Sebastian Bayer was few people’s tip to be the star of the Torino 2009 European Athletics Indoor Championships but a few seconds towards the end of the final day on 8 March in the Italian city propelled the German long jumper into the headlines and record books.
With the very last jump of the competition, and with the gold medal already won, Bayer flew out to a European indoor record of 8.71m, beating the previous mark of 8.56m that had been set a decade before in 1999 by Spain’s Yago Lamela by no less than 15cm.
“With 2007 champion (Italy’s Andrew) Howe out injured and the other Birmingham medallists, Loúis Tsátoumas (European leader this year at 8.20) and Salim Sdiri, unable to reach the final, this appeared to be a very open but rather modest event with any one of half a dozen men capable of victory with a jump in the 8.10-8.20 range. No one could have predicted that someone would produce a monster leap to win by almost half a metre!” summarised Athletics International, capturing the zeitgeist of the moment.
Bayer arrived in Turin having won the German indoor title in February and, a week later in Chemnitz, improved his lifetime best to 8.17m. He showed his long jump medal credentials on the second day of competition when he led the eight qualifiers for the final with 8.12m.
The 22-year-old, who had taken the 2005 European U20 silver medal behind Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford, then established the target for all the other jumpers when he produced a German indoor record of 8.29m with his first jump.
Some of his rivals responded quickly. In the next round Marcin Starzak set a Polish indoor record of 8.10m and Bayer’s teammate Nils Winter reached a personal best of 8.18m. However, Bayer decided to sit out the competition for the next three rounds after his opener and see what his opponents could deliver.
In the fifth round, Starzak improved to 8.18m, to move back into the medals after France’s Kafelin Gomis had jumped 8.12m in the third round, and Winter jumped 8.22m so the leader returned to the fray but fouled his fifth attempt.
Both Starzak and Winter fouled their final efforts to take the bronze and silver medals and, with the spotlight fell solely on Bayer.
Hurtling down the runway, Bayer hit the board square with around six centimetres to spare and levered himself high into the air in the Oval Lingotto.
After hitting the sand, witnesses describe an almost eerie brief silence as the crowd seemed scarcely able to believe their eyes and although Bayer later admitted he knew it was a good jump he had no inkling of how far he had gone.
However, once the scoreboard flashed 8.71m pandemonium in the arena erupted, with the exception of the seemingly still non-plussed Bayer.
“There was no stress for me after the first jump, so I felt relaxed and it felt like the perfect jump. I knew it was far and hoped for 8.30 to maybe 8.40, but I did not expect 8.71. I was speechless. Right now, I cannot tell you how I managed to jump that far, but the run-up and the set-up of the long jump was very good,” reflected Bayer.
A day after his effort, which more than one German newspaper described as 'The Wonder Jump', Bayer sat down with his compatriots from the media and gave a lengthier interview.
“I went to the post-championships banquet (for the athletes and officials) but I only ate a little and then I took the first bus back to the German team hotel. I packed my bags and then went to bed, although I didn't sleep too well, maybe two or three hours. Things were still going around my head.
“Why, why, why, I jumped so far? I still don't have an answer. What I know is that I was in good shape and I was ready to attack the German Indoor record (which had been 8.25m and had stood for 20 years to two-time former European Indoor champion Dietmar Haaf),” added Bayer. “But the sort of distance I jumped I didn't think it was possible.”
Many of the statistics recalled at the time still remain true.
Only the American legend Carl Lewis, with 8.79m in 1984, has ever jumped farther indoors. Robert Emmiyan still holds the European record outdoors with 8.86m from 1987 but the Armenian was jumping at altitude; the European best at or near sea level is still 8.66m by Greece’s Tsátoumas from 2007.
Bayer’s stunning leap in Torino provided a storybook ending to several years of trauma, self-doubt and physical pain.
At the 2005 European Athletics U20 Championships, he took his sixth and final effort and gave it everything in a bid to snatch the gold medal from Rutherford – who finished sixth in Torino but was soon to have memorable moments of his own – but slipped upon take off and fractured a bone in his foot as well as severely tearing his ankle ligaments.
“Many people who witnessed it, have since said that they are surprised I'm even walking properly again. It was six months afterwards that I had finally all the plates and screws removed. Coming back after that injury was very hard, not just physically but mentally as well, to have the confidence to be able to commit myself when I was running up and taking off,” reflected Bayer.
Bayer showed he was no one-hit wonder when he went on to jump 8.49m outdoors when winning the German outdoor title in the summer of 2009 – he still lies equal second on the German all-time outdoor list with that distance – and then defended his European indoor crown two years later in Paris.
The German seemed to thrive on the continental stage and won at the 2012 European Athletics Championships in Helsinki, his third and last major title, but a few weeks after his triumph in Helsinki, Bayer finished fifth at the London 2012 Olympic Games and he also made the finals of the 2011 and 2013 World Athletics Championships.
However, a series of injuries from 2015 onwards sadly forced him to announce his retirement in January 2018.