Irving Saladino hits rock bottom
Panamanian long-jumper Irving Saladino appears to have hit rock bottom: the Olympic and world champion, who seemed destined to do history in the sand pit, has spent the last three years bouncing from one failure to the next.
And he has raised questions about his future too.
"To all those who supported me, a big hug, but I could not perform a miracle. Thank you," Saladino said in his Twitter account Thursday, shortly after crashing out of Friday's final at the World Championships in Daegu.
Just one valid jump, 7.84 metres: that was all he had to offer. He left the stadium without saying a word, with a beaten face and his head most likely full of doubts.
At the Berlin 2009 World Championships, Saladino did reach the final, but he was then eliminated for three invalid jumps. In the last two editions of the worlds, Saladino accumulated five failed attempts in six jumps, a result that would make anyone think that he has more problems than just bad luck.
"It is a mental thing," German Christian Reif, European champion in 2010, told the German Press Agency dpa Thursday.
"He is a major rival, but I really feel sorry for him. He's a nice guy. He has to manage to go back to his old self," Reif said.
It has been a long time since Saladino lost the clean smile that used to be on his face in championships. After claiming gold medals in the Osaka 2007 World Championships and the Beijing 2008 Olympics he spoke without qualms of his wish to reach the mythical 9-metre mark.
In Panama, before leaving for Daegu, Saladino said he was in good enough shape to get a medal.
The 8.40 metres he jumped in Paris made him one of the favourites, since this year he had only been matched by Australian Mitchell Watt (8.54) and by Zimbabwan Ngonidzashe Makusha (8.40).
But since 2008 major competitions appear to bring on a mental block.
"He doesn't manage to adjust the take-off moment, and that makes him insecure," Spanish colleague Eusebio Caceres told dpa.
Too many things may be going on inside Saladino's head in the 18 steps he takes towards the board. After the Beijing Olympics he suffered several injuries, and something clicked the wrong way.
In China, long-jump world record holder Mike Powell, the man who jumped 8.95 metres, was sure that Saladino could "definitely" jump over 9 metres one day. He became a national hero in Panama: the humble boy from Colon, who was encouraged by his brother to drop baseball for athletics, was the country's most famous man.
In 2010, overwhelmed by nostalgia, he chose to leave Brazil and coach Nelio Moura to return to Panama to train with his old mentor, Florencio Aguilar. By then, his physical and psychological problems were affecting his performances.
Saladino broke up with Brazilian jumper Keila Costa, and he was no longer the young man who had surprised everyone with his silver medal at the Moscow 2006 indoor World Championships. He was making headlines around the world, and he was a permanent feature at social events in Panama.
His jumps started to stall. From 8.73 in Hengelo in 2008, his best jump ever, he went to 8.63 in 2009, 8.30 in 2010 and 8.40 this year.
Moura has kept the door open for Saladino in Sao Paulo. But the long-jumper, now aged 28 will need to make changes if he wants to defend his gold medal in the London 2012 Olympics. He may have just one chance left.