Athletics: Cuba's master of high achievement: Javier Sotomayor broke his own world high jump record last week. Hugh Jones reports

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The Independent Online
CITIUS, altius, fortius. If there is one human who embodies all three elements of the Olympic motto, it is the Cuban Javier Sotomayor. Not in the same order though; faster and stronger are merely the means to going higher, as he demonstrated in setting a high jump world record of 2.45 metres (8ft 1 2 in) in Salamanca on Tuesday night.

In recent years it has been Sotomayor alone who has managed to go higher. Five years ago, also in Salamanca, he set his first world record of 2.43m, improving it the following year by another centimetre to crash through the 8ft barrier for the first time.

Like pole vaulting over a double decker bus, leaping over the crossbar of a goal is a striking - if theoretical - achievement, of which only Sotomayor can boast. There seems no one ready to press him at present and his path towards the world championship title in Stuttgart in two weeks' time looks clear.

But in an event which is so demanding of the body, nothing can be assured. Sotomayor's record-breaking of the late 1980s - he also set a world record of 2.43m in winning the 1989 world indoor title - was interrupted by a knee injury. His attempt to win at the previous World Championships in Tokyo two years ago was thwarted by an ankle injury and he had to be content with second.

There have been ups as well as downs and Sotomayor managed to collect the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, while still nursing Achilles tendon problems, with a relatively modest leap of 2.34m. Four others cleared the same height, Sotomayor winning only through fewer previous failures in his series of jumps, but no one felt the victory was less than deserved. If Cuba had not boycotted the Seoul Olympics in 1988, it might well have been Sotomayor's second high jump gold.

Finally being given his chance - and taking it - does not seem to have suppressed Sotomayor's competitive appetite, as his form this year shows. Despite a couple of defeats, such as that inflicted by Britain's Steve Smith in Stockholm a month ago, he is clearly a jump ahead of his rivals.

He cleared 2.40m in Cuba in May, but after transferring to Europe he had some inconsequential competitions. However, when he visited London on his grand prix tour nine days ago, he had found his feet. Jumping in the rain at Crystal Palace he was in a different class, going on to make one attempt at the 2.45m world record. Steve Smith, looking on, thought it a very realistic effort.

Smith's coach, Mike Holmes, was impressed by Sotomayor's previous jump: 'That 2.40m was awesome in those conditions,' he said. 'He had no competition and it was dull and cold. It was very unfavourable for a quality performance like that, yet it looked so easy. He is obviously in the form of his life. High jump is an event where you peak quite early, at 23 or 24. He's going on 25 now and he's obviously still improving - which is quite unusual. He just can't do any wrong at the moment.' Holmes is willing to speculate that Sotomayor could take the record higher still.

At 6ft 5in (1.95m) and a little under 13st (82kg), Sotomayor has an unusual combination of height and power. Smith and Dalton Grant, Britain's best jumpers, have great explosive power - like the American Hollis Conway, who may be Sotomayor's main rival in Stuttgart. They all give inches away to Sotomayor, yet he lacks none of their lift. He generates great speed in his bounding run-up, but the high jump is a technical event which demands great concentration, technical skill and flexibility to harness the speed and power of the jumper.

Jumping is something of a speciality in Cuba. Yoelvis Quesada in the triple jump and Ivan Pedroso in the long jump both have good chances in Stuttgart. In the women's high jump there are hopes that Ioamnet Quintero may improve on her bronze medal position from Barcelona, while Silvia Costa remains competitive at world level after having lost out through Cuba's Olympic boycotts. Sotomayor's wife is also an international standard high jumper.

Cuba still uses sporting prowess as a means to acquire international prestige. 'The training system and monitoring and sifting still seem to work,' Jim Riordan, a long-time student of sport in socialist countries, said. 'A country of only 9 million people that is in a terrible economic plight, because of the American boycott and the collapse of Communism elsewhere, is still giving an amazingly high priority to elite sport. A small number of sports have been targeted, in which they know they can do reasonably well, and where more medals are available.'

The regime is the guarantor of athletic achievement. Athletes' training and competitive conditions and expenses are met by the authorities, but individual winnings are handed over. The Cubans are set apart not only by their training and management system, but also by their unfamiliarity with English as the athletic lingua franca. No one knows very much about them, although anecdotes emerge. As a post-Olympic reward, Sotomayor is believed to have received a fridge and washing machine, but he still rides a bus for 10 miles to get to his training sessions.

What he does once there has been effective, though. 'He's got that supreme confidence now,' Holmes said. 'Everyone else is struggling to do 2.35m; he's done 2.45m. He can do 2.35m in his sleep at the moment. That's a hell of an advantage to take into the World Championships even if we don't see something sensational there.

Should he win in Stuttgart, Sotomayor will receive a Mercedes-Benz from the organisers. But he will probably still be taking the bus to his training sessions.

(Photograph omitted)