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 6'3½" 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 7'11½", 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.
Though still young, Sotomayor has been high jumping for several years, even though he was originally slated to put his leaping abilities to another use. After being discovered while competing in the national school games at the age of 14, Sotomayor, tall for his age, was singled out as a potential basketball player for the Cuban national team. But it wasn't long before Alberto Juantorena, the commanding Cuban middle-distance runner, pointed him out proudly as the future world champ in the high jump.
In 1984, when he was only 16, Sotomayor broke the Cuban record with a jump of 2.33 meters (7'7¾"), and he has improved every year since. His latest landmark clearance was his third world record. Last March 5 he matched his world standard at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest.
Rival jumpers find Sotomayor a friendly sort, though few of them know much about him. He was born in the small town of Limonar, east of Havana. He lives there still in a large concrete and wood house given him this year by his grateful government. As a boy, Sotomayor set dried sugar cane sticks across rusty oil drums to create a makeshift high jump bar. Soon after his talent was discovered, he was placed under the guidance of high jump coach Luis Godoy, who has been with him ever since. This September he will marry fellow jumper Maria del Carmen Garcia.
Sotomayor is not especially tall for a world-class jumper. What he has is unusual strength. "He is a power jumper to the nth degree," says Stones. "He has tremendous tendon strength and approaches the bar with speed you wouldn't believe."
Sotomayor's technique differs from that of his rivals in one obvious way. Like them, he begins his approach with long, bounding strides. But while they accelerate gradually all the way to the bar, he shifts gears violently five steps before his plant. "When he gets it right," says Carlo Thranhardt, the West German whose world indoor record Sotomayor broke, "it is 90 percent of his jump."
Sotomayor is clearly capable of jumping 2.45 meters, or 8'½", soon. That could happen when he competes in a meet in Los Angeles on Aug. 6, or at the World Cup in Barcelona on Sept. 8. But he may have company. "There are other guys capable of jumping 2.45," says Stones, citing Sjoberg and Gennadiy Avdeyenko of the U.S.S.R., the Olympic champion. Asked how high he believes he can go someday, Sotomayor names the next big metric barrier. That is 2.50, which translates to 8'2½". By beating the other jumpers over the eight-foot barrier, Sotomayor has shown them the vistas beyond.
GARY WILLIAMS/EL NUEVO DIA
Sotomayor's historic jump was a lightning bolt in the evening gloom in San Juan.
GARY WILLIAMS/EL NUEVO DIA
Though his feat inspired unbridled joy, the young Cuban has still loftier ambitions.