The men’s high jump final at the Tokyo Olympics was nothing short of a spectacle. With seven men still jumping at 2.37metres for a shot at Olympic gold, this has to be the greatest high jump final in the history of the event at the Olympic Games, and arguably one of the best at any other championships.
The only other competition that comes to mind is the Atlanta 1996 finals, where Charles Austin (USA) set the Olympic record of 2.39, Artur Partyka (POL) took 2nd with a clearance of 2.37m, and Steve Smith (GBR) took the bronze with 2.35m.
Mutaz Essa Barshim (QAT) and Gianmarco Tamberi (ITA) were joint winners of the competition in Tokyo, which itself came as a surprise to ardent fans across the world because at any major championships the gold medal spot exclusively belongs to the outright winner of the competition. And in case of a tie, a jump-off is conducted.
As far as I remember, the only other time this happened was at the World U20 Championships in 2018, where Andonios Merlos (GRE) and Roberto Vilches (Mex) shared the gold without opting to break the tie with a jump-off.
Fave moment of the Olympics so far. Barshim (Qatar) and Tamberi (Italy) were tied in the high-jump final. The official is there talking about a prospective jump-off, but Barshim asks immediately: “Can we have two golds?” One look, no words exchanged, they know they’re sharing it. pic.twitter.com/E3SneYFocA
— Andrew Fidel Fernando (@afidelf) August 1, 2021
A jump-off is another term for sudden death where each jumper gets to jump at progressive heights determined by the officials until one of them misses. An example would be the high jump competition at the 2015 World Championships, where Derek Drouin (CAN), Bohdan Bondarenko (UKR) and Guowei Zhang (CHN) were in a three-way tie for the gold medal after which a jump-off was conducted to determine the outright winner. Derek Drouin (CAN) won his maiden world title after winning the jump-off. He went on to win the gold at Rio Olympics as the silver was shared by Bondarenko (UKR) and Zhang (CHN) with no bronze medal being awarded.
A similar situation unfolded in Tokyo last night where two gold medals were awarded, and the bronze was won by the 2021 European indoor champion Maksim Nedasekau who ironically beat Tamberi in that final. No silver was awarded at Tokyo.
Barshim and Tamberi have had similar journeys leading up to the Tokyo games as both of them dealt with and overcame career-threatening injuries to be able to compete at Tokyo. Tamberi was having a dream run in 2016 where he won his maiden World title at the Indoor World Championships held in Portland, Oregon, until 6 weeks before the Rio Olympics. He ruptured the tendons in his ankle moments after setting the Italian national record of 2.39m at the Monaco Diamond League.
Tamberi left the stadium on a stretcher. He ended up going to Rio and was spotted cheering on fellow athletes from the stands with a cast on. Five years later, the same cast was seen again at the Tokyo Olympics stadium placed next to him. But this time he was jumping in the finals and the cast was a symbol of what he had overcome to be at the Olympics.
Barshim, on the other hand, is arguably the greatest high jumper of all time and had won everything there is to win except a gold at the Olympics. We won the bronze in London and silver in Rio before coming agonizingly close to breaking the world record at the Gyulai Istvan Memorial meeting in 2018. Like Tamberi, he ruptured the tendons in his ankle on his last attempt at 2.46m and was out for a whole year before coming from behind to win the 2019 World Championships at home in Doha.
Even at the fiercely contested finals at Tokyo, both athletes exhibited remarkable consistency and had no misses at any height in the competition. Having witnessed the careers of both champions, I think the ending was befitting and nothing less than a fairytale where both decided to share the gold medal at the Olympic games to script a piece of history.
Tejaswin Shankar is the national record holder in the high jump