World high jump champion Bohdan Bondarenko talks exclusively to SPIKES about jumping in silence, traditional folk dancing, and why he’s only had ONE jumping training session all year.
Warning: if you are one of the world’s top high jumpers hoping to challenge Bohdan Bondarenko in future, you might want to look away now.
When SPIKES was granted exclusive access to the Ukrainian high jump phenomenon, the day after his captivating gold medal success here in Moscow, we were stunned to learn that he has done only one jumping session all year. Yes, we’ll repeat that, just ONE jumping session.
This, remember, is a man who has owned the men’s high jump this season. A man who has twice cleared 2.41m, a height that has seen him move to joint third on the all-time rankings: the best we have witnessed in this event for 19 years.
Bondarenko, 23, is also an athlete who had the audacity to attempt 2.47m at the London Anniversary Games in July – not 0.01 but 0.02 beyond Cuban Javier Sotomayor’s 20-year-old world record.
He failed with three decent attempts but left many in London’s Olympic Stadium wondering, why 2.47m?
“Because the digital code, on my front door of the living section of the building I live in, is 247,” says Bondarenko, on the lawns just outside the Luzhniki Stadium.
Fair enough. But why so few jumping sessions in training? “Injuries,” he says.
Since landing the 2008 world junior title in Poland he has struggled to keep his beanpole-like frame healthy. Back, knee and foot injuries – “the full circle” – as he calls.
This season he has concentrated on carrying out ‘pre-hab’ and ‘re-hab’ strengthening exercises, to keep his fragile body in one piece.
His one jumping session this year came back in April. A subsequent foot injury caused he and his coach - father Viktor, a former “7500pt decathlete” who enjoyed “good results” in high jump - to abandon any more attempts at carrying out specific high jumping sessions.
Shhhh: I’m trying to break a world record
The tactic has worked like a charm. Diamond League wins in Doha and Birmingham, the latter with 2.36m, and victory at the European Team Championships, hinted at his medal potential in Moscow.
Stunning victories in Lausanne (2.41m) and London (2.38m) confirmed this point emphatically. The gold medal here in Moscow is the crowning glory for a season that has seen Bondarenko improve his PB by 0.10.
Growing up in the industrial city of Kharkiv in the north-east of Ukraine, he started out as a traditional folk dancer aged ten. “My mother made we do it and I never really liked it,” he says.
At 13, his life was to take a different path, when he discovered an aptitude for high jump.
The first time he realised he had a talent was: “jumping over the height of my head when I was 15.”
At the tender age of 16 he won a bronze medal at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, with a personal best 2.26m. Two years later he climbed two steps up the podium to take gold in that same event.
In 2009, injuries started to take their toll and in 2010 he competed just once. Light emerged from the tunnel Bondarenko’s despair in 2011, when he showed a glimpse of his rare ability with gold medals at the European Under-23 Championships and the World University Games. He finished 15th at the 2011 Daegu World Championships, just missing out on qualifying for the final.
Last year, he posted a personal best of 2.31m, finishing a respectable seventh at the London Olympic Games. He was creeping into contention as a major player. If he fizzed last year, Bondarenko has exploded in 2013, and for this simple reason:
“For the first year ever, I’ve been able to push myself in training and come close to the edge without picking up injuries,” he says. “I don’t feel the pain as much as in the previous years to my knee, foot and back.”
“I was not that confident coming into the summer season that I would achieve something special, as I did not know how my body would be.”
He need not have worried. In every competition this year “with the exception of Ostrava” the man from Kharkiv has impressed. He actually won in Ostrava, but only jumped 2.28m. His only defeat this season was on count-back, to Mutaz Essa Barshim at the Shanghai Diamond League. And even that was with a joint-meeting record 2.33m.
Another of Bondarenko’s quirks is that he prefers to jump without the aid of rhythmic clapping. He likes to jump in total silence. Why?
“I have only asked for silence this season because up until this season I never attacked for world records!” he says with a laugh. “For me, to jump, is very emotional and the noise from the stands is too much. It makes me confused to the point I cannot think which side I need to jump from.
“In silence it helps me concentrate. It also doesn’t make me feel like I am the centre of the universe.”
In Moscow, though, whether he liked it or not, backed by two sizeable pockets of Ukrainian fans decked out in blue and yellow, he could not help but occupy the centre of the athletics universe.
He also competed in one yellow shoe and one red shoe: the yellow from his 2.41m jump in Lausanne and red from a new pair he had just bought.
Bondarenko matched the height he achieved in Lausanne to take the gold medal, and then produced three respectable attempts at a world record 2.46m.
Post-Moscow, he does not yet know his competition plans, only that he wants to take an end of season break “in either Portugal or Spain.”
Red and yellow: Bondarenko competes in odd shoes
A huge petrol head, he plans to buy a BWM Gran Turismo to celebrate his win, a marked upgrade from his Mazda 626 car that he currently drives to and from training. One day, his ambition is to own a full fleet of cars including a Rolls Royce.
“I can improve much more, I just need to be healthy,” he says. “I hope to jump much more as part of my training than in previous years, and that will help me improve.”
If you’re a potential rival to Bohdan, be afraid. Very afraid.