“It was epic, just epic”: The greatest evening in long jump history

“It was epic, just epic”
The greatest evening in long jump history

By Heiko Oldbod

On August 30, 1991, Carl Lewis and Mike Powell fight for gold in the long jump at the World Athletics Championships in Tokyo. It will be a duel with unbelievable distances, an unfamiliar outcome – and a world record that is still valid today.

The distribution of roles on August 30, 1991 is clear: The big favorite is Carl Lewis. “King Carl” has been undefeated for ten and a half years, has won 65 long jump competitions in that time and comes to Tokyo as a two-time Olympic and two-time world champion. And the 30-year-old sprinted to gold five days earlier over the 100 meters in a new world record time of 9.86 seconds.

His record against Mike Powell is 15-0. Powell has “spent his entire career in the shadow of Lewis”, it is said in the preliminary report of the broadcasting US television channel “NBC”. However, the last duel up to that point was very close. At the US Championships in New York in mid-June, Powell had led with 8.63 meters before Lewis defeated him by an inch in the sixth and last attempt. “I’ve always said that I have nine lives – this was just my eighth,” said Lewis afterwards, relieved.

Powell: “I’ve been hunting Carl for eight years”

Powell is self-confident despite the renewed defeat. “I’ve been chasing Carl for eight years. In the first competition he beat me by around 50 centimeters. Now it was only one centimeter – in the last attempt.” Immediately before the World Cup, Powell will be in touch again. Lewis is only human – and if he can defeat him, then the other way round is also possible, he emphasizes. Lewis calmly takes note of the taunts and makes it clear: Whoever wants to become world champion must first defeat him.

The two Americans agree that the 23-year-old world record set by their compatriot Bob Beamon (8.90 meters), set in 1968 at a height of Mexico City, could fall. Lewis’ best is 8.79 meters, Powell’s personal record is 8.66 meters. But the conditions in Tokyo are difficult. The harbingers of a typhoon can already be felt. The wind changes constantly. It is also hot and humid. “The air was full of electricity, so there could have been a lightning strike at any time,” recalls Powell.

Commentator believes in gold for Lewis after the first jump

Powell starts at 7.85 yards. Lewis jumps 8.68 meters in his first attempt. “That could have been gold for him. Mike Powell might think differently. But I would be surprised if someone even surpasses this,” says British TV commentator Peter Matthews. He should be very wrong, Lewis jump in four of his next five attempts – and still not win.

On Powell’s 8.54 meters in the second run, Lewis replied with 8.83 meters in the third attempt. The wind blows a little stronger than the permitted two meters per second, and the width is not taken into account in the list of the best. It still applies to the competition – Lewis is clearly in the lead. Shortly afterwards he jumps even further. As far as no one has ever done before. 8.91 meters. One centimeter further than Bob Beamon in 1968. But again the tail wind is a little too strong. No world record. “It’s a shame the wind was a bit over the limit,” said Matthews. Nevertheless, the commentator continued, everyone had just “seen the leap of their lives”.

Lewis provokes the challenger

Carl Lewis jumps far, but not far enough.

(Photo: imago images / Bildbyran)

Despite the missed record, Lewis waves with satisfaction to the audience. On the way to his seat he passes Powell, clenches his fist and lets out a loud “Yeah”. “I was so mad and wanted to pop him,” said Powell. He puts all of his frustration into his next, fifth jump. It will be a sentence in the history books. Powell does not hit the bar optimally, even gives away a few centimeters. During the flight phase he screams, stretches his long legs very far forward and pulls his arms backwards. “A big leap for Powell. That was huge,” roared NBC commentator Dwight Stones.

Powell puffs nervously as he waits for the result. Almost 60,000 stare at the display board with it. Outwardly unimpressed, Lewis gets up, takes off his dark sweater and gets ready for his attempt. Suddenly Powell runs off with outstretched arms, the audience reacts with a mixture of cheers, screeches and murmurs. 8.95 meters. World record. But Lewis still has two jumps.

All other long jumpers only extras

The other long jumpers have long since degenerated into extras. Even the third-placed American Larry Myricks only plays a minor role despite his 8.42 meters. The fact that Dietmar Haaf, the reigning European and indoor world champion, finished fourth with an excellent 8.22 meters is of interest to the German media at best.

In the fifth round, Lewis lands after 8.87 meters. An outstanding width. But still not far enough on this Friday evening in Tokyo to oust Powell from the top. When Lewis runs up for his last attempt, Powell prays. Again the superstar jumps far. But his unemotional look after landing suggests that it wasn’t far enough. Powell is now on his knees as he waits for the result. He has the world record, but did he defeat Lewis for the first time? Then the redemption: 8.84 meters for Lewis, World Championship gold for Powell.

“The greatest evening ever”

“It was epic, just epic. Carl jumps three times at least 8.84 meters and still doesn’t win?”, NBC commentator Stones is still impressed by the duel. Robert Emmijan, fourth on the all-time best list with 8.86 meters and started in Tokyo for the Soviet Union, speaks of the “greatest evening ever.”

Bob Beamon’s world record has long been considered “inviolable”. Powell’s record is now seven years older than Beamon’s. And there has been no one in the past 30 years who has even remotely put them in danger. The longest jumps since August 30, 1991 were each 8.74 meters by the Americans Erick Walder (1994) and Dwight Phillips (2009).

Lewis returned the favor a year later with Olympic gold

For Carl Lewis, the Tokyo long jump silver is one of the few defeats in his career. With two gold and one silver medal, he nevertheless became the most successful athlete at the World Cup and one year later he returned the favor to Powell with the Olympic victory in Barcelona. He in turn defends his world championship title in 1993 in Stuttgart. But the highlight of his career is the triumph of Tokyo. People would still speak to him about it on the street. He always thought that he was much more than a long jumper, said the 57-year-old. But in the end, for many, 30 years after his super set, he is simply Mike Powell, the long jumper. And that’s okay, Powell said. He was proud of that.