Monday, August 30, 2010

August 30, 1991: One night in Tokyo

TOKYO - The man had achieved everything there was to achieve in the long jump, had been undefeated in the event in 65 straight meets and had jumped beyond 28 feet 56 times. But Carl Lewis hadn't set the world record. Despite all his accomplishments, he hadn't eclipsed the magical mark of 29 feet 2.5 inches set by Bob Beamon in the thin Mexico City air in the 1968 Olympics.

On his third jump of the final at the 1991 World Championships, though, Lewis sent a message: the world record was going to be broken that night. He would see to it himself.

August 30, 1991, will go down as one of the great nights in the history of the long jump, partially because of the performance of Carl Lewis, but also because Lewis, for the first time in his career, faced serious competition.

On his third jump of the final, Lewis set the stage. He jumped 28 feet, 11.5 inches, a personal best and only a half-inch short of the magical 29-foot mark he had been striving so hard for. The crowd barely had time to register his distance - and the replays showing just how close he came to the edge of the takeoff board, when the impossible happened. Lewis got passed.

To be fair, Mike Powell's fourth jump never got measured, as he scratched by a toenail, but it was pretty clear that he had cleared 29 feet, and it was possible he had broken Beamon's record. Lewis had issued the challenge, and Powell had responded.

It was Lewis' turn, and this time, he met his destiny. He had jumped 29 feet, 2.75 inches. He had passed Beamon. Lewis didn't care that the trailing wind he had would not make this an official world record; he had finally beaten Beamon, could finally claim that he had jumped farther than any man in history.

But while Lewis' jump was still ringing in the stadium, Powell did something even more remarkable. He jumped past Lewis. He knew it was long, spent a few harrowing seconds staring at the scoreboard at the side of the track, until the magical numbers popped up on the screen: 8.95 meters. 29 feet, 4.5 inches. Powell spread his arms wide and ran around the track. His jump had been legal - he was jumping into a slight breeze. So instead of Carl Lewis, the man who had dominated the event for so long, it was Mike Powell who was the new world record holder.

But Lewis wasn't done. He had two more chances at the elusive record, to continue his string of victories. His next jump went 29 feet, 1.25 inches. It was the second-longest jump of his career, the fourth-longest jump of all time, but it wasn't enough. Neither was his final jump, an even 29 feet.

In one remarkable night, both Lewis and Powell had done the unthinkable. Lewis had become the first man to clear the 29-foot barrier more than once, but somehow had lost the meet. Powell had ended Lewis' string of 65 straight victories and broke what had been track and field's longest-standing world record.

Powell would jump farther on two occaisions in his career, but both jumps were wind-aided, and so didn't go into the record books. Nobody has broken the 29-foot barrier since Powell and Lewis both did it that night in Tokyo. Though Lewis would go on to win two more Olympic gold medals in the long jump to give him four for his career, it's Powell's name that remains on top of the list for longest jumps in history.

A recap of Lewis' and Powell's final jumps, giving an idea of the back-and-forth that occurred that night in Tokyo:

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