Mutaz Barshim, 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year (© Philippe Fitte)
When Mutaz Barshim walked to the stage to accept his Athlete of the Year award on Friday (24), that brief stroll was the culmination of a three part process that’s taken the 26-year-old Qatari from talented teen-aged high jumper with modest achievements to the very top of this sport.
“This is such a moment of honour,” Barshim, the first high jumper to claim the Athlete of the Year accolade, said. “Being considered the best is a dream, a long road.”
It was a bumpy ride, too, but a relatively quick one for Barshim, a rise that can be broken down into three elements that can serve as a useful model in any career path, especially athletics. The first, to recognise when you meet a crucial turning point in your life and act upon it; the second, by making and accepting the necessary sacrifices; and third, by setting high but attainable goals.
For Barshim, that turning point came at 18 when he was approached by Stanislaw Szczyrba, a Polish jumps coach who split his time between Malmo, Sweden, Warsaw and Doha. Barshim had just finished high school. He enjoyed athletics but with a modest 2.14m best, he decided it might be best to direct his attention towards university studies. Szczyrba changed his mind.
“He told me for two to three months straight, ‘You have this talent that I’ve never seen in anybody. If you had some coaching you really could be somebody. Come to my training camp. Just one training camp. If you don’t like it, go back to whatever you want to do in your life.’
“I decided at that point to do it. I told him that I would focus the next year one hundred percent on training. I will give up everything. I’ll be so professional with my food, my sleep my training. Everything. And I’ll see where that will take me.”
After just two months with Szczyrba, Barshim improved his personal best by 11cm to 2.25m. That convinced him that the match could work. The two haven’t parted ways since.
“I really worked so hard, but after that point I said, ‘That’s it, this is my life. I’ll give up everything.’”
He dropped out of university to begin a career that has since consisted of bouncing between Malmo, Warsaw and Doha for training and most other pockets of the planet for competition.
“My trust in my coach began,” he said. “I began to understand that he really knows what he’s talking about and what he’s doing.”
He remembers though, that the initial phase was rough.
“It started very badly, fighting him all the time,” Barshim said, smiling. “But once we had that trust and began to understand each other, it became like a father-son relationship. It’s not just about sport, about track. When we hang out, it’s about everything. It’s about life. We have a very good and very close relationship.”
The hard work continued. So did a rapid improvement. The next year he won the world junior title in Moncton at 2.31m.
In 2011 he reached the final of his first senior World Championships (he was seventh) and improved to 2.35m. By 2012, he was the Asian record holder indoors at 2.37m and outdoors at 2.39m, already on the cusp of joining the all-time greats. At that point, only seven men had ever topped 2.40m. Barshim was knocking on that door just two months after his 21st birthday, with an Olympic bronze medal from London in hand.
He joined the 2.40m club the following spring in Eugene and the year after that added four clearances over that magical mark to his CV, capped by a successful 2.43m effort in Brussels. Only world record holder Javier Sotomayor, with leaps of 2.45m and 2.44m, has sailed through such rarified air.
Then the upward trajectory stalled. Although he won the world indoor title in 2014 and struck Olympic silver in 2016, reaching ground that few have treaded began to take a toll and his body began breaking down. A knee injury one year, ankle woes another, and back problems the next, the kinds of stumbling blocks that can force you to question the sacrifices you make to attain near super-human levels.
Barshim readily admits that his chosen lifestyle can be a lonely one. His biggest sacrifice?
“The time I haven’t spent with my family, with my closest friends,” he said, explaining that even the seemingly simple task of traveling back home to Doha takes time, time that cuts into his full-time commitment to his craft.
“I’ve missed almost all of my best friends’ weddings. Celebrations with my family. I missed my brothers’ graduations. I missed basically every family event. I miss almost everything. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘is this all worth it?’
“I choose my target and then have to achieve that target. My time is so limited I have to choose what to do. I have to think what I’m eating every day. How and when I’m sleeping. But when you achieve that target you’ve selected, you see the reason for the sacrifice.”
“Then,” he continues, “no matter what you achieve, it’s always harder the next time. Every year it’s harder. My personal best is 2.43, so every time I try to improve my personal best is basically a world record attempt. That’s not something you can do every day.
“You have expectations. And others do, too. People will always ask, ‘So what’s next?’ Even if I jump 2.46, everyone will ask, what’s next? That’s part of sport. So you have to work twice as hard, which means an even greater risk of getting injured.”
The face of Doha 2019
He’ll meet those expectations head on in two years time when he’ll be the face, quite literally, of the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019.
“I’m just happy that I’m going to be the defending world champion and that the next championship will be at home. It’s just amazing. And I’m lucky. Not every athlete can get to experience that. The crowds will be there cheering for me, my family, my friends in the stadium. I just have to be ready. That’s the only thing I’m thinking about. To go out there and be ready to fight.”
He’s convinced too that the championships, the first to be held in that part of the world, will be among the finest editions ever.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of good stuff. I can’t tell you everything. There’s got to be some surprises. But I know it’s going to be a great event.”
If his new stature as Athlete of the Year and poster boy of the 2019 World Championships means added pressure, Barshim welcomes it.
“I don’t just love it, I need it,” he said, likening it the finest form of motivation. “I don’t like jumping when it’s an easy competition. I always want to compete against the strongest competition. I want the pressure. It makes me jump higher.”
Sotomayor’s 2.45m world record is an obvious target. Even Sotomayor wouldn’t bet against him.
“(Sotomayor) once told me, ‘If the record is going to go, I think you’re the one who’s going to take it.’ He believes that. And I think, ‘ok, I’m going to make that happen.”
So where is the secret to those two missing centimetres?
“I’m coming closer and closer. Not just in terms of the performance and in those two centimetres. I’m becoming more mature and learning how to handle different situations. I’ve had lots of problems since 2014 - with my knee, my ankle, my back. I haven’t had a clear injury-free year.
“Only last season was a full clear year. I’m very happy I didn’t have any problems. I felt that I was really able to push one hundred percent, to use my full capacity. I was able to return to my full run-up. I feel like I can fight, really without any hesitation. That for me is very important. There’s nothing holding me back.”
That was apparent in 2017, a season in which he remained undefeated in 11 competitions, produced nine of the year’s 11 highest jumps, and became the first jumper to ever leap 2.40m or higher in five successive years.
Remaining healthy will be the key to his world record ambitions, Barshim said.
“When I was coming back from injury, I started my season from zero or ten percent at the start. Now I’m starting at fifty percent. All of these things are coming together, so I’m in the right place. All I need is time. All we need is time. Then things will happen.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF