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High Jump Blues: How Event’s Standards Have Lowered Since Being ‘Beamonized’

SportsHigh Jump Blues: How Event’s Standards Have Lowered Since Being ‘Beamonized’

Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi, Tokyo gold medalist, qualifies for world meet finals in Oregon.Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, Tokyo Olympic gold medalist, qualifies for world meet finals in Oregon. Photo by Chris Stone

“Citius, altius, fortius,” says the Olympic motto. Faster. Higher. Stronger. But as the world track and fields championships continue in Oregon, one event is missing its altius.

The high jump.

World records are in jeopardy at the 10-day meet at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, especially in the men’s pole vault and shot put and the women’s 400-meter hurdles.

But no track nut or stat nerd is looking for the men’s and women’s high jump to produce a global best. Not even close.

Former world-record holder Dwight Stones, in fact, says his event is in a “down phase as much as a stagnant phase. We’re just about to be breeding mosquitoes.”

The three-time Olympian, among a half-dozen keen observers surveyed by Times of San Diego, faults Javier Sotomayor in part for the event’s doldrums. The Cuban raised the world record to 2.45 meters (8 feet, 1/4 inch) in 1991. Almost no one has come close since.

The Cuban Olympic champion “Beamonized” the event, Stones said last Monday, the 49th anniversary of his own first world record (7-6 1/2 in 1973).

Soto, as he’s known, “did 2.40 at will,” Stones said, qualifying his admiration. “He had to be on drugs his entire career. Cuba was a Soviet satellite. They do it that way. He ruined the event with these incredible jumps.”

He says Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova, the 1996 Olympic champion, did the same for the women’s high jump when she cleared 2.09 (6-10 1/2) in 1987.

“The long jump was a terrible event for many years because of what [Bob] Beamon did,” Stones said of the Olympic champion’s otherworldly 29-2 1/2 in 1968 — in Mexico City’s thin air. Mike Powell eventually extended the record 2 inches in 1991. And there it’s stayed.

By contrast, almost every other event has seen its standard raised in this century. The sprints via Usain Bolt. The pole vault via France’s Renaud Lavillenie and Swedish-American Mondo Duplantis. And a slew of East African distance runners, men and women.

Only Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, who joyfully shared the gold medal at last summer’s Olympic Games with Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, has threatened 8 feet. But Barshim’s best of 2.43 — 7-11 1/2 — came eight years ago. He’s now 31 and yet a favorite to win a third world title at Eugene, Oregon.

The top Americans?

JuVaughn Harrison and Shelby McEwen have bests of 2.36 and 2.33, respectively — or 7-8 3/4 and 7-7 1/4. All are well under the American record of 2.40 (7-10 1/2) dating to 1991.

(Third Team USA member Darius Carbin of San Jose failed Friday to make Monday’s final in Eugene.)

Here’s what our experts said.

Dwight Stones, critic of NBC Sports

Stones won bronze at Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976 and came out of retirement in 1984 to make Team USA for the Games hosted by Los Angeles, his birthplace. His 2.34 (7-8) was a personal best at age 30. He took fourth in his hometown Olympics.

Donald Thomas of the Bahamas, 2007 world champion, didn’t make it to final in Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Chris Stone

The UCLA Bruin says the quality of world high jump “ebbs and flows,” calling 2013-2014 “amazing years” featuring the 2.43 by Barshim (“who I think is the true world record holder”) and 2.42 (7-10 1/2) by Ukraine’s Bohdan Bodarekno.

One reason for the current state of the event is a lack of media exposure: “We need to show more of it,” he says.

When Stones worked for NBC, he says they got sick of listening to him. “I make no apologies,” he said. “I’m a field event freak. I love the jumps and throws and multis.”

He says the dramatic conclusion to the men’s high jump in Tokyo — where Barshim and Tamberi opted to forego a jump-off and share the gold medal after having the same number of misse — was botched by NBC.

“It wasn’t well-produced and packaged and presented to the audience as it should be,” says Stones, who does five or six broadcast gigs a year for ESPN. “So it kind of falls on deaf ears in this country, which is so aggravating.” 

Watching the Soviet Union’s Valeriy Brumel set a world record of 2.28 (7-5 3/4) on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” inspired Stones to jump — at first using Brumel’s belly-to-the-bar straddle technique.

“We may be inspiring some runners [with current TV coverage], and that’s great,” he said, “but I don’t know if it’s inspiring the next generation of throwers and jumpers because we just really don’t showcase the events.”

Stones also blames America’s recent lack of depth on the lack of “very good” high jump coaches.

“There’s a huge amount of talent,” he said. “I see it all the time. It’s just not properly managed. … They don’t train them properly. There are so many mistakes that are made that kill a career early in the career. … If you don’t discover them — or the chemistry’s not right — you’re going to be mired in mediocrity.”

Vashti Cunningham jumps the highest mark in the world this year.Vashti Cunningham of Las Vegas jumped her personal record of 6-7 in Chula Vista last year. Photo by Chris Stone

He says ex-Bruin Amy Acuff should have jumped much higher than her 2003 best of 2.01 (6-7): “She was a phenom, built perfectly for the event. As was Kostadinava. [Acuff] should have jumped 2.10 (6-10 1/2).” 

Vashti Cunningham, the 24-year-old Olympian, had been America’s best hope for a medal at Oregon22, but on Saturday she went no higher than 1.86 (6-1 1/4) and failed to make Tuesday’s final.

Before her unexpected result, Stones said he was a little disappointed in her lack of improvement — rising from 1.90 (6-2 3/4) in 2014 to 2.02 (6-7 1/2) in 2021 at a Chula Vista meet.

“It’s because of the problems in her run-up, some of which have been fixed,” says Stones, who showed his UCLA coach, Tom Tellez, the ropes of the blossoming Fosbury flop in the early 1970s. “But there still are a couple major things that are going on that are stopping her from jumping 2.05 and an American record and challenge the world record.”

He adds: “We’re starting to run out of time now. She’s not that young phenom anymore. … There’s a burnout component as well. She’s going to get hurt more. … She needs to fix these things.”

South Korea's South Korea's Woo Sangheok, who trains in Chula Vista, qualifies for world championships final in Oregon.Japan’s Ryoichi Akamatsu failed to make world meet finals. Photo by Chris Stone

One issue for Stones, 68, is that Cunningham’s father, the former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, is Vashti’s coach.

“He’s got a couple mistakes in his run-up [instruction] that he passed along to his son as well,” Stones said. “The same mistake for both kids.”

Another hurdle for his event gaining traction: “It’s a huge sacrifice to think you’re going to make a living high jumping,” Stones said. “It’s a very low percentage proposition.”

(At Eugene, gold, silver and bronze come with cash prizes of $70,000, $35,000 and $22,000. That doesn’t count performance bonuses that sponsors write into athlete contracts. Medalists in the 1,900-athlete field will split a prize purse of $8 million — a fraction of what golf and tennis offer.)

Stones won’t be in Oregon to watch the world’s best soar backward over the bar.  

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I just have better things to do than hanging out in Eugene at a track meet.”

He’ll avoid watching NBC’s “over-the-air” coverage but will look for live streaming.

“Mostly I just check [online] results, to be honest with you,” Stones said.

Doug Nordquist, suspicions of drug cheats

A Washington State University Hall of Famer, Diamond Bar resident Nordquist had a best of 2.36 and was fifth in the 1984 Olympics, with Stones fourth. He was honored as Whittier Teacher of the Year.

Nordquist plays golf with former NCAA high jump champion Leo Williams and together “we’re always bemoaning the state of the event.”

Elite high school jumpers have always been flirting with 7 feet, he says, but lately “there’s no middle. It drops off precipitously from that elite group.”

In 1977, when Nordquist tied for third in the California state meet at 6-10, Dennis Smith won at 7-2 followed by Bill Nice at 7.

Yonathan Kapitolnik of Israel jumped 2.28 meters (8 (7-5 3/4) to make finals at world meet in Oregon. Photo by Chris Stone

“But now, 6-7 won it [with six jumping 6-5]. And I thought it was bad weather and I looked. It was beautiful weather,” he said. 

Competing for kids’ attention are basketball, video games and skateboarding, Nordquist says.

The same number of kids come out for track, but it’s more of a social thing.

“They just want to be on a team and they want to … participate and not compete,” he said. “I don’t think Americans are technically very good” unlike Russian and Ukrainian jumpers — cookie-cutters but “so solid.”

Vashti Cunningham isn’t as technically sound as she could be — even though USA Track & Field “has been doing a lot of studies on her,” Nordquist said. “I go to Mt. SAC [Relays] and talk to the guy from the elite high jump program from USATF. I mentioned to him some things, and he kind of agrees. We got bad coaching. It’s kind of frustrating.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, as the bar went up, Cunningham started slowing down her approach run, he said.

“I was yelling at the screen: Run!”

On Saturday, he thought the same: “Slowed down at the takeoff. Too bad.”

Nordquist looks at the 1980s as a turning point in the event — and the sport. Steroids circulated and “knock-and-pee” started, jargon for unannounced out-of-season drug testing.

“A lot of retirements came at that time,” he said. “When people are starting to wear braces in their 30s, there are some things that cause that.” 

Nordquist doesn’t know how to cure his ailing event. But he knows what isn’t helping.

“USATF is happy getting less money than they pay LeBron James — for the entire sport. I refuse to buy Nike stuff. … I’m an ASICS athlete. … That’s unfortunate because that’s all that’s there.”

He wishes more money was spent sending kids to camp — the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center where South Korea’s Woo Sangheok is mentored. Woo is a medal favorite in Oregon.

But Nordquist says: “I don’t see it being won much higher than 2.35 (7-8 1/2).

Hollis Conway, American indoor record holder

Conway, 55, is parks and recs director in Monroe, Louisiana. An NCAA champion in 1989, he was ranked No. 1 in the world in 1991 and wrote the foreword of the “Complete Book of Jumps.” He won silver at the 1988 Seoul Games and bronze at Barcelona in 1992. His best indoors was 2.40 — 7-10 1/2.

In the 1980s, with so many jumpers over 7-6 and some over 7-8, “in order to survive, you had to adapt,” he says.

Donald Thomas of the Bahamas cleared only 2.21 meters at Oregon22. Photo by Chris Stone

He recalls going to Europe and watching Russians, Germans and a Swede warming up at 7-6 1/2 — and it “just blew my mind.”

“Back then, we knew we had to jump at least 7-5, 7-6 just to get to the finals, right?”

“I don’t think we have those numbers now…. That’s unfortunate,” Conway says. “I think we have very talented people with the ability to jump but sometimes you’re not exposed to it or, you know, there’s no passion.”

Living in the Louisiana region where pole vault wunderkind Mondo Duplantis grew up, Conway says lots of vaulters are taking up the event.

“So I think we need more exposure,” he says. “I think us old people have to continue to reach out…. We have to be influential in our communities, share our experiences, support the kids coming after us.”

He recalls jumping in the days of Jimmy Howard (7-8 1/2) and at each stage of his career facing even better jumpers, like Sweden’s Patrik Sjöberg (7-11 1/4) and Germany’s Dietmar Mögenburg (7-10).

“So it becomes more possible because you’ve seen it and you’re chasing it (and saying): You know what? That’s not impossible,” he says. “I’m gonna have to jump this if I’m going to reach the next level.”

Conway also recalls how — with solo battles with the bar instead of direct competition — top jumpers helped each other and became friends.

“I know my agent would hate it when I would do that,” he said.

One pal was Charles Austin, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic champion.

“I love Charles, he’s one of my favorite friends, but I never wanted him to beat me.”

What grade would be give his event today?

When it come to some athletes, he’d assign an A or B. But: “If you think about quantity, oh man it could be down to C or D.”

He says he’s proud to have held the indoor national record so long, “but I wouldn’t be mad at someone who broke it because at this point. … I held the record for [more than] 30 years. That’s almost more impressive.”

Charles Austin, coaching himself

Austin — owner and trainer at So High Sports and Fitness in San Marcos, Texas — holds the U.S. outdoor record of 7-10 1/2 and the Olympic record of 7-10 at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he won by passing one height and winning on his lone attempt at the record.

Grade the event? Austin gives the world a C.

He says it’s hard to get kids to understand the nuances of the high jump.

“They can go and watch this video like for myself,” Austin says. “For my freshman year, throughout my career, I watched a lot of video. And then, you know, I got to the level where I was competing against Hollis and [others].”

And he was helped by his top rivals.

“Soto, Sjöberg … all those guys being there with them helped me out a great deal, learning and understanding and getting better.”

He used to joke he was pretty good in college at 7-8 1/2, but when he got to the professional level and was around all the top jumpers, “that’s when I got a better understanding, so they helped me a lot,” even during competitions.

“Most high jumpers, we are weird, you know,” said Austin, who competed professionally from 1990 to 2004, but set a masters age-group record for 45-49 of 2.05 (6-8 1/2) in 2013. “We will coach each other: ‘Hey, what am I doing wrong?’”

The upshot is that it made everyone better.

But when it comes to the women’s record, he doesn’t think it’ll go much higher. And he says it won’t reach 7 feet in his lifetime. He’s now 54.

Cindy Gilbert, noting several problems

Carlsbad resident Gilbert (but now in England) was an Oceanside High School student when she competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, coached by her late father, Dr. Al Gilbert. She later jumped for UCLA and the La Jolla Track Club. Her best was 1.85 (6-0¾).

She gives several reasons for a plateau in high jumping.

  • It’s difficult.
  • No place to practice freely.
  • More choices, fewer teens picking track and field.
  • Specialization in high school and club sports.
  • And lackluster promotion in the modern entertainment era.

“High jumping is a skill event,” Gilbert says. “It takes bravery, self-discipline and a long time to learn how to do it well.”

She says it takes a lifetime to develop a great golf swing.

“High jumping is not that dissimilar,” she says. “The stress on the body required to jump limits the window for learning to rarely more than a decade.”

Since high jump pits are associated with schools, “if you aren’t a full-time student, you probably won’t have access. As a school employee and insured high school coach, my HJ pits are only available for four months a year. My coaching is limited to after school on weekdays, no weekends and only to the school’s enrolled students.”

After graduating from UCLA, she moved to Europe in 1978 for the sole purpose of finding a pit and throwing areas.

“I became a UK citizen and have lived in England and in Carlsbad for the last 43 years,” says Gilbert, 65, who coaches at Valley and Aviara middle schools and Carlsbad High.

She adds: “USA youngsters are blessed with a shocking number of sporting options, yet despite the plethora of choice, specialization is sadly becoming a norm. Athletes who used to participate in multiple sports — such as volleyball, basketball, soccer and football —traditionally would be handed over to the track and field coaches in the spring so they could learn how to run, improve conditioning, coachability and prevent injuries.

“Now it is common for club and high school coaches to run their own spring programs, competing for high school athletes and facilities. In my opinion, this is a detriment to the students.”

Finally, she says, track and field at the national level has struggled to create development programs. And at the elite level, governing bodies have failed to create a marketing strategy that competes with “sensational efforts seen in other emerging and traditional sports worldwide.”

What might help, she says, is giving the fans an identity to cheer for.

“We do it all the time in our professional teams,” Gilbert says. “Ireland lives on the identity of their city’s club teams. Check it out, Gaelic Football, (huge) you can only play for your county. Where you live is where you play.”

She says years ago, Santee’s Tracy Sundlun, the former Rock and Roll Marathon exec and Rio Olympic team manager, had an idea to create state or regional teams.

“San Diego, vs. LA — not in baseball but in track and field,” with counties providing sponsorship and meets taking on the feeling of minor league games.

When the Padres make the playoffs, you feel like you are going, she says.

“The disaster that is the Diamond League [of professional track meets] comes from the absolute requirement that you [have to be] an educated fan and know what heights and times mean. Sorry, even I don’t know that.”

She adds: “With competitors in the same uniform brand, with no names, no national team, you as a fan are not invested. You only care if you know times.”

Jamie Nieto, liked Japanese style

A two-time Olympian (2004 and 2012), Nieto got his personal best of 2.34 (7-8) at the Athens Games. His career was ended by paralysis in 2016. He married Jamaican Olympic hurdler Shevon Nieto, who in 2020 sang an original song dedicated to him on “America’s Got Talent.”

Nieto recalls watching Japanese coverage in 2007 of Koji Murofushi, the 2004 Olympic champion and 2011 world champion in the hammer throw. The announcers went ape.

“It was like a cartoon. Usain Bolt. It was a big thing,” he said. “Why can’t they get excited about everybody?”

But Nieto says that now the once-dominant Russians have been “excommunicated from the sport,” heights have come down. 

“What is a norm? When I competed, there was always one or two guys who were jumping 2.37 or 2.38,” he says. “And then you might pop a 2.40 …like woah. [Some years back] there were four or five guys jumping that high.” 

Grading the state of the high jump, he gives it “probably like a C-plus. … When I jumped 7-8, I wasn’t in the conversation.”

“Right now … 2.34 is about average,” he says. “It’ll go up higher at the world championships. I’m sure somebody will jump 2.34-35. or 36 at the worlds…. just to cap off the season.”

He says NBC deserves part of the blame: “Some guy won the long jump, and here’s his jump. OK, that’s cool. But there’s no story there. It’s just a highlight. Build the story up big.”

He adds: “It goes back to [athlete] sponsors too. It’s a double-edged sword. If we take money and build up your image and build up who you are, then we gotta pay you more money.”

James Barrineau, jumper for life

A 1976 Montreal Olympian, Barrineau is a retired Army colonel who worked at the Pentagon. He still jumps in age-group events, competing most recently at the world masters meet in Tampere, Finland. In 1995, he beat Stones at the world masters meet in Buffalo, New York, setting a then M40 age-group world record of 2.11 (6-11).

Why no improvement in the world record for 30-35 years?

“Sotomayor had the near perfect build for a high jumper coupled with East German training methodology,” Barrineau says. “We may never know what other advantages he had, if any. Kostadinova, same deal.”

He says injuries have sidelined pretenders to the world record (Barshim, Tamberi, Bondarenko, Blanka Vlašić on the women’s side).

“This … is mainly due to the tremendous forces placed on the ankle and other joints to enable a jump that high,” he said. “I know from personal experience the higher I jumped the more ankle and lower leg issues I had. At those heights a centimeter might as well be a mile.”

Barrineau says we may not see more than one or two more increases in the record under current rules.

He gives the current state of the event a C-plus.

“COVID did a number on athlete development and training,” he said from Finland. “I am seeing it at the high school level big-time.”

Besides the pandemic, “too many other sports [vie] for young people’s attention as well the overall decrease in youth fitness and motor development.”

He says the event’s popularity has nose-dived since the Fosbury/Stones era.

“Kids I get coming out for track have never seen anybody high jump on TV or live,” he says. “Very sad. All this has severely decreased depth in the event across the world, but in the U.S. in particular.”

And without depth, less talent emerges.

In the year before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Trials, no fewer than 48 U.S. men cleared 2.24 (7-4 1/4) or better.

“The past year has seen … maybe one-third that number over the same height,” he says. (Eleven in 2022, in fact.) “Reducing male track scholarships from 18 to just over 12 was a near death blow to developmental athletes coming out of high school. College coaches want ready-made high jumpers or guys that can do several events very well. Me and a lot of guys like me would never see a D1 program today.”

Any cure?

“Unless we can get track in general and the high jump in particular more visibility, so kids get excited about it AND improve school physical education at all levels, I see no improvement. No quick fixes.”

John Dobroth, old-school straddler

Another masters jumper, still competing at 81, Dobroth is a retired Superior Court judge in Ventura County, California. A former member of the U.S. national team after his collegiate career at Occidental College, he won meets in Germany, Switzerland, England and Italy. His all-time best was 2.20 (7-2 5/8) in 1971 and was ranked third in America in 1966. He later won masters world titles in Rome, Sydney and Sacramento.

Dobroth’s verdict on the state of the event: “The high jump stopped being interesting when it stopped being aesthetic, which coincides with the flop. The high jump used to be a beautiful dance move like a tour jette — when you add speed and power, it became a beautiful thing to watch!

“Watching somebody flop is like watching a 10th-grader who can do a reverse layup go out for track and be a star in 10 minutes. I don’t watch HJ anymore. Also, while I helped found a couple of early pro track projects, I miss amateur track.”

Dobroth says the “unjuiced record” has improved little since Brumel after 50 years.

“The flop is easy, but has LESS potential than the straddle from a mechanical standpoint,” he says.

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