IN MONTE CARLO, MONACO
Usain Bolt’s retirement from athletics has left the sport seriously searching for a star to maintain its popularity, in sort of similar fashion to Lewis Hamilton’s impact in Formula One racing.
And with the sport battling against the doping menace, a “clean” role model is much needed to help bring the fans through the turnstiles and increase television’s track and field viewership figures.
Mutaz Essa Barshim, Qatar’s Olympic silver medallist and world high jump champion who was on Friday night crowned 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year after an outstanding season, seems to fit the bill and has been touted as “the next Bolt” for his flamboyance and appeal.
But the 26-year-old is quick to brush aside such comparisons or elevation.
“I’m not trying to be somebody,” he said on his comparison to Bolt.
“I’m trying to be the first me and the last me.
“To be that (Bolt-like) person, you need to do a lot of promotions outside the sport. What Bolt has done is amazing. He has brought track and field to another level but now that’s he’s gone, it doesn’t mean that athletics is down.”
Bolt, 31, didn’t turn up for Friday’s black tie awards gala night at Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum, accepting the “President’s Award” via video message from Australia where he is enjoying his retirement after a brilliant career highlighted by world records in the 100 metres (9.58 seconds) and 200 (19.19 seconds) metres races.
Belgian heptathlete Nafissatou Thiam was named the best female athlete after winning the European indoor pentathlon title with a world-leading 4,870 points which she followed up with victory in the IAAF Combined Events Challenge, crowning the season with victory at the IAAF World Championships in London in August with 6,784 points.
Barshim was rewarded for a brilliant season.
He started the season off with a 2.35m leap in Jeddah in April and ended with a 2.40m jump in Eberstadt in August in an undefeated season.
He then won the world title in London impressive fashion, clearing all of his heights up to his winning mark of 2.35m on his first attempt.
One week after his triumph in London, he jumped a world-leading 2.40m in Birmingham and followed it four days later with a winning jump of 2.36m in Zurich to secure the IAAF Diamond League title.
Barshim ended the 2017 season with nine of the best 11 jumps in the world this year, capped by his two 2.40m leaps. He is the first high jumper in history to leap 2.40m or higher in five successive years.
Naturally, Barshim was the dominant figure at Friday night’s awards, spending 90 percent of his time in the principality under pressure to field media questions and pose for official photo shoots and hundreds of selfies with admiring fans.
Pressure is something he thrives in, and he gleefully looks forward to the 2019 IAAF World Championships that will be held in his home city of Doha where he will be under pressure to defend his high jump world title.
It is such pressure cooker situations that saw him win the gold medal in the 2010 IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada, which he followed up with further gold medals in the Military World Games, Asian Indoor Championships, Arab Championships and Pan Arab Games, all in 2011, to hoist his career skywards.
Therefore, the prospects of defending his world title before home fans in 2019 are hardly daunting.
“Every athlete wants to experience a world championship in his home country and I’m looking forward to the championship in Doha. I love the pressure and the more pressure I face, the better I perform – bring it on!”
Interestingly, Mutaz started off as a race walker and occasional distance runner with an interest in basketball until a local coach, Helmy Abosalama, noticed his jumping potential.
“So when I first started athletics, because of my father (who is a police officer) I walked - not much, just one or two competitions,” he told the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in an earlier interview.
“I didn’t like it, so I went to long distance and did two seasons of that. It was fun, but not later. I was quite good, always in the first three, but I liked jumping more.
“I found it was more interesting, more fun to do. It was only after Helmy, the club coach, saw me jump that I was interested.
“I tried long jump, triple jump, high jump - all of them, for two or three seasons - but eventually settled on the latter discipline.”
Fluent in English, Barshim studied at an Arabic school in Doha which has English classes which, coupled with his travels and interaction with global athletes, made his master the language.
An avid movie fan, Barshim loved English movies a factor that also contributed towards his mastery of the language.
The year 2010 most certainly provided Barshim’s career turning point. It was the year he cleared 2.20 metres for the first time.
“From 2010 I could see that everything was starting to come together for me as an athlete,” he told IAAF.
But in 2013, just when he was on top of his, injuries slowed down his progress, missing weeks of training ahead of the World Championships in Moscow where he, nonetheless, bagged silver with a first round clearance of 2.38 metres, finishing behind his biggest rival, Ukrainian Bohdan Bondarenko (2.41m).
Barshim battled through injury to clinch the gold medal in London last August and was undefeated in the 11 competitions he featured in, clearing nine of the best 10 jumps this season after recovering from injuries that set back his plans to beat Cuban Javier Sotomayor’s long-standing world record of 2.45 metres.
“I though many times about beating the world record but I was not physically and mentally prepared,” he said on Thursday ahead of the Monaco awards.
“Although I really don’t like looking at other jumpers but would rather just focus on myself,” he added in reference to Sotomayor.
“The world record is not an easy one though, but if I stay fit and healthy, I’m sure I can jump 2.46 or 2.47.
“In 2016 I was mentally prepared but physically I was in a mess! It really needs both mental and physical fitness to make it in the high jump but I’m not worried about it, taking each day at a time…”
Away from the track Mutaz says he likes to hang out with family and friends and is a big fan of movies “comedy, documentaries and action, but not horror”
He enjoys basketball for fun but that deep down he is “a track and field man” and loves his sport.
“I’d love to visit Kenya. It’s an interesting place,” he added after Friday’s awards ceremony when Nation Sport sought his thoughts about sampling Kenya’s attractions.
There’s no doubt that even as Bolt exited the stage, track and field car rely on the young Barshim to keep the sport in focus.
(With additional reporting by the International Association of Athletics Federations)