LONDON -- Coming into the London Games, U.S. high jumper Jesse Williams knew that he had a daunting barrier to surmount, one more treacherous than the 13-foot-long, 1 ¼-inch-diameter fiberglass crossbar that would be set far above his head. Williams would also be trying to sail past all the vagaries that make his event among the most capricious on the Olympic program. The fact that the 28-year-old Williams was the reigning world champion and had ranked No.1 in the world for 2011 would be of little comfort out on the wide jump apron in the infield of Olympic Stadium. When it comes to the high jump, don't bet the chalk.
In the 11 previous Olympics, no male high jumper who ranked No.1 in the world in the year before the Games had won the gold. In fact, fewer than half even won a medal (the total haul for the reigning No. 1s was just one silver and four bronzes). Further, of the 11 Olympic champions crowned during that stretch, five were unranked the year before their gold medal success and only three were ranked fourth or better.
London 2012 would not break the streak. On a cool and blustery night, Williams, who says he came into the Games in "unbelievable shape," appeared comfortable and focused as he cleared the first two heights easily on his initial attempts. But at the next height, 2.29 meters (just over 7'6''), he was never really close. His third miss left him lying face down in the pit in dejection.
"I just couldn't believe it was done," he would say afterward. "That's a height I should never go out on. But it happened. It happened really fast."
As it so often does in the high jump. With yet another No. 1 humbled on the Olympic stage, the event went in the end to a No.2, Russia's Ivan Ukhov -- while an unranked American, 21-year-old Erik Kynard, matched his lifetime best at just the right moment to grab the silver. (Behind them, British favorite Robbie Grabarz, Canada's Derek Drouin and 20-year-old Mutaz Essa Barshim shared the bronze.)
To be fair, the 26-year-old Ukhov was not exactly a darkhorse. He was the 2010 world indoor champion and he had the world's leading jump coming into the Games with his 2.39 (just over 7'10") at the Russian championships in July. But he had also faltered more than once before, especially in the big outdoor championship meets. Last year, after a second straight European indoor title, he could muster only fifth at the outdoor worlds in Daegu. If anything, Ukhov was most famous -- or infamous -- for a jump he came nowhere close to making, a clearly (and comically) inebriated attempt to clear the bar at the 2008 Athletissima meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, an attempt that ended with Ukhov flopping onto the mat in an apparent stupor and with the international track federation issuing him a severe warning.
Having reportedly cleaned up his act since becoming a father in recent years, Ukhov showed no indication that he was ready to give anything but his best in London. After a close miss at 2.29, he made it easily on his second attempt and then powered over first clearances at 2.33, 2.36 (7'9") and 2.38 (7'9 ¾"), his head snapping back and mane of shaggy hair flying. About the only thing that came close to slowing him up was when he apparently misplaced his singlet while pulling on and off his warmups between jumps and had to hastily pin his number to a jersey borrowed from a teammate.
For the surprising Kynard, who kept pace with Ukhov through 2.33 meters before missing single jumps at 2.36, 2.38 and 2.40, teammates were a big part of the meet as well. A two-time NCAA champion from Kansas State, Kynard trains under Wildcats coach Cliff Rovelto, who also coaches Williams, as well as the third member of the U.S. squad, 35-year-old Jamie Nieto -- an unprecedented coaching trifecta in U.S. Olympic annals.
"You had three generations of U.S. jumpers out there," said a buoyant Kynard after the competition. "I was watching Jesse, I was watching Jamie, giving them feedback, reporting to coach -- Okay, Jesse was a foot over on his approach; Jamie was a foot back. At the end Jesse was watching me and giving me pointers. It all worked out."
But not the way it was supposed to -- which, of course, is the way the high jump is always supposed to.