26th September 2012


Last week marked a poignant moment in British Athletics history. 20 years ago on 20th September, a prodigious talent stormed his way into the record books. In 1992, and at the tender age of 19, high jumper Steve Smith completed a sensational year with an Olympic final in Barcelona and a British outdoor record of 2.37m followed soon after – a record that still stands today.

Two decades on, the 39 year old remembers the year that he established himself amongst the world’s elite…

“I had a situation that I had just competed in the Barcelona Games a month before in the World Junior Championships in 1992 and made the final, which was great, because I was the youngest member of the team. I took a risk and passed my final attempt at 2.31m to 2.34m and if I had gone over, I would have won the Olympic Games. As it turned out, I didn’t go clear and the last height I recorded was 2.24, which left me down in 12th. I remember having a conversation with my coach (Mike Holmes) and saying that I should have won the Olympic Games, but nobody looks at it that way, because I was just this young buck.

“However, Mike and I knew that I had more than 2.34m in me, and we said that when we went to Seoul for the World Juniors, the goal was to break 2.37m – the best height that year was 2.36m. That was quite a big ask because my personal best was only 2.31m, but I kind of had a point to prove knowing that I should have won the Games and finished top of the world rankings and that’s what it was all about. It wasn’t about that one jump that saw me realise that height, it was about putting Barcelona to bed and make up for that disappointment.”

"Mike was really influential, because at the time, we had a really good relationship because we were learning together. He never had an athlete that competed at such a level or jumped the heights that I’d jumped, so it was a really good coaching relationship – there was no real limits to what we were doing. He’s now got Katarina Johnson-Thompson who has followed a similar path to me. She’s now done the going and understanding of what major championships are all about, and now it’s about a medal. She’s shown at every age that she can do that and she’s got a great coach in Mike who’s been there before to help her realise her potential over the next four years.” 

After single-handedly holding the history book record since Seoul 1992, Smith now has company after Robbie Grabarz matched the magic 2.37m in Lausanne in the Samsung Diamond League last month. Grabarz has admitted himself that he did not know whether his high jump journey would continue after a frustrating few years, but Smith was never in doubt that the Newham and Essex Beagle would go on to scale the heights that has made him one of the world’s best jumpers. 

“I expected him to make that height because he had that consistent season that I never achieved. I think I’ve got quite a few good marks to my name, and medals in all the majors, but I don’t think produced that consistentcy. My philosophy was peak for the major championship and produce the best jump when it matters. Robbie has shown a lot of consistency throughout 2012 having a good indoor season and then went to Lausanne and jumped 2.37m after a 2.36m in Rome and getting a medal in the Games which was fantastic. He looked like a man that was capable of doing it, so it was no surprise to me and if it is to be anyone to take that record, he is a worthy successor. 

“When I look back to when I was competing, the challenging thing is if you jump 2.31m and then 2.37m and you finish the year on that, people will ask, “is that just a flash in the pan?” So to clear 2.37m the next indoor season, and then again in the World Championships, that cemented where I was at that stage. I think Robbie has proved that with his consistency over his last year or so, he is more than just a flash in the pan.” 

Smith was a part of what many would consider as the golden era of the high jump with current world record holder Javier Sotomayor, Charles Austin, Artur Partyka, Patrick Sjoberg and fellow Brit Dalton Grant all fighting for the top spot, and the Liverpudlian believes that the standard is finally returning to the event after a spell spent in the doldrums.

“I think the competition is getting right back to the high jump now. There was an interesting statistic this year that Robbie jumped 2.37m and finished third and only twice that’s happened before. In those other two competitions, it was me in that third place with 2.37m, so we can say that we’ve been involved in three of the most high quality men’s high jump competitions there have ever been. What’s good is that the standards are getting up to where they were before with that strength and depth, I think the only disappointment Robbie will have is that he probably should have jumped higher in the Olympic final. But I think he’s proved that he’s not just a 2.29m jumper, he’s a 2.37m jumper.”

“It was about time someone came through – it’s nice to have the record, but it’s all about the right person coming through and taking it and I think Robbie is the right person to do that. It will be good to see whether if he does break it, he doesn’t just add a centimetre, but goes on to be the first British jumper to jump 2.40m. I think that’s the big barrier that me and Dalton were striving towards and never achieved. Forget about 2.37m it’s all about 2.40m which takes you from being a world-class jumper to one of the best that’s ever lived.”

There are many similarities between Smith and Grabarz, most notably the Olympic bronze medal, and whilst acknowledging his and Grabarz’s achievements, the joint British record holder is keen to offer the 24 year old some advice heading into the next Olympic cycle.

“For me to win a bronze in 1996, it was a huge relief. After Barcelona 1992, I was ranked in the top three/four in the world consistently, and I think if you’re in that position you’ve got to win an Olympic medal – you can’t finish your career without one. It would have been nice to win gold, but in that one moment in my life, I was able to say that I was good enough for an Olympic medal, and lots of athletes don’t get that opportunity. For Robbie it’s slightly different, he’s had a breakthrough year this year, so he’s at the start now, he didn’t have that pressure of four years, so he had nothing to lose. I was in the stadium that night and it was phenomenal – if I ever look back on a regret in my career, it would be that I never competed in front of a home crowd in a major championships.

“Robbie is now going to be in a situation where financially, he’s not going to have to chase things. I would think he’s going to be funded for the next four years and pick up some good sponsorship deals. I would just say to him to make the right decisions and not the easy ones. The easy ones are to do the wrong competitions, wrong sponsorship deals and have your energies in different areas. It’s only a short career, so focus on the competitions that matter.

“One of the big things is to stay injury free, and that’s easier said than done. My physio at the time was Neil Black, and incidentally it’s awesome to see him take his new role at UKA – he’s a wonderful, committed person, who can do a great job. You look back to when I was competing, and Neil would be based in his practice near Gatwick and if I was injured I’d have to drive down from Liverpool. That’s the only way you got your physio treatment and he’d fit you in and around the people visiting his practice.

“You didn’t quite have those facilities on tap like you do now, so for Robbie that will all be there. He’ll have every opportunity to lengthen his career, and it would be a failure of the system, not just a failure of Robbie if he was in a situation like me retiring at the age of 26. It’s about using the team around you, and focusing on the things that are important, rather than the peripheral things, because as we’ve seen, with Olympic success, everything comes with it anyway.”

You can follow Steve Smith on Twitter (@stevesmith_hj) and Britain’s new high jump star Robbie Grabarz (@RobbieGrabarz). Mike Holmes’ newest prodigy Katarina Johnson-Thompson can also be found tweeting at (@JohnsonThompson) 

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