Can Barshim become king of the high jump?

By Sean Carey

“I think it’s possible to break the record,” said an ecstatic Mutaz Essa Barshim after jumping 2.43 m (7’11.7″) at the recent Diamond League meeting in Brussels, the second highest recorded jump in history.  Much to his and the crowd’s disappointment, he then failed by the tiniest of margins to clear the bar positioned 1 cm higher than Cuban Javier Sotomayor’s 21-year-old 2.45 m (8’0.5″ world record).

Unsurprisingly, Barshim was confident that he could go higher. Referring directly to Sotomayor’s effort he added: “It’s been done by a human, we’re all human, so it’s possible.”

Barshim’s words got me thinking about the human ability to jump. “Much Depends on Dinner,” is the title of a chapter in Daniel Lieberman’s 2013 highly-acclaimed book The Story of the Human Body. The Harvard-based evolutionary biologist links some of our most basic movement patterns, especially walking and running, to strong selection amongst ape-like creatures in Africa at a time of rapid climatic and environmental changes several million years ago.

Put simply, by first standing fully upright and then walking upright, early hominins living at the edges of the central African rainforest were better able to find different types of edible plant material, and thus increase their chances of survival and reproductive success. Then around 2.5 million years ago the descendants of those hominins began to run medium and long distances as well, competing with other animals to add meat to their diet which, among other things, led to our species developing relatively small stomachs but very large brains.

If Lieberman is right about the evolutionary significance of running, then the ability to jump may have evolved in the same period, since both running and jumping depend in part on the storage and release of energy in the plantar arches on the underside of the foot as well as the Achilles tendon connecting the calf muscles to the heel bone. So far, however, our capacity to jump has not been subjected to the same intense analysis by biological anthropologists as locomotion, though anatomists, physiologists and evolutionary psychologists have all gone some way to unravel its complexities – for example, physiologists have discovered that untrained bonobos easily outperform highly-trained human athletes at squat (vertical) jumping, while evolutionary psychologists have identified and explored the manner in which humans in all societies use “motion cues,” including the ability to jump, to recognize and classify fellow humans and other animal species.

But it’s evident that compared with other animals such as frogs, fleas or grasshoppers, humans are not specialist jumpers. So what motivates athletes such as Barshim to spend endless hours practicing alone and then performing in front of purposefully noisy (and sometimes quiet) crowds in stadiums throughout the world?

High jumping is a very good example of why cultural anthropologists think of the body as a sociocultural entity rather than just another material object. As Marcel Mauss put it some years back, “the body is man’s first and most natural instrument” operating in complex sociocultural fields – which includes small (or large) changes in technology with unforeseen consequences.

In fact, the technique for contemporary high jumping was revolutionized in the mid-1960s by U.S. high jumper Dick Fosbury, who took advantage of the deep foam matting that replaced sand or sawdust in the landing area to experiment with new ways of going over the bar. Instead of using a traditional scissor jump, straddle technique, or Western roll, Fosbury ran the last few strides in a curve, which allowed him to lean away from the bar and obtain a good degree of rotatory momentum around his spinal axis. This technique, with the head leading, face pointing skywards, and arched body and extended legs following, allowed Fosbury to jump much higher than he had before. It worked so well that with a jump of 2.24 m (7’4″) on his third attempt he won the gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. His competitors saw there was a huge advantage in this highly counterintuitive way of moving, and over the next few years most switched styles.

Today everyone jumps using the so-called Fosbury Flop — though my guess is that many younger competitors erroneously think that this is the way the high jump was always performed in the modern era.

Meanwhile back in Brussels, Barshim had come up with a neat metaphor for his and the current world record holder’s achievements. “It means Javier is the king and now you’re the prince,” he said indicating that in an era of unprecedented media coverage jumping over a very high bar is about achieving global status and recognition rather than anything else. “You might take over at any time, so that’s really big for me and really good motivation.”

So will Barshim be crowned king or remain a prince? His ambition is not in doubt, so 2015 promises to be a big year for this outstanding athlete.

 

Sean Carey is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, and a Centre for London Associate. He writes for The Guardian, The Mauritius Times, The New African and African Business. He has a Ph.D. in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

 

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