Ukraine's Bogdan Bondarenko in the 2012 Olympic High Jump final (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Lausanne, Switzerland

Bondarenko no longer the underdog

Bohdan Bondarenko might just be the best-kept secret in athletics.

It seems as though the Ukrainian high jumper has appeared from nowhere, setting the world alight with his recent run of good form, culminating with his 2.41m leap in Lausanne.

But the 23-year-old has been one of the best among his peers for several years now. A year after taking the silver medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival in 2005, Bondarenko took the bronze medal at the IAAF World Junior Championships with a jump of 2.26m, despite being the youngest in the field at just 16 years old.

Among those he beat in that final were 2012 World indoor champion Dimitrios Hondrokoukis and joint 2009 World bronze medallists Sylwester Bednarek and Raul Spank.

Two years later, and still eligible as an under-20 athlete, Bondarenko returned to the World Junior Championships and struck gold in Bydgoszcz, beating home favourite Bednarek.

In the years that followed, he won gold at the 2011 European Under-23 Championships and the 2011 World University Games. He also finished seventh in the Olympic final last year with a jump of 2.29m, the same height achieved by the three bronze medallists and just two centimetres off his PB at the time.

So while Bondarenko was sailing over High Jump bars, he somehow managed to fly under the radar. Until this year.

In his first competition of 2013, he broke his personal best to win at the Doha Diamond League meeting with 2.33m. He then equalled that height to finish a narrow second in Shanghai to Mutaz Essa Barshim as the pair’s count-back records differed by just one failure.

That competition was Bondarenko’s last defeat of 2013 as he went on to win in Rabat, Moscow, Ostrava and the European Team Championships.

He also won at the Birmingham Diamond League, breaking his PB with a winning 2.36m leap. But in each of his competitions, he would stop jumping as soon as he had the competition won. That kind of approach makes sense for someone who is focused on saving their best jumps for the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. But for those watching, it wasn’t clear just how high Bondarenko could go.

Or at least that was the case until he competed in Lausanne.

Swiss surprise

Competing at the same meeting that produced an enthralling High Jump contest just 12 months prior, Bondarenko was the star of the show this time.

Pushed by USA’s Olympic silver medallist Erik Kynard, Bondarenko sailed over 2.24m, 2.30m and 2.35m at the first time of asking. Kynard then popped over 2.37m, meaning – like it or not – Bondarenko had to go higher if he wanted to win. And he did.

He cleared 2.39m with such ease, it was made to look like a warm-up jump. Kynard then raised the bar to 2.41m, but ultimately exited the competition. Bondarenko, however, nailed it on his third attempt – again, with room to spare.

This time Bondarenko couldn’t resist going higher and he had the bar raised to a would-be World record of 2.46m. He failed three times, but the fact that he came down on the bar – as opposed to jumping into it – suggests that he is not too far away from breaking one of the toughest World records on the books.

“It’s difficult to take in, jumping 2.41m really is something,” said Bondarenko, whose performance takes him to equal third on the world all-time list, breaking the national record set by Rudolf Povarnitsyn in 1985, four years before Bondarenko was born.

When asked why he didn’t clear 2.46m, Bondarenko joked: “My manager told me how much I would get if I jumped 2.41m, so I did it. But he didn’t tell me if I’d get anything for breaking the World record!

“Of course I’m very happy with my achievements today,” he added. “It’s a fantastic surprise for me. I’m delighted and I feel very proud at the moment. I know that improving on that will be very difficult, but I do feel I will get there.”

Inspired by Bubka

Born in Kharkiv, Bondarenko is coached by his father, Viktor. His younger brother is also a high jumper and has a PB of 2.00m. But despite the strong family interest in the event, when Bondarenko was younger, it wasn’t a high jumper who proved to be his biggest inspiration.

“My role model when I was young was Sergey Bubka, mostly due to the fact that he is Ukrainian like me,” he said of the legendary Pole Vault World record-holder. “But then I began to concentrate on my own goals in the High Jump.”

It wasn’t long before Bondarenko began his steady rise through age-group championships, picking up several medals along the way. Fast forward several years and Bondarenko is now the owner of the best High Jump mark in the world since 1994.

He can’t put his finger on one particular thing that led to his improvement this year, but one thing that was notable in Lausanne was that he prefers jumping when the crowd is completely silent.

“I used to ask for support from the public, but then I would often get too excited, causing me troubles in my run-up,” said Bondarenko. “Now I ask the crowd for silence when I jump, but I’d like to get myself used to jumping with the support of the crowd in the near future.”

Goals for Moscow

Bondarenko has now thrust himself into the spotlight as the favourite for the World Championships in Moscow, where he hopes to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Yuriy Krymarenko, winner in 2005, and Gennadiy Avdeyenko, winner at the inaugural World Championships in 1983.

But despite his current winning streak, there are no guarantees in Moscow – especially when Barshim has jumped 2.40m this year, making 2013 the first season in 19 years in which two men have broken 2.40m in the High Jump.

Bondarenko refuses to get carried away with his current form and knows he will have to be at his best in the Russian capital.

“My approach for the World Championships remains the same,” he said. “I will go there and see what result I can get, hoping for the best.

“Even though I’m ‘only’ five centimetres away from the World record, my goal is still to win a medal at the World Championships.”

And if there are still some athletics fans who haven’t heard of Bondarenko by the time of the World Championships, there’s a good chance they will know more about him afterwards.

Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF