Jose Luis Cuenca Cadenas updates the often controversial story of world high jump record-holder Javier Sotomayor
The life of a top-flight jumper usually lasts no more than 10 years. The nature of the events leads to damage of the ankles and knees and it’s unusual to see a world-class proponent still at their best beyond their 20s.
The likes of Fabrizio Donato or Jonathan Edwards are exceptions to this rule, but in most cases, those still at the top long after 30 didn’t enjoy success at a young age.
Javier Sotomayor might be considered as one of those exemptions. We are talking about a great sporting hero who made an explosive appearance at world level in 1984, when he was just 16, and remained competitive until 2001, when he retired from high-level competition.
We could talk for hours about the real fact that forced Sotomayor to retirement after his two doping accusations and a tough Achilles injury. However, we can’t deny that Sotomayor’s career spanned over a decade of triumphs.
The Cuban star broke the world high jump record twice on Spanish soil, both times in Salamanca. The first occasion was days before the Seoul 1988 Olympics, when he cleared the bar at 2.43m. Sadly, he was not allowed to fight for the gold at the Games as Cuba boycotted the event due to frustrations with the IOC and their decision to name South Korea as hosts.
They were the second Olympics that Sotomayor missed due to a boycott. He was not able to take part in Los Angeles despite having set the qualifying standard when he broke the world junior record in La Havana in 1984 with a jump of 2.33m. That summer, Cuba took part in the Friendship Games in Moscow, where Sotomayor won the gold medal.
Five years after his first record, the Caribbean jumper returned to Salamanca in 1993 to go higher with 2.45m.
He had a close connection to Spain. Team practices, long periods in Spanish territory, and an Olympic gold in 1992 Barcelona Olympics gave him emotional strong reasons that recently resulted in the acquisition of Spanish citizenship, not without controversy inside the Iberian country.
Recently he told Spanish daily sport newspaper Marca: “I spend long periods in Spain. I got most of my success in Spain and I also hold the Prince of Asturias award. That’s why two years ago I thought that I wanted to begin with all the formalities and procedures.”
He denied to the newspaper he had renounced his Cuban citizenship: “If I’d have had to do that, I’d never had turned Spanish.”
Lately, Spain has undertaken the nationalisation of Cuba-born athletes, such as Lois Maikel Martinez, Orlando Ortega and Yidiel Contreras, causing accusations the Spanish Royal Athletics Federation is signing sports stars like a football club, harming the development of Spanish-born athletes. Thus, a letter signed by some Spanish hurdlers and sent to the federation as well as to Spanish media gained publicity just before the Beijing World Championships.
Born in Limonar, Matanzas, in 1967, Sotomayor was scouted by basketball coaches because of his height. But the course of his life kept him from the courts – the basketball courts, at least.
Taking up high jump as a teenager, he went on to win multiple international medals. In addition to the gold in the 1992 Summer Olympics, he became world outdoor champion twice, in 1993 and 1997; four times world indoor champion, in 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1999; three times Pan American champion from 1987 to 1995 and winner of the 1989 Summer Universiade.
However, along with the success has come doping connections. First, he tested positive for cocaine shortly after the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg where he won the gold. He was disqualified, but proclaimed his innocence. Chief Cuban team doctor Mario Granda claimed the tests were sabotaged and that the positive was produced by taking coca tea as medical treatment for a stomach problem. Furthermore, Cuban president Fidel Castro alleged political persecution.
In 2001 he tested positive for nandrolone shortly after the World Championships in Edmonton where he placed fourth. Once more the Cuban declared himself innocent, although his result in Canada was annulled. He avoided a lifetime ban by retiring from sport competition.
Still on the top of his career, “Soto” was awarded with the high honour in Spain of the Prince of Asturias for sport in 1993. He considers this award as the most important in his life, aside from the medals won on the track.
In 2007, he was enshrined into the Central American and Caribbean Athletic Association hall of fame, and recognised by the International Olympic Committee with the “Inspiration for Youth Sports” honour.
Since retiring, besides receiving awards, he has dedicated most of his time to his own cultural development, gaining a degree in physical and sport culture. Thanks to that, he’s been able to coach in his country.
Moreover, he has been a member of the Cuban athletics federation committee and had other similar roles.
Sharing his time between Spain and Cuba, he tries to share his experience with young prospects and takes part in university conferences and meetings, talking about the danger of drugs, alcohol and youth delinquency.
He also runs a restaurant in Cuba, which contains memorabilia from his career, including a bar situated at 2.45m high.
A lover of Creole food who likes eating pizza, Sotomayor is a music enthusiast, having founded salsa band “Salsa Mayor”.
Let the music play. The show must go on.