Talking about his home country does not come easy for Syrian high jumper Majd Eddin Ghazal. The memories are simply too raw and too painful.
Memories, in particular, of a training session in Damascus just weeks before the London 2012 Olympics when the stadium in the Syrian capital was bombed and a shell exploded near to the high jump landing area where Ghazal was training.
Fearing his life, Ghazal dashed home and didn’t set foot outside his front door for more than a month.
“It was a time of civil war in our country,” says Ghazal. “The situation in Damascus was terrible. Military hardware, gunfire, explosions, cries and shouts of people rang out everywhere. My native city was under fire. I was shocked and really scared.”
Ghazal hadn’t even planned to be in Syria at that time. He had only returned to his home country to receive some treatment after picking up an ankle injury earlier that season. Although he had qualified for the Olympics, competing was the last thing on his mind.
“I couldn’t think about training or the Olympics, but our government decided we should go to London,” said Ghazal. “Nobody expected any strong results from us. It was more of a political move to show the world that Syria is still alive.”
Ghazal was chosen to be Syria’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony. He was bursting with pride as he walked into London’s Olympic Stadium, but his feelings were still mixed.
“Every cell of my body felt the unbelievable atmosphere of the biggest sporting festival,” he said. “But images of the war on the streets of Damascus would flash through my mind like a horror film. I tried to switch my thoughts to positive ones, but my brain refused to obey.”
Unsurprisingly, Ghazal was some way short of his best at the London 2012 Olympics, clearing just 2.16m – 12 centimetres shy of the personal best he had set just one year prior – and failing to make the final.
He had performed better at the 2008 Olympics, where he had been entered as Syria’s wildcard as no athlete from that nation had achieved a qualifying standard in athletics. He equalled his then PB of 2.20m but missed out on the final.
“I was afraid of being ordinary against all of the excellent jumpers,” he says. “I was upset to miss out on the final but it was a really helpful and memorable experience.”
Third time lucky
Fast forward to 2016 and the situation is now very different for Ghazal as he prepares to compete at his third Olympics.
No longer a wild card entry, nor a token participant for political reasons; Ghazal is a genuine medal hope in the high jump.
He caused something of a stir at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Beijing earlier this year when he added five centimetres to his PB, clearing a world-leading 2.36m. To many, it appeared as though that leap came from nowhere, but Ghazal had been gradually building up to a big breakthrough.
As a young boy, Ghazal started out playing football before moving to basketball, where coaches touted him as a future star. But one day his father introduced him to athletics and he never looked back.
He started out doing long distances before switching to sprints, horizontal jumps and then, final, the high jump. “As soon as I tried it, I knew that it would be my event,” he said. “I was happy that I had finally found a path to follow in athletics.”
Just a few years later, he took the bronze medal at the Pan-Arab Junior Championships with a national U20 record of 2.09m. His first national senior record was set just six months later.
His progression began to take off and after making his Olympic debut in 2008, he went on to represent Syria at the IAAF World Championships on numerous occasions. But he also had several coaching changes over the course of eight years, meaning he was never able to fully capitalise on a solid block of training with one coach.
“We significantly changed my technique and approach,” Ghazal said of his previous coaches. “I needed a little more time to put together all the details, but my federation called me back to Syria because of financial difficulties. I continued to train, self-coached, but I definitely needed some professional help, so in 2015 I joined Imad Sarraj’s group. He isn’t a high jump specialist, but he’s one of the best coaches in Syrian athletics.”
Stepping up in 2015
It was difficult for Ghazal to get an entry into the top European meetings, but in 2015 he quietly made a name for himself on the Asian circuit.
He had two victories and one second-place finish at Asian Grand Prix meetings in June, breaking his own Syrian record with 2.29m at the event in Pathumthani. He equalled that mark at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, but in a high-quality qualification round, he missed the final on countback by one place.
Ghazal channelled those frustrations into motivation for his final competition of the year and he ended the year on a high by winning the World Military Games title with 2.31m.
“I know better than anybody else that it takes a bit of time to get used to work with a new coach, but I reached an understanding with Imad Sarraj very soon. My technique was good enough; I just needed to improve my physical condition. We went gradually, doing exercises with low risk of injury and carefully increasing the training load. I didn’t expect anything special from that season, but when I cleared 2.29m in Thailand, I understood I could do more.”
That belief was confirmed at the 2016 Asian Indoor Championships, where he finished second to Mutaz Essa Barshim with a national indoor record of 2.28m. Ghazal describes that competition as a turning point.
“I did it with no special preparation for that competition and while I was in the middle of a heavy training load,” he says. “I knew that I’d be capable of jumping much higher when I felt fresher.”
He didn’t have to wait long to find out what he was capable of.
His 2.36m record-breaking leap in the Chinese capital came just three months later. He has since backed it up with jumps of 2.33m in Barcelona, 2.34m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco, and 2.31m in Szekesfehervar.
“I know that many people were puzzled, asking ‘who is this Syrian guy and where did he come from?’ But I believe that this is just the start of my international career,” says Ghazal. “I believe in my coach and his training methods. I believe I can fly.”
Ready for Rio
Ghazal will forever be haunted by the memories of the bombings in Damascus in 2012, but since returning to Syria last year, he is happy to be back in his home country with his friends and family. There are still many difficulties, though.
He had hoped to compete at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Rabat and Rome, but all of the embassies in Damascus were closed and he was unable to get a visa in time. He was eventually able to get a visa for some of his other competitions, but he had to go to Kuwait to get them, which involves two days of travel and missing valuable training time.
There are other implications with getting a visa, too.
“All embassies think I’m a potential immigrant, just because I’m Syrian,” he says. “It hurts me to hear that because I like my country and I’m not going to move anywhere else. My family, friends and coach are here. I want to be close to them, but I also need more opportunities to compete against my rivals before major competitions.”
Ghazal was granted a Schengen visa in June, which allowed him to compete at a handful of European meetings. Having finished no lower than fourth in any of his competitions this year, he has also showed that he belongs among the world’s best.
“I know I can jump over 2.40m,” said Ghazal, who was once again chosen to be Syria’s flag bearer for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. “I’m not scared by such a height, but I need better training facilities. We only have an old landing area, several hurdles and one weight at the Damascus stadium. That’s simply not enough to achieve the next level of performance.
“But the most important thing is to believe in yourself and to have people around who believe in you,” he says. “I’m staying optimistic.”
Liudmyla Iakusheva and Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF