From the moment Doha was named as the host for this year's World Championships, no athlete from the host nation has garnered more attention than Mutaz Barshim, the reigning world high jump champion. But over the past 14 months, he's gone from championships poster boy and overwhelming favourite to a man locked firmly in a race against time.
The 28-year-old has sat among the world's best high jumpers for nearly a decade, collecting Olympic bronze and silver in 2012 and 2016 and world indoor gold in 2014 before his triumph in London two years ago. He was named World Athlete of the Year for 2017 after going undefeated in 11 competitions and producing nine of the year's 11 highest jumps. The following May he set the tone for the season early, topping 2.40m at the Doha Diamond League fixture, a height only a dozen men have ever topped. He went that high again two months later at the Gyulai Memorial in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, and, feeling good, took three stabs at a would-be 2.46m world record. His first was tantalisingly close; he ended his third clutching his ankle, writhing in pain. Suffering ruptured ligaments, he underwent surgery and was sidelined for the rest of the year, beginning what has turned out to be a frustrating race against the calendar, and now the clock.
The later-than-usual scheduling of the championships has helped Barshim, but his form indicates that nonetheless, he, and his recovery, might be running out of time. He's competed just three times this season, topping a modest 2.27m twice and 2.20m at the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich, where he finished a distant 10th.
But Barshim, and fans in the Qatari capital, do have one thing in their favour: the overall level of the event at the moment. Nineteen entrants have topped 2.30m or better this season, but of those, only four have successfully sailed over 2.33m. On only one occasion has a championships-eligible jumper who has topped 2.31m not emerged from a competition victorious. All that said, a jump of 2.30m, or even 2.29m, might be enough this year to reach the podium – that's only happened three times at the World Championships. And for that, the list of candidates seems endless.
The world leader is Maksim Nedasekau, the 21-year-old Belarusian who improved to 2.35m to win the Europe-USA match in Minsk on 9 September, his only leap better than 2.30m this season.
Authorised neutral athletes Ilya Ivanyuk and Mikhail Akimenko have chiseled together good seasons, both topping 2.33m and 2.31m. Andriy Protsenko of Ukraine, the fourth-place finisher at the 2016 Olympic Games, topped a 2.31m season's best to win the Diamond League title last month, so will be bringing that valuable momentum to Khalifa Stadium.
Then there's Bogdan Bondarenko, the 2013 world champion, who topped 2.31m earlier this season despite continuing struggles with injury. Syria's Majd Eddin Ghazal, the world bronze medallist, is piecing together a season of firsts which he hopes to add to in Doha: jumping at Khalifa Stadium, he took his first Asian title in Doha in April at 2.31m and in July topped 2.30m in London to secure his first career IAAF Diamond League victory.
Others to consider include 2018 Diamond League winner Brandon Starc of Australia, who has topped 2.30m twice, most recently in Zurich; China's Wang Yu, who topped 2.31m and 2.30m for victories in Shanghai and Nanjing; 2016 world indoor champion Gianmarco Tamberi, who is also on the rebound from injury; and 22-year-old Cuban Luis Zayas, who topped 2.30m to take the Pan-American Games crown.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF