Twenty nine years ago, Javier Sotomayor who turned 50 this 2017, wrote his name in the athletics history books in the high jump event, setting his first World Record (2.43m) during a 1988 athletics meet in Salamanca, a city which on August 27, 1993, also bore witness to his sensational second, and today’s current, world record of 2.45 meters.
“If I hadn’t been a high jumper, I might have been a hurdler, which I also liked,” reveals the man today known as the “Prince of the High Jump”.
According to Sotomayor, in his native town of Limonar, Matanzas province, under the guidance of Carmelo Benítez, he began training for the youth pentathlon, a five sport event which featured the high-jump, his least favorite discipline.
What made you chose the high jump?
The desire to keep winning. I didn’t want to jump, although I won all the competitions, while I used to finish in second or third in the events I liked. I always kept track of the top results, for example, if they (his rivals) jumped 1.65 meters I would try to go above 1.70; if it was 1.75 I’d train to jump 1.80 and so on and so forth. I would accomplish my goal, but I’d get scared if I had to jump even one centimeter higher than planned.
In Matanzas I managed to jump over two meters and when I came to Havana, where conditions are better, I jumped the same distance; I didn’t want to go any higher. To get over my fear of heights, my coach had to help me with psychological and acrobatic exercises. I even did a parachute jump, which cured my fear forever.
Sotomayor’s rise to the top was fast: at 14 years of age he surpassed the two meters mark, at 15 he reached 2.17 and at 16 set a record of 2.33 meters in the Ibero-American Athletics Championships in Havana. Later in 1988 he set his first world record (2.43) and the following year raised the bar to 2.44 in Puerto Rico, before setting today’s current world record of 2.45 in 1993.
Today, the retired high-jumper is secretary general of the Cuban Athletics Federation.
How would you describe the current state of athletics on the island?
To assess the current state (of Cuban athletics) we need to look at it from two points of view.
On the one hand, we are not in our best moment at the adult level; we have regressed as compared to past years. This was one of the worst seasons in regards to our performances, something which was reflected in the World Championships in London, last August, where we won just one bronze medal in the pole vault with Yarisley Silva, our lowest result since Helsinki 1983.
There were some notable performances in London, like that of Yorgelis Rodríguez, who finished fourth in the heptathlon, but the rest didn’t do so well. There were athletes who had done well throughout the season but weren’t up to the mark during the competition.
Despite this, we are confident that we will achieve better results. We have a group of athletes in the youth and cadet categories, and others who are barely older than 20, like Maykel Massó and Cristian Nápoles, to cite just a few examples, who have already achieved significant results. I think that we will see better performances in Doha 2019 and Tokyo 2020 than we did in London and the 2016 Río Olympic Games.
You mentioned certain athletes that performed well during the season but not at the World Championships. Is this the problem with Cuban athletics; that its athletes fail to achieve their best results in key competitions?
Everyone tries to achieve their best result of the year in the main competition of the season, but believe me it’s very difficult. It was difficult for me, for Ana Fidelia Quirot, for Iván Pedroso. What you have to do is look for a range and set a goal. For example, if I’m jumping an average of 2.40 meters during the year, my results should be somewhere around that height. If my goal is to win and I do so with 2.38 meters, then I’ve fulfilled my objective. The opposite can also happen; I can achieve my best result of the season and still not win a medal.
These are factors an athlete must weigh, it’s not an absolute science. What you can’t do is run 44.90 seconds in the 400 meters, if you usually run 44 seconds. A World Championship isn’t a national competition or international meet, there’s a lot of pressure, and you can’t let it affect your performance. I believe that there are two things that can negatively affect an athlete’s performance during big competitions; a bad training plan and if the athlete just doesn’t perform well in competitions.
Do you think the new generation of Cuban athletes is under greater psychological pressure than past ones?
I don’t want to say that today’s athletes don’t feel the same pressure that comes from the commitment, but things have changed, both at a sporting level and regarding our social context, so it’s logical that they think differently. A good thing about today is that athletes have a greater material incentive, however, the regression, as compared to before, has occurred at the base, where there is a lack of facilities, equipment and other necessary resources.
So you’re saying that the deterioration of facilities and material difficulties have affected athletes’ performance…
Exactly, but it’s something we must overcome. Myself and a group of retired jumpers decided to build high-jump mats. The National Center for Bio-Preparation produces rubber stoppers for some of its products, which for ecological reasons, the industry can’t recycle. We use the stoppers to fill the mats and are working with another entity to manufacture the covers. The mats will be used at the EIDE Martires De Barbados sports academy, where the kids are jumping between 1.70 and 1.80 meters. If the idea works we hope to see it extended to the other provinces.
When I was studying in Matanzas we had two mats, one in the stadium and another in the athletics academy which we used to practice scissor kick jumps. However, when you advance to the next level you have to do backward jumps, and you need a mat.
Despite this, one of the golden eras of Cuban athletics occurred during the Special Period…
We complained less then, today some athletes and coaches look for any excuse to justify a bad result. Me, an Olympic Champion and World record-holder, would ride my bike to training at the Panamericano Stadium. If you tell one of the young athletes to do the same today, they’ll refuse; you understand? Of course, I wanted to have the best conditions, but we had to make the best of what we had. You’ve got to look for solutions.
What’s your opinion of Luis Enrique Zayas’ performance?
When Luis Enrique Zayas jumped 2.27 meters and won gold in the Youth World Championships in 2016, I thought that he would surpass 2.30 this year, at least. Firstly, because of his result and also because he was fine tuning his run-up technique, but it seems he wasn’t able maintain the pace. Cuba’s selection of high-jumpers is poor, only Zayas stands out.
Globally, who stands out in the high-jump?
There’s Muttaz Barshim (Qatar) and Bohdan Bodarenko (Ukraine), who had a couple of good seasons, the difference is that in my time there were several athletes like them.
Did you, and do you ever, think that your world record could be broken?
Barshim and Bodarenko both came close in 2013 and 2014. There’s a lot of rivalry between them, and they were performing at a high level. Years went by and they hadn’t done it, and now it’s going to be a lot harder for them. Time moves on you see. Then again, Derek Druin from Canada is a very competitive jumper, but I’m not worried about him breaking my record.
How does it feel to be the only Cuban to hold a world record?
For me it’s an honor. I don’t like tattoos but if reach 30 years as the world record holder I’m going to get a tattoo of “2.45;” I’m already approaching 29…
Was your 2.45 leap a “perfect jump”?
Not at all, I’ve had better jumps than that. Unlike the long jump, throwing, and track events, in the high and pole jumps, your score doesn’t necessarily mean your best result. Let me explain: in the javelin, your score is measured according to where the object falls, in the long jump, to the nearest mark in the landing area. However, the high and pole jump are different. You can actually jump 2.40 meters but if the bar is set at 2.30, that’s the score you end with. If your score were measured in accordance with your center of gravity, it could be higher, that is to say, sometimes there’s a difference of 10 centimeters between you and the bar, but it doesn’t count. In the World Championships in Stuttgart 1993, when I won gold with a leap of 2.40 meters, I actually jumped 2.50. The closest part of my body passed over the bar at between 2.46 to 2.47 meters, higher than the world record, but in the end I scored 2.40.
Have you ever tried to break your World record?
Never, not even during training. If I had jumped 2.45 in training, I would have surpassed 2.50 meters in the competition for sure. I was one of those athletes that performed better during competitions than in training.
I thought it was the other way round, that athletes achieved better results in training, without the pressure of competition…
There are some athletes that are like that. It’s like we talked about earlier, how can you achieve a score during training or at the beginning of the season and then not even come close during the competition? What happened? In training I used to jump a maximum of 2.35m and depending on how I did it – with a certain amount of ease and a fluid technique – that was enough. Only once did I jump 2.37m, when I was averaging about 2.35. When I did this a maximum of three times, it was like: That’s it. I’m done for the day!