Athletics: Smith's jumpers get high to the Mersey beat: Pop music and lights provide extra lift as overlooked discipline takes centre stage. Duncan Mackay reports from Liverpool

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The Independent Online
TOP of the Pops met Chariots of Fire at Wavertree Tennis Centre, Liverpool, last night. Music boomed across the arena and flashing lights beamed out as some of the world's top athletes took part in Britain's first high jump to music competition.

After the controversy surrounding Torvill and Dean in Lillehammer, you would have thought that the last thing sport needed was anything else set to music. But, unlike ice skating, there were no judges marking the jumpers for artistic merit: getting over the bar was still all that mattered.

The event was partly the brainchild of Liverpool's Steve Smith, the No 2 ranked jumper in the world, who has been making regular trips to Germany for the last two years to compete in similar events. It was after his agent, Vicente Modahl, first saw the format in Wuppertal last year that the pair had the idea of importing it to Britain.

The music, always very loud and with a pulsating beat, ranged from the obvious, like Van Halen's 'Jump', to the slightly surreal, such as 'The Only Living Boy in New Cross' by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, chosen by Britain's Brendan Reilly. Reilly settled on the number after earlier experiments with music from Vanilla Ice, Snap, and the theme from Rocky had failed to lift him higher.

It may be more Stringfellows than Crystal Palace, but the jumpers and spectators love it. In traditional meetings, high jumpers are stuck in the middle of the arena with plenty of other attractions to divert the crowd's attention. But here the spotlight was on them alone, and the crowd, which was approaching 1,000 at Wavertree last night, was captivated.

'The atmosphere is totally different from a normal athletics meeting.' Smith said. 'The crowd are sitting right on top of you and they can appreciate just how high the bar is.'

But this was no watered-down version of the real thing. Four of the world's top eight jumpers were there, including Javier Sotomayor, the world and Olympic champion. This was remarkable considering that the budget was only pounds 25,000, and more than half of that had been spent on preparing the arena and laying a special jumping surface flown in from Germany.

Jumping to 'Boom, shake the room' by Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, Sotomayor hit the right note. In a see-saw struggle with Smith he cleared 2.36 metres to win with fewer failures. Dalton Grant made a welcome return to form in third place with 2.34m.

High jumpers are a fraternal bunch. Ever since Smith emerged on to the scene two years ago with a world junior record of 2.37m, Sotomayor has encouraged him. Sometimes it has been a quiet word, perhaps suggesting a change in his run-up, or, like after last year's World Championships in Stuttgart, telling him that he would succeed him as world record holder.

So, when Smith asked the tall Cuban if he would compete, Sotomayor was only too happy. And he told him he would forgo his normal pounds 10,000 appearance fee if Smith would compete against him in Havana in May. 'I'm happy to do this because I respect Steve and it wll be good for me to have some competition at home,' Sotomayor said.

(Photograph omitted)

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