For Qatari high jumper and Olympic gold medalist Mutaz Essa Barshim, only the sky is the limit.
It is five o’clock in the morning and Mutaz Barshim is on cloud nine as he wanders through the athletes’ village in Tokyo. A heady mix of adrenaline and unbridled joy have prevented him from sleeping in the hours after winning his first Olympic gold medal, but he does not care. By his side is long-time friend, rival, and now fellow gold medallist Gianmarco Tamberi. Together they have made history. In the Olympic high jump final, he and Tamberi had both jumped 2.37m, leading Barshim to ask, somewhat hopefully, “Can we have two golds?” The pair sealed the deal with an emotional embrace watched by millions. It was the first jointly awarded Olympic gold in athletics in 113 years.
Several weeks later, Barshim still cannot keep the smile off his face. “For us, it just felt like the right thing to do,” he explains. “It sends a message beyond sport and performance. Of course, everyone is competitive at the elite level, but sportsmanship should always be at the heart of competition.”
Barshim’s path to Olympic gold began two decades ago at the Al Rayyan Sports Club in Doha. Given his father, Essa, was a retired athlete and coach, it is little surprise Barshim was introduced to track and field early on. At the age of nine he started running but it was high jump that quickly caught his eye. “For me high jump was just more fun – particularly as a kid you are jumping, doing backflips, some trampoline work,” Barshim recalls. “Who wouldn’t want to do that?” The Qatari’s talent was identified early and by his mid-teens it was clear he had the potential to make it as an athlete. “I can still remember when my first coach at Al Rayyan gave me a pair of new red spikes. I loved them so much. I think I still have them somewhere. At that point I thought, Yes, I’m going to do this.”
He won gold at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Athletics in Canada and it was around this time that he met Tamberi. They became friends, turned pro together, and have grown up in athletics, encouraging each other to – quite literally – reach their highest heights. “We are different people who have come together because we share the same passion,” Barshim says. “There is rivalry as that’s what we do, but we know that when that rivalry finishes, there is just friendship and love. Afterwards, we sit at the same table and laugh about it.”
For both men, Olympic gold was particularly poignant as they have fought back in recent years from career-threatening
injuries. Tamberi missed the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after breaking his ankle, while Barshim suffered a similar injury in 2018, keeping him out of the sport for more than a year. “My surgeon said to me later that it was the worst injury he had seen but that he didn’t want to tell me that at the time,” Barshim recalls. The Qatari has kept a file of photos of the injury and uses it for motivation ahead of competition, reminding himself how close things came to ending. “I still get emotional looking at it. We all know the risks in our sport but until things actually happen you don’t realize how fallible you are.” Barshim refers to his recovery, which culminated in a cathartic gold at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in his hometown of Doha, as a “miracle.”
For many years, Barshim has sported a snapback cap in what has become his signature look both on and off the field. He now has his own eponymous MB range and while the logo depicts a Qatari falcon, it could easily be mistaken for a phoenix – fitting, given the tribulations that paved the way for his rise to Olympic champion. “I had a lot of low moments with the injury,” Barshim recalls. “I remember the first time I tried to jog, and it was just pain and then loads of swelling afterwards. It was terrible. I felt so far away from being able to run, never mind jump with the best in the world. I had that fear that I wouldn’t be able to do what I love ever again, and I credit the people around me for keeping me positive. My family, my wife, my team, my coach – I have a great support team.”
It is this tenacity that has helped Barshim evolve into a global star in recent years. He is a Red Bull and Nike-sponsored athlete, while Richard Mille, Chevrolet, and Oakley have also been among his most significant supporters. “Style is important to me,” Barshim says. “I love fashion, I love watches. I travel a lot and in each place I visit or culture I experience there is often something that catches my eye. I like to play with things a lot in terms of my fashion – it is almost always colourful. Most of the time I’m in my training clothes so when I dress up there is more chance to express myself.”
A sports fanatic beyond athletics, Barshim spends his downtime watching others at the pinnacle of their profession, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the NBA and Lewis Hamilton in Formula 1. But there is one athlete who stands above all else. “I’m inspired by different athletes but it’s not just about performance – I like mentality that I can relate to. That’s why I love Muhammad Ali. I know some saw him as arrogant but it was just the way he motivated himself. He said he was going to do something and then there was no going back; he had to perform.” The pressure on Barshim’s own shoulders to perform is always significant. He is the sporting face of Qatar and also represents the wider Arab world when he competes.
“I always feel the pressure, but for me it is good pressure – it keeps me going. I can’t be lazy because there are a lot of people who are proud of me, so I need to deliver for them,” he affirms. “Some countries have 300-400 athletes, but we don’t have that in Qatar – a lot is expected of me but I am used to it. When I am standing ready to jump, it’s tunnel vision and I block everything else out.”
Since Tokyo, blocking out the noise has become even tougher. The shared gold with Tamberi is already one of the most discussed moments in Olympic history and after just a few weeks back in Qatar, Barshim left to find peace on vacation in Morocco – such was the level of attention he faced. But the 30-year-old knows he can’t step out of the spotlight for long. After taking a short break to recharge, his focus will switch to next year’s World Athletics Championships in Oregon and potentially the Paris 2024 Olympics beyond that. Barshim thrives on the big occasions, big stadiums, and big pressure. But most of all, he embraces his role as an individual who can encourage and inspire. “I am so proud when parents tell me their children want to do athletics after watching me,” he notes. “I didn’t start sports to become an Olympic champion, I did it because it was fun – this is important to remember for kids who are at the start of their journey. This kind of change in society makes me happy and hopefully it will help bring more champions, too.”
DOP: Julien Tessier
Editing: Siham Gouy
Style: Victoire Seveno
Style assistant: Eloise Roncone