Things happen around Ivan Ukhov. Then again, he looks like the sort of guy that things happen around. With his ragged beard and long ropes of curly hair, he looks more like an extra out of Taras Bulba than an Olympic champion high jumper. But he revealed a gentler side at his press conference when he said the first thing he did after winning was call his wife Polina, and say that he’d be home to Moscow soon, and the first thing he was going to do was hug his two year old daughter Melanie.
However….the 'thing’ that happened to Ukhov while winning the Olympic high jump on Day Four of athletics at London 2012 was that he lost his shirt. Not in the metaphoric sense; that he lost at gambling, a practice frowned upon in the athletics hierarchy almost as much as competing while under the influence, so to speak. No, he literally lost his shirt.
Ukhov, 26, takes his vest/shirt off after every (successful) jump. He puts on a tee-shirt and waits for the next jump to don his competition vest. But when he came to jump at 2.33, Ukhov couldn’t find his vest. In short, someone had pinched it. After a few moments consternation, the Russian borrowed the T-Shirt of his colleague the defending champion Andrey Silnov and pinned his spare number too it. Ukhov later took the victory with 2.38 and having had a lengthy wait to attempt a new Olympic record of 2.40m, because the women’s 200 metres semi-finals got underway, and prevented his run up from the middle of the track on the bottom bend, he called it a night.
But of course, the first question at the press conference was about the missing vest.
"I don’t know, no idea," said Ukhov, "the shirt miraculously disappeared. I do it after every jump, but couldn’t find it. No one knows where the shirt is. My 'friends’ say they haven’t taken it," he added, looking askance to his right at the silver medallist Erik Kynard of the USA, and to his left at the three bronze medallists (I told you things happen around Ukhov – that’s right, three bronze medallists).
Ukhov was born in Chelyabinsk, a city to the east of the Ural Mountains, on the borders of Europe and Asia, but now lives and trains in central Moscow. Fans may have been worried when the rain began to fall halfway through Tuesday’s competition, since Ukhov, like most jumpers, has said in the past he hates to compete in the rain. But he dismissed it afterwards, saying, "you have to prepare yourself for everything, it didn’t distract me".
That was clear, his clearances were exhilaratingly clean right up to 2.38 metres, just one centimetre short of his outdoor best. The problems only began when he wanted to attempt an Olympic record of 2.40, which he has done indoors. First there was the delay due to the 200 metres women, then there was the question of the missing shirt. "I think I could have set a new Olympic record if I hadn’t been prevented from doing so. By that time, there were just too many people on the track".
According to our Russian media colleague Nikolai Dolgopolov, Ukhov bears a strong resemblance to the last great straddle jumper Vladimir Yashchenko, who set several World records while still a teenager in the 1970s. Dolgopolov mentioned this to Ukhov, who thanked him for the comparison. Dolgopolov was impressed, "That’s the first time he’s ever thanked me for anything".
Yashchenko’s career was cut short prematurely by an accident at the age of 20; and he had a sad demise 13 years ago, dying of cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 40.
Which brings us the 'thing’ that most people know Ukhov for; competing in Lausanne four years ago, while the worse for drink. He was censured by the IAAF for the incident. Your intrepid correspondent raised the question towards the end of the conference but, like the shirt, the answer went missing.
"He hates this question," said Dolgopolov, "he’s never answered it. In fact it’s the best way of ending a press conference".