Story written by Eric.
The 2008 IAAF World Indoor Championships take place in Valencia, Spain at the week-end, and there are a number of excellent match-ups track fans around the globe are eagerly awaiting.
The women's fields are loaded with superstars who make these championships worthy of their name, and the men have no lack of stars to fill the seats, either.
The second of two particular match-ups to which I am looking forward is the men’s high jump. The 800m was previewed yesterday, now the men’s high jump shall be featured before the week-end's action gets underway.
The men's high jump should light a fire under any serious athletics fan, as there exists a very good possibility that two very fiercely competitive and driven European rivals may produce a break-through mark which has eluded scores of previous champions in the past.
Though the fields are strong across the boards - including the shot put, the 3.000m and the 60m hurdles, Athletics in the News will focus specifically on four athletes among the hundreds competing whom fans should keep their eyes on as the championships unfold.
Abubaker Kaki was featured yesterday. Today you'll learn more about Stefan Holm and Yaroslav Rybakov. Tomorrow, the short series will conclude with Susanna Kallur.
So, again, sit back, enjoy the upcoming live coverage provided by a number of world media outlets and take advantage of the excellent information provided in this report.
MEN'S HIGH JUMP - HOLM vs RYBAKOV:
Final: Saturday, 8-March at 17.00 CET
Saturday's high jump television coverage:
16.10 - 19.45 (Planeta Sport)
17.00-20.45 (SVT1, SVT2)
A world championship event is all about winning gold. Let no one fool you or state otherwise - despite how much fun they may have had leaping or jumping on the field or pushing oneself to the brink of exhaustion around the track. Athletes are in it for the money, and gold medals have greater worth than silver. It's simple economics: you win, you earn.
Sure, you may find a Carolina Klüft who'll tell you that winning isn't everything, only giving your best and having fun is what counts. But Klüft, the reigning World, Olympic and European heptathlon champion, hasn't lost a competition in the eight years she has been involved in the event on an international level.
Silver medals and also-ran placing matter little to athletes who live, breathe, eat and sleep around the notion of reaching the pinnacle of success, but, then again, not every world indoor championship is of the same value to all athletes, either.
But, let's forget about placing and medals for a moment and concentrate on pure gut-driven, nail-biting competition and two athletes' unrelenting drive and determination to win at all costs involved.
The first athlete is the reigning world indoor champion - and Russian. His pursuer is a small Swedish man who has the highest clearance over body length in history and has three such world indoor titles under his belt. He is also the reigning Olympic champion and on fire in an Olympic year.
Their “Superbowl” matches have inspired and awed, been thrilling and powerful. They have faced each other 64 times in their careers, with Yaroslav Rybakov taking a 1-0 advantage over Stefan Holm in their very first match-up seven years ago at an indoor invitational in Athens, Greece – 2.30m to 2.27m.
Holm has gone on to defeat the steely Russian 20 more times than he has lost, compiling a 42-22 record against Rybakov, but it is the Russian who has his name last etched in the IAAF championships annual after winning the 2006 edition in front of his home crowd in Moscow.
Rybakov has won nine world or European medals in his illustrious career, and has a personal best indoors of 2.38m set in the 2005 European Indoor Championships in Madrid.
Holm has won one more title than has his counterpart, though six of his have been gold – including three-consecutive world indoor titles (2001, 2003 and 2004). Holm has a personal best indoors of 2.40m set at the same championship event Rybakov established his best.
Together, Holm and Rybakov have been one of the best 1-2 punches this side of Tyson-Holyfield, with several heavyweight swings thrown at a magical barrier 240 centimetres above the tartan floor by both jumpers. Holm has knocked out Rybakov once at this height in a memorable competition three years ago, though Rybakov didn't do down without swinging hard.
Ok, with the hyperbole orgy now over, let’s jump straight on to this week-end’s action – of which there promises to be plenty of excitement from jump to jump from which to choose.
Two metres 40 centimetres is the magic number to keep in mind on Saturday as you watch from one of the television stations listed above, on Versus or perhaps your own local station not listed.
Only five men in the history of this sport have ever jumped that high indoors in their careers. It is a mental barrier akin to, well, jumping 2.40m indoors; there is no rival to this event.
It's rather fitting that exactly three years ago, on the sixth day of March, Stefan Holm and Yaroslav Rybakov damaged my appreciation for high jumping for the rest of time, with Holm clearing 2.40m and making it look so easy.
Holm and Rybakov were competing for status as Europe's best indoor high jumper, with Madrid chosen as the location to conclude who was, in fact, the best our continent had to offer.
Rybakov had defeated Holm in three-consecutive competitions leading up to Madrid, with victories over Holm in Göteborg (2.35m), Arnstad (2.37m) and in front of Holm's home crowd in Karlstad (2.35m) - the latter a numbing victory by five centimetres.
Rybakov opened the Madrid competition by clearing six-straight heights with first-time clearances from 2.24m to 2.36m. He looked incredibly confident and unwavering in his pursuit of victory first and higher heights second.
Rybakov's 2.36m clearance was of particular note, because Holm passed for an attempt at 2.38m and the outright lead; he had also made six-straight first-time clearances up to 2.32m, but had started the competition at a height four centimetres lower than Rybakov.
Taking an attempt at 2.38m was risky, as had Holm failed at that height along with Rybakov, Holm would have played second-fiddle yet once again to his nemesis.
Holm had never cleared 2.38m indoors or outdoors up to this point, so it was a far stretch for him. Both had first-attempt fouls and cleared on second attempt, which forced both athletes to make attempts at 2.40m in order to win.
With Holm making it over 2.38m on his second attempt (which was actually his best jump of the night – 2.40m-2.41m clearance), Rybakov, who was there to win the competition, saved his final attempt for a one-off at 2.42m. He missed, and left Holm victorious and the first athlete in 14 years to breach that incredulous standard.
American Hollis Conway was the last to reach into god-like status when he cleared 2.40m for an American record at the 1991 World Championships in Sevilla.
And so the World Championships have again returned to Spain, and, once again Stefan Holm finds himself in the form of his life yet trailing Rybakov on the world list, 2.38m to 2.37m.
They are again the talk of the inner circles within the sport, with Holm, who is retiring at the end of the summer campaign, making one last-ditch - yet well-planned - attempt at bettering the goal he has of demolishing his personal best mark.
Holm has been compared to former world record-holder Patrik Sjöberg, the current Swedish indoor and outdoor national record-holder, since he first cleared 2.30m several years ago. Holm has received mixed reviews from journalists and fans around the world as to which of the two high jump sensations - jumping in different eras - is the best in Swedish history.
Sjöberg, competing against Sotomajor, the current world record-holder, cleared 2.30m or higher in 118 lifetime competitions. Holm, whose greatest rival is Rybakov – a man who has never cleared higher than his in-season lifetime best of 2.38m, has bettered that mark by two, breaking the record in winning the GE Galan two weeks ago in Stockholm.
Behind Holm is the second Russian qualifier into the meet, Andrey Tereshin, who placed second two years ago with a 2.35m clearance – a mark equal to Rybakov, but one set on count-back.
Tereshin hasn't made international headlines this season, nor has he taken up much space on today's preview.
However, the 1.96m tall Russian has jumped 2.35m, 2.36m, and 2.35m the last three seasons, respectively, and won the 2006 national Russian indoor championships as well (2.36m personal best).
Tereshin has competed in only three international indoor championships in his career, finishing eighth in the aforementioned 2005 European Championships; second in the 2006 World Championships and seventh in last year's European Championships.
Though gaining great exposure to championship competitions, Tereshin has only cleared 2.30m once this season. It appears as though his medal opportunities will be limited to fighting with Kyriakos Ioannou of Cyrus, the Osaka silver medallist, for bronze.
Ioannou has found good form with a 2.32m credit to his name this season.
The best wish one could make is to look into a magic ball and see into the future at what Saturday evening’s competition will deliver. The foregone conclusion is that is impossible, however, so it’s best to let the athletes competing for gold – and that is all that matters in their eyes – play chess and attempt to force one another to make moves which expose their weaknesses and exclude them from higher heights.
It appears from experience that the incredible standard of 2.40m will has a greater chance of remaining elusive than it does of being breached, but, in the spirit of true, gritty competition, anything can – and sometimes does – happen.
Stefan Holm would like to ensure his last indoor competition of his life nets a result higher than 2.41m, for though will he earn the right to be considered best in the world, and, best in our own country; he’s rather certain it will take 2.40m to win, and he’s got the better overall record as well as championship record against anyone in the field – including the defending champion.
2006 World Indoor Champion: Yaroslav Rybakov, RUS, 2.37m
WR 2.43m Javier Sotomajor (CUB) - Budapest, 1989-03-04
World Indoor Leaders in the High Jump 2008:
2.38m, Yaroslav Rybakov, RUS.
2.37m, Stefan Holm, SWE.
2.37m, Andrey Silnov, RUS.
2.36m, Andrey Ukhov, RUS.
2.36m, Andrey Tereshin, RUS.
2006 IAAF Indoor World Championships:
Gold: Jaroslav Rybakov, RUS, 2.37m
Silver: Andrey Tereshin, RUS, 2.35m
Bronze: Linus Thörnblad, SWE, 2.33m