We just don’t jump like we used to. I’m talking about human beings here, not me personally, though it is also true that I do not jump like I once did. I jumped off the last two steps on my front porch the other day, and my left knee has not stopped hurting since. Still, in this particular case, I mean mankind.
You know how people seem to smash track records and swimming records and touchdown and home run records every other day? Not true when it comes to jumping. The men’s high jump record was set by Javier Sotomayor in 1993, the women’s by Stefka Kostadinova even further back, in 1987. Both the men’s and women’s triple jump records were set back in 1995. The women’s long jump record was set by Galina Chistyakova in 1988.
And at the end of this month, Mike Powell’s remarkable 8.95 meter jump — that’s 29 feet, 4 3/8 inches — will have been the world record for 20 years. Twenty years! Heck, Bob Beamon’s legendary long jump record only lasted 23. And unless something changes, this one will last longer than Beamon’s. Much longer.
See, the amazing thing is not that Mike Powell’s record hasn’t been broken. It’s that nobody has even come close. Nobody has jumped 29 feet since that day in Tokyo in 1991. Nobody has come within eight inches of the record since that day. At the 2008 Olympics, 27 feet, 4 inches was good enough for gold — the worst gold medal performance in more than 35 years. As the greatest long jumper who ever lived likes to say: “These guys come out now, jump 28 feet, take their gold medal and go home like they did something.”
And the greatest long jumper who ever lived — and the 30-foot jump that never happened — is at the heart of our story.
* * *
For narrative purposes, there have been three long jumps in history that have mattered. There was Jesse Owens’ eight-meter jump in Ann Arbor in 1935. That world record — and to be precise it was 8.13 meters (26 feet, 8 1/16 inches) — lasted 25 years, until Ralph Boston broke it, and then broke it, and then broke it again. Boston set the world record in the long jump six times between 1960 and 1965, until the Soviet Union’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan actually TIED him at 8.35 meters (27 feet, 4 3/4 inches). That was the record when the second important jump happened.
That second jump, of course, was Bob Beamon’s absurd, mind-blowing, unbelievable (in the true sense of the word) 29-foot jump in Mexico City in 1968. Old sportswriters might tell you that there have been only a few moments in sports — Beamon in Mexico City, Secretariat at the Belmont, John McEnroe at Wimbledon, Michael Johnson running the 200 in Atlanta — that so transcend the moment that they feel like time travel. Beamon’s jump smashed the world record by almost two feet, and it must have felt like someone coming back from the future and competing. Beamon’s jump of 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches was also more than two feet longer than he would ever jump again, and it would be a dozen years before anyone would jump within a foot of that record.
The third jump was Mike Powell’s in Tokyo in 1991. For a long time, Beamon’s record was considered unbreakable. Like many things considered unbreakable or unreachable, it became an obsession. And like many obsessions, it created a genius. The genius’ name was Carl Lewis.
Lewis is often remembered, as he almost certainly should be, as one of the greatest American athletes ever. He might be the greatest. He has a case. Lewis won 10 Olympic medals — nine of them gold. He won eight golds at the World Championships. In 1984 — four years after the U.S. had boycotted the Moscow games, and in a year when the Communist bloc nations returned the boycott — he pulled the Jesse Owens quadruple, winning gold in the 100, 200, long jump and the 4×100 relay. In 1988 he won gold in the 100 retroactively when Ben Johnson tested positive for a banned substance. Later, Lewis would be given the 100-meter world record as Johnson’s was wiped off the books. He set the world record for himself in the 100 at the World Championships in 1991.
But, in the end, perhaps, we all are SOMETHING. Husband. Mother. Teacher. Role model. More than anything, Carl Lewis was a long jumper. That was his art. That was his science. That was his core. The long jump seems like the simplest thing — it’s just running and jumping, the sort of thing that kids do in the backyard. But at the highest level, at its peak, the long jump is about running and jumping only in the way that playing concert piano is about playing chopsticks. In the long jump, every stride has a different purpose, different rhythm, different meaning. The last two steps must be as exact as an operation’s incision. The takeoff, the kick, the use of arms, the body position, the landing, all of these and countless more things matter in a thousand different ways. And, perhaps most significantly, the athletes jump off a board, and if any part of their foot — even the very tip of their shoe — touches over the line, it is a foul and does not count.
Now, it is true that many of the best jumpers ever simply were (and are) the best athletes — men and women who could create so much speed and lift that they could be a touch sloppy with their form and technique and still overpower the sport. But Carl Lewis worked on his long jump again and again, obsessively, compulsively — a man possessed by perfection. It’s funny because in public he gave off an image of not caring at all — the crazy hair, the wild uniforms, the nutty statements, the arrogant postures. But when no one was watching, when it was just him and his coach and the track, Lewis was tireless. He would train for the sprint races, and then watch others go home. And then he would train for the long jump, working that stride, refining the knee bend, calculating the physics of the takeoff. It’s almost certain that no had ever worked so hard to jump beyond the limits of gravity.
And that’s why for 10 years, he did not lose a single meet. Not one. Before the 1988 Olympics began, Carl Lewis had the six longest legal jumps not taken at altitude (Beamon and Soviet Robert Emmiyan had both jumped 29 feet, but both were at altitude). Lewis then beat a marvelous jumper named Larry Myricks at the 1988 Olympics. He won the long jumps at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics too — and when talking about the most amazing achievements in the history of athletics, you might want to start here. Before Lewis, after Lewis, no man had ever won long jump gold medals at TWO Olympics. The sport simply features too many variables and demands, too many things to go right, to repeat. Carl Lewis won FOUR STRAIGHT long jump golds. It’s like painting the Sistine Chapel at least twice.
Precision is the reason. It was Lewis’ meaning. While other amazing jumpers could not make consistently legal jumps — they would often foul by the smallest margins — Lewis was almost freakish in his exactness. “The way I looked at it,” he says, “fouling was unacceptable. That’s all. Unacceptable. And so I didn’t foul. Think about it: If you foul, it doesn’t count. I would hear people say, ‘Oh, I had a long foul.’ No you didn’t. You didn’t have a jump. That was my attitude. You cannot foul.”
On Aug. 30, 1991, in Tokyo, Carl Lewis had the single greatest long-jumping day in the history of the world. Understand at that moment in time, the longest jumps ever were:
1. Bob Beamon, 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches
2. Robert Emmiyan, 29 feet, 1 1/8 inches
3. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 10 inches
4. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 8 7/8 inches
5. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 8 7/8 inches
6. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 8 1/2 inches
7. Larry Myricks, 28 feet, 8 inches
8. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 7 3/8 inches
9. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 6 7/8 inches
10. Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 6 7/8 inches
Yeah, you could say that Lewis was pretty consistent. And he was never better than that day in Tokyo. The wind was blowing sporadically, so some jumps counted toward the world record while others were considered “wind-aided.” On Lewis’ third jump — which was considered wind-aided — he broke his own personal record by jumping 28 feet, 11 5/8 inches. It was his career long, and it would have been the third-longest jump of all-time had it counted. On his fourth jump, he landed beyond Beamon — he jumped 29 feet, 2 3/4 inches. Again, though, the jump was wind-aided, so it didn’t count as a record. But it certainly looked like a gold-winning performance.
Then Mike Powell had his historic moment. Earlier in the competition, Powell had an amazing jump that was discounted because of a foul by the tiniest margin. Lewis and Powell were pushing each other to the outer limits. And this time, with the wind down, Powell jumped clean, and he jumped 8.95 meters — that’s 29 feet, 4 3/8 inches. And that beat Beamon. Stunning. Mike Powell had the world record.
That left Lewis with two more jumps to both win the World Championship AND beat both Powell and Beamon. That’s when he unleashed an amazing but futile effort. With the intense pressure on, with the disappointment of seeing his rival do something that he had tried to do his whole life, with the ghost of Beamon gone, Carl Lewis TWICE jumped 29 feet. He jumped 29 feet 1 1/8 inches on his penultimate try. And he jumped almost exactly 29 feet on his last try. It was amazing — only two men before that day had jumped 29 feet, both at altitude. Carl Lewis did it THREE CONSECUTIVE times.
But the record was Powell’s. And the record is still Powell’s. Here’s the funny part: Carl Lewis says now that his intention in 1991 was to break the world record and retire from the long jump. He wanted to focus more on his sprinting. But once Powell broke the world record, Lewis felt like he could not retire, no chance, he had to try and get that record. So he kept chasing. He never did get the record. But he did win two more Olympic gold medals in the pursuit. So there was that.
Anyway, the record will probably be Powell’s for many years to come because, like I say, we just don’t jump like we used to. Nobody in years has jumped close enough that the NFL chain gang would even bother to come out and measure. The longest jump of 2010 wasn’t even 28 feet. And the longest jump this year, by Australia’s Mitchell Watt, is just 28 feet 3/8 inches. Carl Lewis had 24 non-wind aided jumps in competition longer than that in his career. TWENTY-FOUR. No, nobody — at least nobody on the visible horizon — figures to jump as far as Mike Powell.
But what if I tell you that the longest jump in the history of the world was NOT Mike Powell’s?
What if tell you about a mystery jump by Carl Lewis when he was at the height of his powers?
* * *
We seem to have lost our exuberance for mystery, haven’t we? We don’t even like it when camera angles can’t give us definitive evidence about whether an umpire’s call was correct or incorrect. And so we certainly would not tolerate, say, an open question such as whether or not Babe Ruth really pointed and called his home run in the World Series.*
*Could you even IMAGINE how much coverage there would be of that now? Question after question to Ruth, to his teammates, to the Cubs players, constant replays of the pointing, interviews of psychologists and scientists and fortune tellers, analysis by every single former player who ever hit a home run …
But there’s something wonderful about mystery, no? Did Josh Gibson really hit a home run out of old Yankee Stadium? How good a basketball player was Earl Manigault on the playgrounds of Harlem? How hard could Steve Dalkowski really throw? How good a quarterback could Greg Cook have been? How fast was Cool Papa Bell or the young Mickey Mantle? How high could Connie Hawkins jump when he was young? We don’t know. We can’t know.
By July 24, 1982, Carl Lewis had every intention of becoming the most famous, most admired and richest athlete on planet earth. That was the driving force of his life. And why not? Who else had his talent? Who else had his sense of style? Who else worked harder? “I guess, looking back, it was naivete,” he says now. He had grown up in New Jersey, the son of teachers and track coaches. His father, William, had taught him how to long jump, and by the time Carl was a junior in high school he was already one of the best in the world. In college, Lewis told the man who would coach him for the rest of his career, Tom Tellez, “I want to be a millionaire and I don’t ever want a real job.” This was in a very different time, when track was called an amateur sport, and Lewis’ words sounded to some like blasphemy.
“I just thought there was money out there — there HAD to be money out there,” Lewis says. He had no idea then about the twists and turns of his career. Yes, he would become the world’s best long jumper. He also would become the world’s fastest man. He would win glory, gold medals, and he would make quite a lot of money. But love would be harder to come by. Many people would find him to be arrogant and strange and calculating. His hunger for money and fame struck many people as crass. The more he achieved, the more he tried to stand out with outrageous clothes or hair or statements, the more people wanted to ignore him.
When he emerged as the greatest athlete in the world in 1983 — he won the long jump and 100 at the World Championships, anchored the relay team to gold and a world record and set the American 200-meter record — it was runner Mary Decker who was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the year. When Lewis won the four gold medals in 1984 — one of the greatest achievements in American sports history — Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton were named Sportsmen of the Year. None of the big American companies offered him endorsements after ’84. “I think the American public wants you to look macho,” Nike’s Don Coleman said at the time, echoing the shadowy rumors that floated around Lewis.
“I just didn’t realize so many people would be fighting against me,” Lewis says. He did find his way. He made quite a bit of money, especially overseas. He certainly earned fame, was featured on plenty of magazine covers, met Presidents. He was actually drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, though he didn’t play football (“They called me and tried to convince me to become the new Bob Hayes,”) and by the Chicago Bulls, though he didn’t really play basketball (“That was just a publicity stunt, I think”). He got his records. People still know his name. He is the spokesman this year for the Hershey’s Track and Field Games, a youth track program that has included hundreds of thousands of kids and will conclude on Saturday in Hershey, Pa. He is also running for state senate in New Jersey (“It’s time to end the gridlock,” he says). He says he has achieved many, maybe even most, of those enormous dreams he felt as a restless young man.
But what would have happened had the jump counted? It was that day: July 24, 1982. This was at the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis. Lewis was not yet famous, except among the most intense track fans. He was not yet decorated. He did not know yet what was to come. He was, as usual, competing in the long jump and other events, and because of that his schedule was crazy. He tried his first jump, fouled, and was taken away to run in the 4×100 relay. His team ran the fifth-fastest time ever. He then returned to try another jump, and he fouled again (this was early in his career, when he was athletically supercharged but before he had perfected his form). He was taken away again to accept the gold medal in the relay.
He returned and fouled a third time. And then he was ready. He would remember: He felt his body buzzing with energy. He could fly. The feeling was unlike anything he had felt before. Before the day began, a reporter had asked him if it was possible to jump 30 feet. He shrugged: “That’s unpredictable,” he said. “I haven’t jumped 29 feet yet.” But he knew that jump was inside him. He stepped up and began his approach. Athletes often talk about being in a zone — Lewis has never liked that word. It’s not a zone, he says, but a feeling of extreme focus, when you’re simply aware of everything. Lewis was aware. He felt that clean liftoff as he hit the board. He knew immediately. He was flying. When he hit the sand, he knew. He had broken the world record. He had jumped 30 feet. He looked down and saw the mark and his mind detonated. He was 21 years old, and he had just made the longest jump in the history of the world.
“What was going through my mind?” Lewis asks. And he answers: “‘Whoop! ‘That’s what was going through my mind. ‘Whoop! This is it! I did it!’”
He did it. Only, he didn’t, of course. When he looked back, he saw that the official had said he fouled. “There are no long fouls.” Lewis did not even know how to react. He KNEW he didn’t foul. He knew it with every strand of his DNA. “All I was thinking was: ‘Wait a minute what are you talking about?’” Lewis says now. He raced over to the official and pointed out the mark of his shoe. It was clearly not across the line. He had done it. He had jumped 30 feet. He had done the impossible. Only the official was shaking his head. He was not listening. There was no review. And by then, someone had already raked the sand, erasing the mark that labeled sports history.
“[The official] wouldn’t talk to me,” Lewis says. “He wouldn’t explain. This is what our sport is — it’s not for the athletes, it’s not for the fans. It’s for the officials. Think about that moment. Think about what that moment would done for the sport. And they wouldn’t even look to see the mistake.”
Lewis doesn’t even talk about what it would have done for him. On his next try, he jumped a clean 28 feet, 9 inches — at the time the second long jump ever. But he could not get that 30-foot jump out of his mind. For the rest of his life, he would be convinced that he had not fouled. “When you’re a long jumper you just KNOW when you foul,” he says. “There’s a feeling you have. I know I didn’t foul. I know that was a clean jump.”
“Then,” Lewis says, “I see the guy rake the pit. And it’s gone.”
“Gone,” he says again.
* * *
Carl Lewis says he has moved on from track and field. Yes, he still loves the sport, and he still admires the athletes who perform. He cheers for Usain Bolt, But he doesn’t care much for what they’ve done to the sport. “The whole thing is fading into oblivion,” he says. He talks about how the sport doesn’t market itself well at all, how the athletes don’t sell the sport, don’t reach out to fans, how they don’t even take victory laps after they win. He briefly talks about how he would promote the sport in today’s social media world. “Could you even imagine me on Twitter or Facebook?” he asks. But the subject doesn’t interest him much.
“The way I look at track now is the way I looked at high school after graduating,” he says. “I loved it. I had fun. But I’ve moved on. Would I want to go back now? No way.”
People sometimes ask him about his place in track history, and he feels like the question can’t get you very far. To Carl Lewis: Times and distances don’t cross generations. No, all you can do is perform in your time. He says: “Can anyone think that if Jesse Owens was running now, he WOULD NOT be the best? Of course he would. The best people beat anyone they’re supposed to in their time. I beat everyone in my time. I had my time.”
There’s no doubt. At Sports Illustrated, while we never named him Sportsman of the Year, we did name him Olympian of the Century. The International Olympic Committee called him the Sportsman of the Century. Unless another magical athlete comes along, it’s hard to imagine another man winning gold in the 100, 200 and long jump in the same Olympics. His four consecutive long jump golds will almost certainly never happen again.
Still when you say the name, “Carl Lewis,” in a society that forgets quickly, people may or may not remember the athletic brilliance. They may or may not remember the stride, the open hands, the grace as he made the turn or sprung from the blocks. Some better remember the way he savaged the national anthem, or the staggeringly limp first pitch he threw in Seattle or the aborted film career he wanted or the hair or the quotes or something like that. Fame can be like that — memory clings to what it will, and so Albert Einstein gets remembered for his hair, John Hancock for his signature, Willie Mays for a single catch in a World Series game.
But, what if Carl Lewis’ jump in Indianapolis had counted? Thirty feet. Some people who saw it swear it was 30 feet, anyway. “I know it was way past the world record,” Lewis says. “But 30 feet? People say that. They say it was 30. But I don’t know that. We’ll never know.”
No. We’ll never know. Still, it’s something to think about. Thirty feet. That’s like jumping from the 10-yard line into the end zone. It’s like dunking from the three-point line. It pushes the imagination, which, after all, is what the greatest sports achievements do. That 30 foot-jump might be the greatest thing that Carl Lewis ever did. It might be the greatest thing that any athlete ever did. And, like the outline that his feet and body left in the Indianapolis sand, it is gone.