No head for heights but Sotomayor's high jump record turns 25

Havana (AFP) –


At 10 years old he was afraid of heights but four decades later, Javier Sotomayor is on top of the world, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his high jump world record.

It was July 27, 1993 in Salamanca, Spain. Sotomayor had already set new records of 2.43 meters and then 2.44m but this time, he went higher still: 2.45m.

A quarter of a century later, that record still stands, but Sotomayor's reign as the greatest in his discipline has been even longer, dating back to his first world record five years earlier, also in Salamanca.

"People are talking about the 25th anniversary of my world record, but for me it's been 30 years that I'm the record-holder," the 50-year-old told AFP at his home in Havana.

"Because if I hadn't beaten my own record, it would be 30 years old! No-one's beaten the 2.43m I jumped in 1988."

Only one man, Qatari world champion Mutaz Barshim, has ever equalled it, in Brussels four years ago.

What remains the most incredible aspect of Sotomayor's achievement is that high jumping didn't come naturally. First and foremost, he needed to overcome his fears.

"At 10 years old, I was afraid of heights, at 14 I started to be convinced I could be a great high-jumper. Since then, I set very ambitious goals," said the 1.96m tall Cuban.

"Fear is lost through practice, through application. I was given exercises where I had to jump from more than two meters, even three meters, onto a crash mat -- sort of acrobatics.

"Later, when I was in Havana, with my coach and psychologist, little by little I got over my fear of heights."

The last step, once he had started competing at the top level, was to take up parachuting.

- Giving joy to the people -

Sotomayor went on to enjoy a sterling career filled with success and glory.

Olympic champion in 1992, world champion in 1993 and 1997, four-time indoor world champion and three-time Pan-American Games gold medallist, the list of his achievements seems endless.

But what was perhaps most impressive was that his pomp took place at a time when Cuba had very little history in athletics, even less so in the field events, and while the country was suffering an economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"I had my best moments at a time when Cuba needed it the most," he said.

"I was able to give joy to the people. My people were behind me.

"What I gave to the people and they gave back went hand in hand."

Not since Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized high-jumping with his "Fosbury Flop" technique, claimed Olympic gold in 1968 in Mexico City had a non-European tasted Games glory before Sotomayor's victory in Barcelona in 1992.

Until then, Cuba had never even claimed an Olympic high jump medal -- by a man or woman.

And while it didn't create shock waves in the manner of Fosbury's innovation, Sotomayor also left his mark on jumping technique.

"I changed the last step, which was supposed to be the shortest of the last three -- for me, in practice, it was the longest. I used to turn my foot a lot."

"Saltomayor" -- meaning greatest leap -- as he was known, made the most of the strength in his tendons.

Even so, he twice turned his ankle so needed to wear custom made footwear that reinforced the side he pushed off from.

One peculiarity, though, was that his technique worked better in dry climates than humid ones.

On a damper surface, his foot would slip, which he blames for winning "only" silver at Sydney in 2000.

- Doping troubles -

He could have won more medals, and titles, but for a one-year doping suspension that saw him stripped of a fourth Pan-American gold at Winnipeg in 1999.

It was during that competition that he tested positive for cocaine -- a charge he continues to deny.

And he had powerful support, not least from then Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"I know a lot of people believe I was innocent, amongst them Fidel. Because he believed me, they did a lot to prove my innocence."

Backed by the Cuban authorities, Sotomayor argued that there were irregularities in the evidence against him.

"With the amount they said I'd ingested it would have been impossible to jump; impossible to stay alive... We're clean athletes in Cuba," he said.

Now secretary of the Cuban athletics federation, Sotomayor enjoys watching others attempt to break his near-mythical mark.

Co-European record-holder Bohdan Bondarenko of Ukraine cleared 2.42m in June 2014 but three months later Barshim went a centimeter higher.

"If I had to give a name for the person most likely to break the record, it's (Barshim)," said the Cuban, who knows his marker won't last for ever.

"It's not that I would celebrate someone breaking my world record, but I've always been convinced: for the last 30 years I've known that one day someone will jump higher."