Mutaz Essa Barshim
As a country of barely a quarter-of-a-million people, Qatar has precious few sporting heroes so it was no surprise that, upon his return to Doha with a London 2012 Olympic Games bronze medal, high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim was feted by the government and the Qatari people.
The extent of his rewards the 21-year-old will discretely not reveal but the medal was not entirely unexpected.
Barshim easily won the 2010 IAAF World Junior Championships in the Canadian city of Moncton and then a year later cleared a national record of 2.35m.
He went even higher during the 2012 indoor season with a 2.37m national record to serve up notice of his Olympic medal credentials.
Following the Olympic Games, Barshim then soared to a 2012 world-leading 2.39m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne to put himself on an equal footing with Ivan Uhkov, the Russian who took the gold medal just a few weeks before in London.
The height also equalled the long-standing Asian record, and former World record, of China’s Zhu Jianhua from 1984.
All these achievements seem not to have gone noticeably to the 21-year-old’s head.
“Of course it was big for the country's history,” Barshim said in a matter-of-fact fashion recently. “We got two medals at the Olympics one for shooting and my medal. All the people really appreciate it and support us very much. It has given us more opportunities.
“Actually, people do recognise me now. They just show so much appreciation, they are glad and happy to see me. It’s for the nation to show the flag. It’s something for the whole country. Sometimes they want autographs. I am not embarrassed.”
Of course, he is aware that he will in the spotlight before and at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha on 10 May.
“I have been on national TV, different stations, I have been on radio on different shows,” he revealed. “I have been at event openings, things here and there. People ask me for a lot of stuff now. I enjoy it. If I have time, I do it.”
Unlike some of the other Qatari athletes who have previously achieved medals at the highest level, Barshim was born in Doha.
Reluctantly, he concedes that his medal perhaps carries more weight amongst his countrymen. “I know what you mean. All medals are special. I know that some guys before were not born in Qatar and they won some medals, but when you are born in the country you feel it in your spirit.
“It’s absolutely different, the people feel it. Now we can show that Qatari born athletes can achieve world class and win medals. Hopefully in the future we will see more of that.”
Barshim grew up in a family of athletics fans. He has four brothers – 18-year-old Muammar has already jumped 2.20m - and one sister and they are all active in the sport.
His father, who is now coach of the local club, was a middle and long distance runner and the young Barshim tried running. He also experimented with the horizontal jumps but, when he was 15, he decided High Jump was for him.
“I grew up, nothing special, like any kid in Qatar,” said Barshim. “I joined a club because my father was going to the club training so sometimes he used to take me there with him. I knew athletics because of my father.
“You know, when you are a little kid you don’t actually think about the things you want to do. You think about what is more fun, I just thought that high jump was the most fun event in athletics. You have got the mat; sometimes you jump on the trampoline a little bit. It just seemed to be more fun. After, I got more serious about it, but when I started it was just for fun.”
Barshim attended an Arabic school in Doha where he started learning English. This explains why he is very comfortable reading, writing and speaking the language. Once he wraps up his athletics career he has plans to attend a college.
Stan the man for Barshim
Not surprisingly he credits his Polish coach, Stanisław 'Stanley' Szczyrba with his success.
“Stanley currently lives in Doha working for the Qatar Athletics Federation,” said Barshim. “He’s more than a coach, we are like father and son. We spend a lot of time together off the track. Sometimes I go to his house, sometimes he comes over to my house. We have a very good relationship.”
Sometimes, when they are between European competitions, they will spend time in Warsaw where Szcyrba has a home. They also have a training site in Sweden so that he doesn’t have to return to Doha during the season unnecessarily.
If the pair have plotted specific targets for the upcoming year and beyond Barshim is not saying but he revealed a little known fact that might cause some of his rivals to fidget.
“My main goal now is just to be healthy because last year I wasn’t healthy, I wasn’t healthy at the Olympics. I had this problem with my back. It was a stress fracture in the fifth lumbar vertebrae. My real goal is to be healthy.
“It started hurting bad before the (2012) World Indoor Championships and then I had to stop a bit. Before the Olympics, I had to stop again but we have a really good sports centre in Doha. We have our own physios there and in Warsaw.”
Pressed to elaborate, he concedes he has always admired Javier Sotomayer, Cuba's former Olympic champion and current world record holder at 2.45m. One day hopes to jump higher than no man before him.
“Everybody wants to be (Olympic champion and world record holder) one day. Yes, it’s not easy but hopefully one day, We are working on that.”
Paul Gains for the IAAF