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Original Issue

Great Leap Forward

Mike Powell broke Bob Beamon's storied long jump record

Back on that eerie October afternoon in 1968 when Bob Beamon set the greatest track and field world record of all time, the air above Mexico City was charged by massing, rumbling thunderheads. Minutes after Beamon jumped 29'2½", adding an incomprehensible 21¾ inches to the best our species had ever done, the heavens deluged the Olympic stadium with cold, hard rain.

Last Friday, 23 years later, another storm was coming. Rain and wind in advance of a typhoon were moving toward Tokyo, threatening to wash out the long jump at the World Track and Field Championships.

The 81° air felt to Carl Lewis and Mike Powell as dense as miso soup. The humidity was 83%. Moreover, the wind was swirling, now helping, now opposing the athletes. For a jumper to hit the takeoff board without chopping his steps and compromising his speed would require that he be right with his maker.

Powell, 27 and the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, had never beaten Lewis in 15 attempts. No one had in 65 straight long jump competitions, not since Larry Myricks defeated him on Feb. 28, 1981, when Lewis was 19. But Powell had forced Lewis to the last jump in the TAC nationals in New York City in June, losing by half an inch, 28'3¾" to Lewis's clutch 28'4¼". Having been so close, having over the years fouled on jumps of prodigious length, knowing that the Tokyo runway was the fastest he had ever set foot on, Powell burned to overturn Lewis and history with one reordering leap.

An emotional man, Powell hyperventilated so much before his first jump in Tokyo that he grew faint. He went only 25'9¼". It was a necessary slap in the face. You don't have to be crazy and walk around all psyched up, he told himself. Just let your body do what it will do. The thought took hold. He began to relax.

On Lewis's first try, Carl ran with easy grace, hit the board three inches from the foul line and went a meet-record 28'5¾". His manner was contained and businesslike, but his appetite was voracious. He knew he could go much farther.

Lewis's personal goals for the Worlds had been 9.90 in the 100 meters and 29 feet in the long jump. Five days earlier, he had broken Leroy Burrell's 100-meter world record with 9.86. He was the fastest man on earth. Beamon's mark was all that was left. If he were to take it now, he would be the athlete of the century.

Over the past 56 years, the long jump record had belonged to only four men. Jesse Owens jumped 26'8¼" in 1935, and that mark stood for 25 years. Ralph Boston of the U.S. and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the U.S.S.R., dueling over eight seasons, extended it to 27'4¾". Then came Beamon, with his Mexico thunderbolt, on Oct. 18, 1968.

Beamon's jump was, in all respects, weirdly perfect. He planted his foot precisely at the end of the board, had the maximum allowable 2.00 meter-per-second aiding wind and gained as much as 7‚Öû inches by flying through the reduced density of air at Mexico City's 7,349-foot elevation. Then, when he realized what he had done, Beamon sagged into a neural collapse that suggested to physiologists that he had somehow summoned the superhuman strength that ordinarily comes upon people only in disasters.

His 29'2½", or 8.90 meters, was far beyond any predicted human limits. The next man to jump after Beamon in Mexico was Ter-Ovanesyan, who was in Tokyo last week as head of the Soviet track federation. "I was ashamed to jump," he said of Mexico City. "Bob had left us and gone on to a new world."

But Beamon only went there once. He never again jumped even 27 feet, which only added to the record's mystique.

Then, beginning in 1981, came Lewis. Coached by Tom Tellez at Houston, possessed of greater speed than Beamon, Lewis mastered the delicate timing and body alignment of the takeoff and made himself the essence of consistency. By Tokyo, he had jumped beyond 28 feet 56 times, and his best was 28'10¼".

By the force of his numbers, Lewis demystified the record until it seemed inevitable it would be his. For years he even resisted jumping at altitude because he wanted no asterisks tainting his legacy.

But never was he struck with Beamon's sudden, inexplicable lightning. (One who was struck was the U.S.S.R.'s Robert Emmiyan, a basic 27'6" jumper who flew 29'1" at altitude in 1987.)

On his second try in Tokyo, Powell chopped his steps but still went 28'¼". His coach of four years, Randy Huntington of Walled Lake, Mich., signaled Powell to move his check marks back.

Powell was born in Philadelphia, moved to the West Coast when he was 11 and was a seven-foot high jumper for Edgewood High in West Covina, Calif. He became serious about the long jump at UC Irvine, and graduated from UCLA.

"Carl is a sprinter who jumps," said Huntington. "Mike is a jumper. His speed in the last 10 meters before the board is almost as great as Carl's."

For years, Powell lost to Lewis while struggling to gain control of his approach. Both Powell and his coach were convinced that his talent was real. In Seoul, Lewis handily beat Powell for the gold. Yet Huntington was nervy enough to introduce himself to Beamon by saying, "I'm the guy who's going to coach the guy who's going to break your record."

"He looked at me like, 'No more beer for this guy,' " recalls Huntington.

A full season of training brought Powell to Tokyo in the shape of his life. For metric-minded fans he signed autographs with "8.95?" which happens to convert to 29'4½". While receiving a 90-minute electromassage from physiologist Jack Scott the day before the long jump finals, Powell had no doubt that he would take the record. "I do wonder, though," he mused, almost idly, "if I'll win."

Riding to the stadium, he sat in the bus with sprinter Esther Jones and watched the numbers of license plates on passing cars. He read them as if they were metric numbers and found meaning in one, 9529, which to him translated to 8.95 meters, 29 feet. "I'm going to do it," he said to Jones.

On his third jump, Lewis sailed a wind-aided 28'11¾", the longest jump of his life. Powell had hit only 27'2½" on his third.

Lewis came back with a long one that felt so good he hurled an imploring look heavenward. But the wind reading was 2.9 meters per second, well over the limit. The distance flashed up 29'2¾", better than Beamon. Lewis had done it, but it could not stand as a record. He threw up his arms and showed a wrinkled grimace of excitement. He was a breath of air from perfection.

As he composed himself for his fourth attempt, Powell's expression seemed to acknowledge that he had grown old trying to beat Carl, and time was slipping away. His jump was high, the landing clean. But the judge at the board raised his red flag. Powell raced back to him and went to his knees begging that the jump be ruled fair. "I was playing," he said later. "I saw the mark my foot had left in the clay beyond the board."

Then Powell felt raindrops on his shoulders. He went cold. No, he thought. You're not going to do this to me. Stop.

The shower stopped. O.K., Powell thought. This is my shot.

On the runway for his fifth try, Powell meditated on the images of what he had to do, took four walking steps with his arms swinging loosely, gathered into a run, hit full speed as his singlet slipped over his left shoulder, struck the board hard two inches from the end, drove high off his left foot, performed a hitch kick with his head thrown far back, broke the sand in the vicinity of the nine-meter marker, swung right and burst from the pit thrusting his arms with what seemed righteous anger. Then for 30 seconds he nervously wandered around the infield to await the measurement.

The wind reading was a faint 0.3. If the jump exceeded Beamon's distance, it would count. The distance was 29'4½". The ultimate record was broken. Beamon was surpassed. Powell ran and danced.

But Powell's was not an unmixed ecstasy. He could still lose.

After the first shock, Lewis's face assumed a glittery-eyed look of almost good humor. He had to top a world record to win. His undefeated decade had been achieved by being supremely responsive to the pressure of battle. This, then, was the most dramatic opportunity of his life. He had two jumps left.

"I thought he'd beat me," Powell said. "Deep down I thought he'd do nine meters [29'6½"]."

Lewis's fifth leap was 29'1¼", against a 0.2 wind. It was the best legal jump of his life. He didn't crack a smile. He had one left.

Powell folded his hands in prayer. Lewis's knees came high as he sprinted down the runway. The jump was not lofty, but it was long. It was 29'0". Powell had it all.

Abashed, Lewis put an arm briefly over Powell's shoulders but couldn't seem to bring himself to look him in the face.

Powell was overjoyed. He embraced the dumbfounded board judge. "I wanted to hug somebody," said Powell. "He was in the way. He got a hug."

Powell then climbed into the stands, through shrieking Japanese who all wanted hugs, and found Huntington, who received a crushing one.

"He said, 'We got it and we got him,' " Huntington said, "only not that politely."

Then the rains descended, in long skeins of silver silk. In an hour, the greatest long jump competition in history had upstaged the rest of a splendid World Championships. In Tokyo it seemed that wonderful changes and performances were constantly being overtaken by more fantastic ones.

The first appearance of a unified German team since 1964, for example, embodied in the gleaming Katrin Krabbe sprinting to a double win in the women's 100 and 200, paled in contrast to the nine-gold-medal, possible last hurrah of a Soviet Union that was splintering as the meet went on.

Only the U.S. won more golds, 10, aided by a final-day, 7'9¾" high jump victory by nerveless Charles Austin of San Marcos, Texas.

Bruce Jenner's 15-year-old American record of 8,634 points in the decathlon fell hard. Dan O'Brien of Moscow, Idaho, revealed himself to be the finest 10-event talent ever while scoring 8,812 points. Had O'Brien not gone out after an anemic 6'3¼" in the high jump (his best is 6'11¾"), the 8,847-point world record of Great Britain's Daley Thompson would have been his.

Thompson has already conceded him the record, judging him capable of 9,500 points. "Nine thousand two hundred in '92," said O'Brien, "would be fine."

But the mind, buzzing like so many cicadas, kept returning to the long jump.

In Miami, Beamon, who has often hesitated answering late night calls for fear of hearing that his record was gone, finally heard it. The voice that reached him first was that of 1968 Olympic teammate Ron Freeman. "It says a lot about the record that it lasted for 23 years," said Beamon, who accepted its passing with mellow grace. "It was, I guess, one of those cornerstones that wouldn't break down."

Lewis took it harder. At first, wishing profoundly that consistency be rewarded in jumping, he stressed that he had done his four best jumps (three were 29 feet or better) in Tokyo. "Mike had the one great jump," he said. "He may never do it again. I could have gone farther on my last jump. But I didn't. That's something I have to accept."

His choice of words seemed indicative. He hadn't yet accepted it. Meanwhile, he turned his emotions to anchoring the U.S. 400-meter-relay team. Andre Cason, Burrell and Dennis Mitchell gave Lewis a meter lead over France's Bruno Marie-Rose. Lewis finished three meters ahead of Marie-Rose, and the winning time was a world-record 37.50, improving on the 37.67 the U.S. team (with Mike Marsh in place of Cason) ran last month. The record was the third Lewis either set or inspired in the World Championships, and the win earned him his seventh World Championships gold medal since 1983.

"Greatest meet I ever had," Lewis said, and now he also worked up some enthusiasm for Powell's jump. "Mike had incredible form. He jumped a world record. He deserved it. For 10 years, 29 feet has been my goal. So now it's nine meters."

Powell spent the next two days in a blur of interviews and telephone calls. His grandmother in Philadelphia said, "I told you you'd do it, Mike, if you were a good person."

Signing an autograph with "29'4½"," Powell burst into laughter at what he had written. "It isn't real on the paper yet," he said. "Even though my mind told my body it could do it for five years."

Of Lewis's cool reaction, Powell said, "For him not to really acknowledge what I did kind of made me upset, but I understand. After a while, he'll be at peace with it, maybe. Meantime, who cares?"

Seeing his picture on the front page of The New York Times, Powell had to sit down. "Every hour that passes, I realize more how important this is," he said.

Noting how rarely the long jump record changes hands, he said, "Give me a couple of years with it, please." But he would not rule out breaking it himself.

"I've had longer fouls," he said. "And now I know I can do 29 feet, not consistently, but legally. I'm a different jumper now. The other night..."

Powell paused, to find the right words. "...I stepped into a different realm."

Powell made history in Tokyo by soaring two inches beyond Beamon's mark of 29'2½".

In his astonishing '68 jump, Beamon broke both the 28-foot and the 29-foot barriers.

The fifth attempt paid off big for Powell, who landed in the farthest reaches of the pit and rejoiced when he realized the record was his.

Lewis (above) still had two attempts left after Powell's big jump, a fact that put the new world-record holder in a supplicatory state.

O'Brien failed in his bid for a world decathlon record, but he did spear the American mark.