Donald Thomas of Bahamas celebrates winning gold in the men's High Jump (© Getty Images)
Praise be, there is still some romance left in international sport!
Eighteen months ago, Donald Thomas was a college basketball player with little knowledge or interest in Track and Field Athletics, but with a talent for winning the occasional dunking contest. Now he is World High Jump champion.
In January, 2006, his spring-heeled expertise on the basketball court led a colleague to speculate that the Bahamian might be able to high jump two metres, but probably not. Always one to rise to a challenge, Thomas jumped 2.11 metres. Two days later, in his first competition since dabbling at High School back in Grand Bahama, Thomas jumped 2.23. He was still wearing basketball shoes. He switched to cross-trainers, and ended his first season as a high jumper on 2.24 metres, a respectable enough mark for a novice.
One year later, on Day Five in Osaka’s Nagai Stadium, wearing Pole Vault shoes, as he has done throughout 2007 – unlike High Jump shoes, they have no spike in the heel – Thomas equalled his best jump of the year, 2.35 metres, and won gold at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics. If that’s not a fairy tale, the Brothers’ Grimm can go back to the Big Sleep forever.
Bahamian athletes regularly punch above their weight in international competition. The ‘Golden Girls,’ the Bahamian sprint relay squad won World and Olympic gold in succession in 1999 and 2000, and the following year, Arvard Moncur took the World 400 metres title in Edmonton 2001. Further back, Troy Kemp won gold in Gothenburg 1995… in the High Jump! All this success comes from a collection of Caribbean Islands with a population of well under half a million. They do however benefit from college scholarships in the USA. But the vast majority have an undying affection and allegiance to the Bahamas. Thomas, who graduated from college in St Louis Missouri, and is now doing at Masters in Auburn, Alabama, is no different.
One of the first things he said after strolling off the track into the arms of overjoyed Bahamian officials was, “I’m happy to do anything for the Bahamas, it’s the joy of winning for a small country. If my country wants me to do anything, I’ll do it. After prelims (qualifying), I just wanted to get the national anthem played here in Japan, for the folks back home.”
Despite his lack of experience and expertise – “Maybe I can get Stefan (Olympic champ, Holm, who was fourth) to give me a few tips,” he joked afterwards - Thomas, 23 does not lack in ambition or self-belief. “When you show up, then you show up in great shape, so I’m not surprised I won. I always want to be on top. I took it like everyday competition. And it was a nice one, I hope people in Bahamas will celebrate even more than me. If somebody would clear 2.37 I would do the same, believe me. I never doubt in myself.”
Thomas admits he only really started training in January, one year after his first essay at the discipline, and he still only does around five hours training a week. But he does have some serious help, in the shape of Jerry Clayton, who coached Charles Austin to the US record. Thomas also admits that he still prefers basketball, which will make his beaten opponents doubt themselves even more.
He could barely believe it himself. “You know,” he mused in the ‘mixed zone’ – where athletes meet the media when they come off the track - “it just seems like a normal competition. I suppose it’ll sink in over the next days and weeks. Anything is possible, you never know what God has in store for you.” Less than three years after he took up a casual challenge on a basketball court, it could be an Olympic gold medal.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF