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Merrell Noden
August 07, 1989
Cuba's Javier Sotomayor broke the eight-foot high jump barrier
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August 07, 1989

One Giant Leap

Cuba's Javier Sotomayor broke the eight-foot high jump barrier

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As Javier Sotomayor, the Cuban high jumper, prepared for his second attempt at eight feet last Saturday night, the giant scoreboard in San Juan's Sixto Escobar Stadium flashed a call for quiet. Almost instantly, the anxious crowd obeyed. It was 10 o'clock on the final day of the Caribbean Zone Track and Field Championships. In fact, all the competitors had completed their events, except Sotomayor.

Suddenly the silence broke with the sound of slow, rhythmic clapping. It was one of Sotomayor's teammates. Soon others inside the stadium joined in, and the air was filled with a fervent clamor.

Having failed at his first attempt at a height no high jumper had ever achieved, Sotomayor paced along the drying grass and turned to face the bar. Then he began his personal ritual, slapping his thighs, his arms, his face. "The conditions I was in were very good," Sotomayor, 21, said later, "but it is always difficult when you know that it's a world record. And even more when it had to do with eight feet."

He bounded in from the right, planted and soared. Sotomayor, a slender 6'3�" and 181 pounds, grazed the bar ever so slightly. The barrier shivered but ultimately rested in place, and the applause boomed thunderously. "When I saw I had passed the bar, that's when the happiness came," Sotomayor said, "and the relief." He was in the pit for only an instant before jumping up and doing a backflip and being mobbed by his Cuban teammates.

Many in the crowd also swarmed to congratulate him. It was a dangerous moment. For Sotomayor's leap to be certified as the world record, the bar had to be measured again. "We had one hell of a job protecting the crossbar," said one official. "I was scared—we got a world record, and we're going to lose it."

They didn't lose it. International rules require all world records to be measured metrically. The crowd was kept away—just barely—and the bar remained in place and was measured at 2.44 meters, which is actually a whisker above eight feet.

By that margin the world of high jumping was changed forever. It had taken 33 years to add 12 inches to the historic first seven-foot jump, by Charles Dumas of the U.S., and surely it will take even longer to improve Sotomayor's jump by another foot. "That's probably the last barrier," said Puerto Rican decathlete Liston Bochette. "No one in the foreseeable future is going to put it at nine feet. I have to feel like I not only saw a record, I saw the beginning of the end."

Not everyone was quite so apocalyptic. Shortly after raising his own U.S. record to 7'10" at the Olympic Festival in Norman, Okla., on Sunday evening (page 22), Hollis Conway said he wasn't surprised at Sotomayor's feat, only disappointed at not reaching the barrier first. "A lot of people thought it couldn't be done," said Conway. "But I've jumped at it, and I saw [ Sweden's Patrik] Sjoberg take a good jump at it in New York."

No one was surprised that it was Sotomayor who got there first. He already held the world mark of 7'11�", which he established last September, and he would have been the favorite in Seoul had Cuba not boycotted the '88 Olympics in support of North Korea. "It wasn't a matter of if or who," said U.S. jumper Mike Pascuzzo. "We all knew who. It was just a question of when."

Actually, who suddenly became a relevant question again two weeks ago at the New York Games. Sotomayor had been beaten by Sjoberg, and he sat brooding as the Swede made three unsuccessful attempts at eight feet. On the second, Sjoberg came quite close. "That may have moved up his timetable," said former record holder Dwight Stones.

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