A look back at the men’s high jump as Steve Smythe reflects on the history of events at the Olympics

Potentially this could be one of the best-standard events of the Games.

Joint 2012 bronze medallist Mutaz Essa Barshim dominated 2015 in terms of topping the rankings with 2.41m, but apart from a world indoor title in 2014, he hasn’t proved as dominant in championships and was only fourth in Beijing.

Bohdan Bondarenko, the 2013 world champion, couldn’t replicate his 2.42m form from 2014 in 2015 but nevertheless took joint silver in Beijing along with flamboyant Zhang Guowei. The Chinese jumped 2.38m in 2015 and is on an upward curve.

The other Olympic bronze medallist, Robbie Grabarz, started 2016 in his best form for a few years.

Traditionally Russia has the best depth of high jumpers but their athletes, including defending champion Ivan Ukhov, remain suspended from international competition.


The inaugural champion was Ellery Clark in Athens in 1896 and he was a different class to the opposition as his 1.81m gave him the gold medal by 16 centimetres.

Almost as dominant in 1900 was another American Irving Baxter, who jumped 1.90m to win by 12 centimetres. Paris also saw the first of five standing high jump competitions, the first four of which were won by Ray Ewry.

The American’s 1.65m would have won the silver in the normal competition in 1896. Ewry, who spent much of his childhood in a wheelchair due to polio, also won four standing long jumps and two standing triple jumps between 1900 and 1908.

Britain had a rare success in 1906 in Athens, but USA was back in charge from 1908 through to 1928.

Successive Olympic records were set by Harry Porter in 1908, Alma Richards in 1912, Richmond Landon in 1920 and finally Harry Osborn with 1.98m in 1924. Osborn also won a decathlon title in Paris but was only fifth in 1928 and one of four in a jump-off for a silver medal as team-mate Robert King won.

Canada won the title in 1932 through Donald McNaughton, a Southern Californian student who was being coached by runner-up Robert van Osdel, who was also a student there. He won in a tie-break but would have only finished third under the current tie-break rules.

USA won in Berlin in 1936 as joint world record-holder Cornelius Johnson led a clean sweep with an Olympic record 2.03m as the first four bettered the previous mark.

Australian John Winter caused a surprise in London in 1948 as he was the only one to clear a modest 1.98m.

2.04m tall Walter Davis had to jump much higher in Helsinki in 1952 and he cleared 2.04m. A year later he broke the 12-year-old world record with 2.13m and a few days later retired and became a professional basketball player. That height translated to three eighths of an inch below seven feet and at the US Olympic trials Charles Dumas’s 2.15m made him history’s first seven-footer. In Melbourne Dumas added the Olympic record as he won with a 2.12m jump.

By the time of the Rome Games in 1960, John Thomas had cleared that height more than 30 times and improved the world record to 2.23m. The American struggled in Italy, though, and could go no higher than 2.14m as Soviets Robert Shavlakadze and Valery Brumel both cleared 2.16m to improve the Olympic record.

Brumel was only 18 years old and by Tokyo in 1964 he had improved the world record to 2.28m. In the competition in Japan he won gold on countback from Thomas as both shared an Olympic record of 2.18m.

Brumel had a bad motor-cycling accident the following year but was still world record-holder by the time of the Games in 1968 (see “most memorable Olympics” below).

The Soviets were back on top of the podium in 1972, though 18-year-old Dwight Stones gots lots of attention for his bronze.

Four years later the extrovert Stones was a world record-holder at 2.31m and a big favourite. However, his technique depended on speed and heavy rain during the competition affected him and he could finish only third. Jacek Wszola gave Poland their first gold as he won with an Olympic record 2.25m.

Wszola was joint world record-holder by the time of Moscow with 2.35m along with Dietmar Mogenburg.

The boycott prevented the German from competing but, although Wszola jumped six centimetres higher than his previous Olympic record, he was well beaten by Gerd Wessig. The East German cleared a stunning 2.36m when his previous best was just 2.30m.

The Soviets were absent in Los Angeles in 1984 but Mogenburg could compete and won with a leap of 2.35m. World record-holder Zhu Jianhua was third and wasn’t helped by Steve Ovett’s stop on the final lap in the 1500m final as officials held up his second jump at 2.33m by some time.

Even though world record-holder Javier Sotomayor was absent due to the Cuban boycott, the 1988 competition in Seoul was expected to be a great competition as a record five past record-holders took part.

However, none of the quintet could make the top two as Hennady Avdeyenko won with a 2.38m Olympic record.

Having cleared eight feet (2.44m) in 1989, Sotomayor competed in Barcelona in 1992, in which all the top five cleared 2.34m to win medals.

The Cuban was injured in 1996 in Atlanta and could finish only 11th as American Charles Austin increased the Olympic mark to a still-standing 2.39m.

A record seven athletes cleared 2.32m and the same happened in 2000.

Sotomayor, who was supposed to be serving a two-year ban for cocaine use in 1999, was controversially reinstated and competed in Sydney in 2000 but could only finish second. Winner, Sergei Klyugin, benefited from clearing 2.35m in light rain, which then became heavy for other jumpers.

Fourth-placer Stefan Holm, who stood at less than six foot (1.81m), was favourite for Athens in 2004 after having won the world indoor title among 17 straight wins and the Swede duly won with 2.36m.

Russia have taken the two most recent gold medals through Andrey Silnov and Ivan Ukhov.

Most memorable Olympic high jump: Mexico 1968

History was made in Mexico as Dick Fosbury stunned the crowd and media with his revolutionary “Fosbury Flop”, taking off with his back to the bar.

The American, who was making his international debut, was one of three athletes to better the Olympic record with 2.20m and he had a perfect record up to 2.22m, which his team-mate Ed Carruthers also cleared. Fosbury was the only jumper though who could clear 2.24m.

While this was revolutionary then, by the time of the 1980 Olympics 13 of the finalists used this technique.

British successes

Irish brothers Patrick and Con Leahy, who were representing a joint Britain and Ireland, won the first GB medals. Patrick won silver in 1900 and Con won gold in 1906 and bronze in 1908.

The best result in the next 80-plus years was Ronald Pavitt’s fifth in 1952 when he cleared 1.95m. Dalton Grant cleared 2.31m in a high-class contest at Seoul in 1988 and ended up just equal seventh.

World junior champion Steve Smith ended the long wait for a medal with 2.35m for bronze in another superb competition in Atlanta in 1996.

Former Jamaican Germaine Mason surprisingly won the silver in Beijing in 2008 and is probably one of the least known and least remembered UK medallists of recent years as he never recovered that sort of form again. Grabarz won a share of bronze in 2012.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 400m hurdles feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the February 18, 2016, edition of AW magazine