After leaping to Olympic bronze in London, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim climbed to joint eighth on the all-time high jump list with a sensational leap of 2.39m. SPIKES caught up with the 21-year-old who’s now one of the world’s most exciting high jump talents.
For the past decade and a half the Arab state of Qatar has carved out a reputation as a leading organiser of elite athletics events. From the annual Grand Prix event staged in Doha – now part of the Samsung Diamond League – to hosting high profile competitions such as the 2006 Asian Games and 2010 IAAF World Indoor Championships, the country has a real zest for the sport.
Now for the first time they have a genuine home-born, world-class athlete to match their world-class portfolio of events, in the shape of Mutaz Essa Barshim. And he is some find.
Standing at 1.89m and stick thin, the Doha-born athlete sprung to prominence in 2010 – winning the World Junior and Asian Games titles, while advancing his personal best by 0.17 to 2.31m. The following year he became Asian champion and pushed his national record to 2.35m, only missing a medal at the World Championships in Daegu on countback as he finished seventh.
If the promise was there over the previous two seasons it was 2012 when he truly arrived. At the London Olympics he secured his first global senior podium position sharing bronze alongside Canada’s Derek Drouin and Great Britain’s Robbie Grabarz. Yet he saved his best performance of his career (so far) for Lausanne, by setting a sensational area record of 2.39m, to defeat Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov and Grabarz.
Expectations are now that he can not only medal, but also strike gold for Qatar at this year’s IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
One of six children, he grew up exposed to athletics through his distance-running father and he describes the track as his “second home.”
“I didn’t notice that I was very talented early on,” he admits. “I was not the best. The first few years I was training at the club many kids were better than me.”
His career, though, was to be transformed after meeting his current coach, Stanislaw “Stanley” Szczyrba, in late 2009.
The Polish coach arrived in Qatar with a big reputation, having guided Iceland’s Vala Flosadottir to Olympic pole vault bronze in 2000 and Swedish high jumper Linus Thornblad to European Indoor silver in 2007.
Despite an initially difficult period, the coach-athlete partnership soon flourished.
“We had a hard time connecting and understanding each other in the beginning, but now it’s the opposite,” says Mutaz. “I know he believes in me and I believe in him. We have a really strong relationship. He is like a father to me.”
Szczyrba worked hard on developing the Qatarian’s fast take-off and natural elasticity, and by studying the smooth technique of two-time Olympic high jump medallist of the 1990s, Artur Partyka – a style Mutaz admires – his progression over the past three years has been stunning.
In fact, when you look closely at the facts of his 2012 campaign it becomes even more impressive, as his preparation for the London Olympics was badly hampered by a back injury.
“Given the circumstances, I was satisfied with the result and bronze medal,” he says. “I was injured and hadn’t jumped in practice for a month prior to the Olympics. I had only confirmed that I was going to compete just ten days before the high jump competition. After all the pain of training and overcoming such adversity leading up to the Olympics, the bronze tasted like gold.”
But despite his achievement in London it was post-Olympics where Mutaz made real waves. Jumping without pain he leapt to victory with a new national record of 2.35m in Eberstadt before his stunning success in Lausanne.
“I gained a tremendous amount of confidence,” he says of the 2.39m area record (a height no man has exceeded for 12 years). “I knew going into Lausanne I was going to push it, because I knew I was in good shape. I gained a lot of self-confidence.”
Mutaz can look forward to 2013 with genuine optimism where he will face the powerful home challenge from the Russians, likely to be led by Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov.
Yet the Qatari high jumper is refusing to look too far ahead: “First and foremost, I want to be healthy. I will put my emphasis on working smartly, not getting in too much of a hurry or rushing anything.”
Beyond his personal ambitions, though, Mutaz desires that his success can help generate more athletic achievement in his homeland.
“I hope that I can deliver a message to the next generation that it’s possible for them to be what they want if they work hard,” he adds. “I hope to see more Olympic medalists from Qatar.”