Sunday, Jan 29, 2023

Tokyo 2020: Wailing in joy with his friend

An extraordinarily emotional celebration followed after Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi became the joint gold medal winner in high jump with his friend and the favourite Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar.

Gianmarco Tamberi, Mutaz Essa Barshim, tamberi barshim friendship, gianmarco tamberi tokyo olympics gold, mutaz essa barshim tokyo olympics goldMutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy celebrate after winning gold (Reuters Photo)

It’s 2016, Monaco. Gianmarco Tamberi lay writhing in the ground, rolling and twisting. Wailing in agony. In the stands his coach broke down.

It’s 2021, Tokyo. Gianmarco Tamberi lay writhing in the ground, rolling and twisting. Wailing in joy. In the stands his coach broke down.

In 2016, just before the Rio Olympics, attempting a 2.41 metre high jump to break his own Italian record, he crash-landed. The shoe tore apart, the ankle ruptured and he stared at his leg and sobbed like a kid as he realised he would be out of Rio. Five men had to console him and somehow transfer him to a stretcher.

Five years later, he is a joint Olympic gold medallist with his friend Mutaz Essa Barshim in a remarkable sequence of events. It all came down to his last jump. The favourite, Barshim, had failed to clear 2.39. If Tamberi did, he would be the winner. If he didn’t, there would be a jump-off with Barshim. The event had already been close to three hours.

Tamberi placed the leg plaster cast that he wore after his horrific injury near the top of his run-up. A reminder of the pain and the subsequent inspirational comeback journey, perhaps. On it was a text: Road to Tokyo 2020. The year was crossed and 2021 written below. Tamberi started to sway from heel to toe and urged the crowd to clap. Not needing an invitation, and fully aware of the significance of the potential gold-medal jump, they gave him thunderous claps. Tamberi began his angular sprint and leaped but came down with the bar.

On the tracks in the side-lines was his competitor and friend Barshim, who didn’t remove his dark sunglasses even while jumping, and Tamberi ran to him and enveloped him in a hug. An official walked up to them and asked Barshim, “Do you want to continue to jump-off?” Gently nudging Tamberi, whose head was buried in his shoulders, Barshim had a question back at the official: “Do we have to?” And even as the official politely told him that it was up to them, Barshim had decided that it would be shared. An exuberantly emotional Tamberi leapt into the arms of his friend and a slow smile spread across Barshim’s face. Tamberi spun around and started to wail. A long piercing, almost endless, tearful cry. Barshim had moved to the edge of the arena, and started to cry into the arms of his team, who leaned over and closed on him.

Tamberi would writhe in the ground. He would get up and fall again. All along, the throaty wailing sobbing continued. A few yards away, Barshim removed his sunglasses and wiped a tear. Then, Tamberi sank to his knees, picked his leg cast, and lifted it to the skies and screamed – an aural memory that’s bound to forever stay in the minds of anyone who was there or even watched it on the telly.

Wrapped in his Qatar flag, Barshim walked over to his friend and said, “Get up, get up, don’t stay on the floor. Get up”. The Italian obeyed and sprang up but continued to sob, this time leaning on the rails.



In 2017, when he returned to competitive jumping after the injury, nothing was going right for Tamberi. After yet another poor performance in a tournament, he shut himself in his room when someone started to repeatedly knock on the door. It was Barshim.

“Mutaz started knocking on my room and he wouldn’t go away. First I just wanted him to leave. He persisted and was shouting: “Gimbo. Gimbo, please I want to talk to you.” So I gave in and let him in,” Tamberi wrote in in January 2018. “

We talked. I cried “in front of him. He tried to calm me down, and told me what he had to say.“Don’t try to rush it,” he kept telling me. “You had a big injury, you’re already back in the Diamond League. No one expected that. But now you need to take your time, don’t expect too much too early from yourself. Just see what happens.” The most important thing he helped me realise was that I had to do it for myself, not for others. A productive tournament followed in Budapest. “Something inside me changed, there I really started to live again. I was a high jumper again.”


Three years later, he is an Olympic gold medal. With his friend. Sometimes, just sometimes, dreams do come true.

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First published on: 01-08-2021 at 22:16 IST
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