Olympic Games are as exciting a dream for an athlete as they are elusive. It is a four-year cycle where everything in the life of an athlete is geared towards participating and excelling at the biggest sporting event in the world. It is also the four-year cycle where everything in the life of an athlete, from his/her age to his/her life choices, has the potential to disrupt the very dream.
And then there are factors beyond one’s own being — a worldwide pandemic, for instance.
Like Qatar’s track and field star Mutaz Essa Barshim told Gulf Times, “Once Rio (2016) finished, your mind and body was programmed for 2020. That’s what athletes were gearing up for. So when they (IOC and the organisers) pushed it (2020 Tokyo Olympics) back a year, your plans, the way your whole life revolved around that event is shocked a little. However, in the current situation, the pandemic was the only reason that could have pushed the Games back and it is the right reason.”
Rio was also where the high jumper became the first silver-medallist for Qatar at the Olympics, having won a bronze in London alongside shooter Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah.
Since then the former World junior champion has also become the only man to successfully defend his senior World championship title in high jump, the second of which came last year at home in front of a boisterous crowd and in the presence of His Highness The Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
He had a run of six years where he flew over 2.40m, also becoming the athlete to come closest to Javier Sotomayor’s world record of 2.45m with a 2.43m effort in Brussels in 2014.
Recently, on an Instagram ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ story, Barshim indicated how the Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, also the venue for the next World Athletics Championships, was special for him.
“I have a nice memory of the place. It is the first place I jumped 2.40m (back in June 2013),” Barshim said. And understandably yet, “Khalifa stadium is a different feeling. You can never match the home fans. The (World) championships there… what I achieved at home.”
The Doha 2019 Worlds served as a happy conclusion for a tumultuous and uncertain time in the life of the athlete, who came out of a career-threatening ankle injury, and flew 2.37m in a jam-packed stadium for a much-deserved gold.
In an online live session last month with fellow high jumper and dear friend, Gianmarco Tamberi, he had spoken about his frustrations with uncertainty around his recovery from the ankle injury in 2018.
“Once you really deal with it (an injury), you understand,” Barshim said yesterday. “It is way harder than what you think when you look at it from outside. He (Tamberi) was one person who understands about going through an injury and it was nice talking to him.
“I don’t like to control everything but there are some things that I would like to be more certain about. The injury was such thing. Yes, the surgery was done and it had gone well, but beyond that there was no clear answer. If there was no competition coming up, it would have still been ok, I can take time. But there was a big championship coming up (in the next season) and that too at home, and that was not a great feeling, being in that 50-50 situation.”
Barshim, who turns 29 next month, had said after the 2019 Worlds that he still wasn’t at a 100 percent even though he had won gold.
With on-field action ceasing everywhere in the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic, an unscheduled extended break could give his body time to recover completely. “My body may be getting time to recover, but can’t even compare. Around the world, the times are difficult,” he said.
But like most people around the world, he has been using the downtime to do other things. “It is the first time that I have spent Ramadan in Doha since, I think, 2009. Else I am only travelling, training, competing most of the times,” he said. So, at times, he is also helping with Ramadan activities of the federations.
At home, he is packing and unpacking things, and involved in renovation, like getting a graffiti wall painted. “I have begun cooking and I am surprisingly getting better at it. My wife is a great cook and she helps me get better at it. We make Arabic dishes, majbous, we bake, date cakes, banana cakes, chocolate fondants, pastas. It’s good that we are in a position to do this,” he said.
But the world champion that Barshim is, Tokyo is on his mind. And also his heart, having visited the place often in the past.
“I have loved manga (comics) since I was 15 or 16. In Japan, I am like a kid again.
“I love the culture in Japan, the food, have lots of friends there. I like technology, futuristic things, electronics, and you see things there that you haven’t elsewhere,” he said.
“(On my last trip) I would even see the Olympic Stadium being built…”
“Only excitement,” was the reply. “I love competing and I love Tokyo. I am sure of them hosting the Olympics at a very high level.”
And then it’s up to the athletes, who are having a tough time finding training grounds in these times.
“A lot depends on when the training facilities will open up. And also when can we compete because to get into a rhythm, a certain shape and form, you need competition. Everybody is training at whatever levels they can. I can’t get to a track. We can only do body weights, movement and cardio. No one wants to hit full-time training without at least some fitness, even if it is 30-40 percent. Even the coach knows it is the same situation for everyone. It is one of those times. You can’t do much.”
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