Mike Powell turned 56 on Sunday the 10th of November and, 28 years on from the events of a warm night in Tokyo, remains the holder of the world long jump record. Holding the record is a rare thing, Powell and his predecessor Bob Beamon have combined to keep the record for over half a century now. In fact, just 4 jumps account for 86 of the 118 years the record has been kept.
To appreciate the record, you first must go back to the late afternoon of 18 October 1968 and the Olympic Stadium at high altitude in Mexico City. Beamon may have been lucky to have the thin air in his favour, perfect wind conditions and had jumped just before the rain arrived but you can never criticize the technique of the man. He seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before executing a perfect feet-only landing. When measured, it turned out to be 8m 90 cm, and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan’s record was shattered by over half a metre.
Over the next decade the jump, and record, gathered around itself an almost mystical aura. Up until 1981 nobody could get within 30 centimetres of Beamon’s mark. Even Beamon himself, plagued by injuries, never approached this standard again. Then, as the eighties began to get going, a brash young student at the University of Houston, by the name of Frederick Carlton “Carl” Lewis started to impose himself in the event. For the rest of the decade he dominated the event with the sheer pace of the fastest man in the world. However, Lewis could not surpass Beamon’s mark even though he could consistently reach 8m 75 cm and he refused to chase the record in meetings at high altitude.
The first time the record was seriously challenged came in 1987 where the Armenian Robert Emmiyan jumped 8m 86 cm at a small mountain resort in his homeland, but it wasn’t Emmiyan who emerged as a new threat to Lewis, instead it was his compatriot Mike Powell. Powell had consistently improved but at age 27 he had only an Olympic silver medal to his name.
1991 was Powell’s breakthrough year. He arrived in Tokyo for the World Championships having failed to win only one competition all year. Lewis had spent most of the season concentrating on his sprinting but had been the one person to beat Powell albeit by only a centimetre in the US Championships in New York.
Lewis seized the advantage on arrival in Tokyo for the 3rd edition of the IAAF World Championships as he qualified with by far the longest jump of the day. Powell also qualified comfortably but was down in fourth. When they returned for the final Lewis started with a flourish – he jumped out to 8m 65 cm on his first attempt while Powell badly mistimed his own effort. Powell moved into silver on his second attempt, but Lewis then jumped the longest he had ever done, a wind assisted 8m 86cm. All this was overshadowed by what happened next.
Firstly, Powell had a marginal foul when he just clipped the plasticine as he jumped out to near the world record mark. Then it happened. After a decade of effort Carl Lewis finally landed the perfect jump and Bob Beamon’s reign as record holder was over. The scoreboard read 8m 91 cm but the joy was short lived as Beamon’s mark was reinstated as the wind reading showed 2.9 m/s, well above the limit for record purposes. Surely this was enough for Lewis to win the title?
Then it happened. Again. Powell caught the board perfectly, found an enormous amount of height and a few seconds later found himself near the world record marker. Then the white flag went up signifying a fair jump then a legal wind reading was given and finally, with the eyes of the world watching, the scoreboard flickered and displayed a mark of 8m 95cm. Beamon’s record had fallen at last. How would Lewis react? He recorded the best wind legal jumps of his entire career in the last two rounds, 8m 87 cm and 8m 84 cm, but it was not enough, and this was to be Powell’s day. It broke a streak of 65 successive long jump victories for Lewis.
Incredibly Powell was to jump even further in 1992 although a wind assisted 8m 99cm at high altitude in Italy would not count for record purposes. Powell won the US Olympic trials for the Barcelona Games, but Lewis gained revenge when he beat Powell by 3 centimetres to retain his title.
Powell defended his world title in 1993 and the two men, now both past their prime, met one last time at the Olympics in Atlanta. Lewis completed his fourth gold medal win while the lasting images of Powell, were of him face down in the sand after aggravating a hamstring injury.
After retirement, Lewis tried to be an actor and singer with limited success. He now has his own marketing company. Powell worked in the media for a while but then turned to coaching in California. His daughter, who he had with Canadian athlete Rosey Edeh, Micha Powell, competed for her mother’s own country at the Rio Olympics.
Can Tokyo 2020 match the excitement of Tokyo 1991? Probably not – but there is a new excitement about the event at the moment. Luvo Manyonga of South Africa, Juan Miguel Echevarría of Cuba and Tejay Gayle have performed impressively in 2019. Let’s see what they can achieve in 2020.