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia

When: 15 August 2013

Note: I have converted heights from meters to feet and inches for this post. The conversions have been rounded up/down as necessary, but it’s easier for me to contextualize heights when they are in imperial units.

As a distance runner, whenever I go to track meets I am naturally drawn toward the distance events. I’m more familiar with the athletes and I understand the strategy better. They’re just more interesting to me. But in terms of drama – the element that appeals to all sports fans, regardless of personal histories – I don’t think any event can top the high jump. That’s not to say that the high jump can’t be boring at times, but when the competition is good – and on Thursday in Moscow, it was spectacular – no event produces more of a rollercoaster ride than the high jump.

Of course, I love the other marquee events. But the 100m, and even the 1,500m, are too short for any real drama. The decathlon is too difficult to keep track of. Ditto the long jump, which is tough to follow unless you have the benefit of watching on TV and looking at those nice invisible lines they show in the sand. The high jump is beautiful in its simplicity: the bar keeps going up until there’s only one person left. And even then, if the winner is jumping well enough, the event still might not be done.

Thursday’s men’s high jump final at the 2013 Worlds was the event – and sporting drama – at its finest. The gold was anyone’s to win, and because of a three-way tie for third, FIVE London 2012 medalists were in the final. Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim (unlike so many Qatari athletes, Barshim was born and raised in Doha) entered as one of the favorites after he became the first man in 13 years to clear 7’10”, achieved at the Pre Classic in June. Bohdan Bondarenko of Ukraine, who topped that by clearing 7’11” in July to move to No. 3 on the all-time list, was another athlete to watch for.

The quality of the field was on display early. Nine athletes – including all London medalists — were over 7’6.25”, including six without a miss. To put into context how high that is, consider that that mark would have been good enough to win bronze in London last year. 7’7.25” did little to break up the field with six men over and a seventh, Bondarenko, passing to the next height. At that moment, I suspected something special was in store from Bondarenko, considering he passed at the first two heights. Once he sailed over 7’8.5” with daylight between him and the bar, it was clear that Bondarenko was the man to beat.

Bondarenko had the confidence, but he still had to work for the gold medal. Barshim, Derek Drouin of Canada and Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov of Russia all cleared 7’8.5” on their first attempts too, setting up a thrilling finale. Barshim and Drouin both nailed 7’9.75” – the latter setting a Canadian record to do so – but neither would go any further. The night belonged to Bondarenko, who won it with a massive clear of 7’11”. He took three attempts at 8’0.75” – a new world record – and though he came close on his second jump, he would have to settle for a gold medal and a new championship record.

Watching these guys – all long, lithe and graceful, yet unmistakably athletic – was a treat. As soon as someone cleared a new height, the clock immediately started ticking on the next competitor. That’s what’s great about the high jump – it’s a true game of Can-You-Top-This? played out on the biggest stage imaginable. And if that’s not good enough for you, the seemingly interminable waits between attempts only serves to heighten the drama. You know that the guy’s eventually going to jump – the clock is literally ticking – but watching him stand there, stand there, stand there, you can’t help but move to the edge of your seat by the time he starts his run-up. And I’m 4,500 miles away! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have seen that competition in person.

The closest I’ve come to a high jump competition like that was the one that first made me take notice of the event in 2011. It was the outdoor HEPS at Yale, and Penn’s Maalik Reynolds was in a class of his own. Reynolds was a real stud and would go on to get 7th at NCAAs that spring, and on that day he wasn’t competing against anyone but himself. The casual observer might wonder how such a situation could create any drama while there were running finals on the track, but the biggest crowd – by a mile – was at the high jump pit, where Reynolds was launching himself into the stratosphere. Between attempts, Reynolds would just stand in the runway, sometimes for minutes at a time, contemplating his next jump. The crowd would remain silent, every set of eyes focused on this boy – he was just a freshman at the time – patiently waiting for the moment he would push off and begin his run-up to the bar. And once he did, I don’t think there’s anything in the world that could have distracted them from following that attempt all the way to its conclusion. By the time Reynolds finished, after clearing a height of 7'5.75" that remains his personal best over two years later, we all knew we had witnessed greatness.

I think we love a good high jump because it appeals to us on multiple levels. It has the primal appeal of all track events – a simple test of who can run the fastest, jump the highest, throw the farthest. But it also features stakes that literally raise as the competition goes longer. Furthermore, the concept of these athletes doing what they’re doing is so foreign to most viewers that we can’t help but be amazed. Unless you’re a distance runner, you probably don’t appreciate just how fast 3:30 is for 1,500m. But everyone knows how high 8 feet is. To see someone try to jump that high – without a trampoline, a pogo stick or any other sort of aid – appeals to our sense of wonderment. Add to that the anticipation that accompanies each jump due to the event’s natural pauses, and we’ve got true sporting spectacle.

So that’s why I ended up writing 1,000 words on the high jump on a day when so much else happened on the track in Moscow. 21-year-old Jehue Gordon edged out Michael Tinsley by .01 seconds to win gold in the 400m hurdles. Abeba Aregawi got a deserved 1,500m title after holding off Jenny Simpson on the home stretch. And Ezekiel Kemboi stamped himself as the greatest steeplechaser of all time, adding his third consecutive world title to his two Olympic golds. But as much as I’m a fan of the track races, I’m an even bigger fan of sporting drama, and on Thursday, the high jump pit was the best place for that by far.

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