As recently as the start of this London Olympic year, Robbie Grabarz could roll up for training without turning a single head. Having failed to qualify for the World Championships in Daegu last summer, he was off the Lottery funding list and off the media radar.
It is different now. There were camera crews and reporters queuing up to speak to the 24-year-old Cambridgeshire athlete as he went about his high-jumping business at the UK Athletics High Performance Centre on the north side of Birmingham yesterday afternoon.
At the end of 2011 Grabarz was 44th in the world in his event. Six weeks out from the 2012 Olympics, he is joint-second – alongside Jesse Williams, the American who won the world title last summer.
On his Diamond League debut in Rome, the week before last, Grabarz beat Williams, maintaining his composure to clear 2.33 metres first time, amid the din surrounding Usain Bolt's appearance in the 100m. Last weekend in New York the world champion beat the Briton, but only on the countback system after both men cleared 2.36m.
Grabarz showed a hint of what was to come with a 2.34m jump indoors at Wuppertal in Germany in January and any doubts that he had the wherewithal to cut it with the world's highest fliers have been removed in the last fortnight. He has established himself as a big new medal hope for the home Games – hence the sudden attention being paid to the former Cambridgeshire county hockey player.
"I'm enjoying it," Grabarz said. "It's what comes with jumping high. I expected to jump high this year, so it's not like it's a surprise to me."
It might have surprised some that Grabarz chose to increase his exposure by posing naked for the gay magazine Attitude, his modesty protected only by a strategically-placed Union Jack. When he attended the photo-shoot, he was asked what Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics, might think of him following in the bare sporting footsteps of David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg and Gareth Thomas. "He'll probably smile, shake his head and say, 'So long as you jump high in the summer I couldn't care less what you get up to in your spare time,'" Grabarz replied.
So had van Commenee said anything since the magazine was published? "He came up to me and said he'd read what I'd said and that I'd summed him up perfectly," Grabarz said, chuckling. "He said, 'That's exactly what I would have done.'
"I have no regrets about doing it. I had a great time. I don't have a problem about being naked anyway. It was just all good fun."
It just so happens that the one high jumper above Grabarz in the world rankings right now is the man who has probably brought more exposure to the event than anyone since Dick Fosbury did his Flop. Russia's Ivan Ukhov, who cleared 2.37m at Opole in Poland last Saturday, attracted 2.5million hits on YouTube for his slapstick antics while drunk on vodka and Red Bull at the Lausanne Grand Prix in September 2008.
Grabarz himself has confessed to being something of a party animal. He attributes his 2012 transformation to a change of attitude, a focusing of attention since the failure of 2011, under the guidance of his coach, Fuzz Ahmed, a former international high jumper who is also a part-time actor who has appeared in EastEnders and The Bill.
"A great deal of it is down to Fuzz," Grabarz said. "He has challenged me a lot and inspired me to move on."
Robbie Grabarz is an ambassador for Alfa Romeo – official car supplier to UK Athletics. Visit: www.alfaromeo.co.uk
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