Judging by his athletic intensity, his unchained exuberance and his ‘train hard, party hard’ approach to competing, Gianmarco Tamberi isn’t a man for half measures. And yet his signature look when high jumping is a half-bearded, half-shaved face.
Apparently, there is a method to the Italian showman’s madness. His track-and-field appearance — GQ Magazine once ran an item about his unconventional grooming habits titled “Don’t do this” — isn’t merely superstition. It’s a ritual that helps him enter ‘the zone’.
“In competition, the only thing that is a must for me is to have fun and make the viewer have fun,” he once said in an interview, explaining his facial-hair style. “When I have fun, I relax. That’s why I started with this half beard, half shave. And that became in time a big superstition. It also becomes a moment for me, in the mirror, when I shave, I think about the competition, I think about what I have to do. It becomes a big moment for me before the competition.”
When the magic happens
This moment of meditative introspection is the calm before the storm. For when he is in a stadium, he is driven by the emotions of the crowd, both feeding it and feeding off it. “I like when I have the crowd close to me, I like this sharing of emotions,” he said. “When I go to the stadium, that’s where the magic happens — the competition starts, I’m an adrenaline guy.”
This was in evidence again at the recent World Championships in Budapest, where the flamboyant 31-year-old, wearing one green sock and one red, claimed his first World title and leapt into the water hazard of the steeplechase in wild celebration with Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali, who had just raced to gold in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase.
The triumph meant Tamberi now has a full collection of high jump golds, having also captured the Olympic, World Indoor, European and Diamond League crowns.
His sharing of Olympic gold with good friend and rival Mutaz Essa Barshim was one of the most memorable, heart-warming moments from Tokyo, but after clearing a world-leading 2.36m in Budapest, the Italian stood alone, to the delight of the raucous Italian fans in the crowd, who chanted “Gimbo! Gimbo!” as he waved his long arms in encouragement.
Now the reigning World and Olympic champion — titles that until August 22 were owned by Barshim — Tamberi reflected on chasing “the greatest jumper in history” for more than a decade. “I know that I competed against crazy athletes, like Mutaz Barshim, he’s like a superhero for me,” Tamberi said of the three-time World champion who also has the second-best jump ever: 2.43m, behind Cuban great Javier Sotomayor (2.45 in 1993).
“It’s not easy to beat such a great talent. I feel like a human being who beats superheroes. I live off these moments. My way to approach the competition is to be myself and to express all the emotions I have inside. Now realising my CV is finally complete, it’s just amazing.
“Before the competition, I went to my team, my coaches and physio, and said, ‘Today we are not going for victory, today we are going for history’. I wanted to write history by winning gold at all the major competitions. I just went for it. Crazy, indescribable. I have been rewarded for all the sacrifices,” Tamberi said after a competition in which six athletes cleared 2.33m.
The next goal
Joking that he could end his career now that he had won everything at least once, Tamberi briefly got serious and announced what his next goal was — but it came with a caveat. “There is no high jumper who won two Olympic golds so making history in Paris would be amazing. I will work hard, not now, but next month. I want to go all in on this journey. But first, the party.”
Perhaps Tamberi didn’t recover fully from the festivities of celebrating, for he could manage only 2.28m and fourth at last week’s Diamond League meet in Zurich, which was won by Barshim (2.36) who was eager to improve on his bronze at Budapest. But Tamberi was his usual ebullient self, having fun with Indian Olympic and World champion Neeraj Chopra during training in Zurich and then turning up at the Italian GP in Monza to leap over an F1 car!
Tamberi’s Worlds triumph was also confirmation for him that his decision to change coaches — dad Marco had been his coach until days before last year’s World Championships, when he switched to former Italian high jumper Giulio Ciotti — was working.
The move had raised questions last year, and Tamberi referenced it even as he made a point of acknowledging everything his father had done for him. “Many had doubts about the change of coach, the gold is also thanks to my father,” he said.
Indeed, it was Marco, a former high jumper who reached the 1980 Moscow Games final, who convinced a young Gianmarco to give the discipline a shot. The teenager wasn’t keen and spent most of his time pursuing his passion for basketball — his jaw-dropping dunks and drives to the rim in last year’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game proved that that time wasn’t wasted.
But at 17, he won a national-level schools event without ever having trained in the high jump and realised that perhaps his father did have a case after all. Besides, Tamberi knew he would have bragging rights for life when he eventually surpassed his father’s best.
“From 2009 to 2012, my only goal was to beat my father,” he said. But he did not immediately recognise the moment, for the one-upping jump came at the 2012 Bressanone Italian Championships during which he cleared 2.31 for gold. When it dawned on him the next day, Tamberi recalled what was at stake. “I remembered he said to me, ‘When you beat me, I’ll give 100 euro’. I’m still waiting for that, he never gave me.”
Friends, rivals, history-makers
The pursuit of Barshim has been every bit as enjoyable and significantly more rewarding for Tamberi. The two men share a strong bond, enjoying the other’s successes even as they compete for long jump’s biggest prizes. Paris 2024 could well be their last major showdown, the 32-year-old Barshim saying it will be his final Olympics.
Both men are looking forward to the Games, hoping to script a moment that can add to their historic, emotional 2021 one, when Barshim uttered the immortal words, “Can we have two golds?” after the two could not be separated. For the first time since 1912, an athletics Olympic gold was shared.
“Sharing with a friend is even more beautiful… it was just magical,” said Tamberi, while for Barshim it was “beyond sport”. They may never be able to match the magnitude of what happened that night in Tokyo, but when you have a showman taking on a superhero, the likelihood of witnessing something truly special is very high.
Tamberi can’t wait. “Always think you have a chance, go for it,” he said, describing how he will approach Paris. “Never give up on your dreams.”