Joe Throwback: The 30-Foot Jump
Sometimes, you get lucky. Back in 2011, for some reason, I was given the opportunity to talk with Carl Lewis. It was about the Hershey’s Track and Field Championship; he was the spokesperson.
Note to young writers: When you get a chance to talk with a remarkable person in any field, even if it’s not on a topic that you find especially compelling, take that opportunity. You never know what will come up.
Carl Lewis started talking about the 30-foot jump. I knew nothing at all about it. And now it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world.
I usually let these pieces run verbatim, but I thought it might be confusing on this one if I didn’t update it. So everything you see below should be up to date.
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? That is not true when it comes to jumping. The men’s high jump record was set by Javier Sotomayor in 1993, that’s 29 years ago. Whew. And that’s not even the oldest high jump record. Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova set her record back in 1987.
The men’s triple jump record was set back in 1995, though Venezuela’s Yulman Rojas finally broke the women’s triple jump record last year (and broke the indoor record this year).
The women’s long jump record was set by Galina Chistyakova in 1988.
And last year Mike Powell’s remarkable 8.95-meter jump — 29 feet, 4 3/8 inches — celebrated its 30th year as the world record. That record is older than Bryce Harper. Bob Beaman’s legendary jump at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 lasted 23 years. Powell’s jump has already lasted A LOT longer than that.
But the amazing part is: That record might never be broken. See, it isn’t just that Powell’s record has lasted. Nobody has come even 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. China’s Wain Jianan won the World Championship this year — he jumped 27 feet, five inches. He was a full Golden Retriever away from Powell’s record.
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.”
That greatest long jumper who ever lived — and the 30-foot jump that never happened — is our story.
For narrative purposes, there have been three long jumps in history that have mattered more than any others.
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 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.
Mike Powell’s jump in Tokyo in 1991.
But let’s go back to Beamon’s jump. Like so many unbreakable and unachievable things, it created an obsession. And like many obsessions, it created a genius.
The genius’ name was Carl Lewis.
Lewis is usually remembered, as he certainly should be, as one of the greatest American athletes ever. He might be the greatest. He certainly has a case. Lewis won 10 Olympic medals — nine of them gold. He won another 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 — Lewis 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 too, as Johnson’s was wiped off the books. Lewis set the world record in the 100 for himself 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 a brain surgeon’s incision. The takeoff, the kick, the use of arms, the body position, the landing, all of these, and countless other things, make the difference between success and failure.
And, perhaps the most important of those things is the launch. In the long jump, athletes jump off a wooden board. If any part of their foot — even the very tip of their shoe — touches over the edge, it is called a foul and the jump does not count.
Now, it is true that many of the best jumpers ever relied on their natural talent. Some of the best — even Olympic champions — did not have what you would call perfect form. But Carl Lewis worked on his long jump 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. Only then would he 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.
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 beat a marvelous jumper named Larry Myricks at those ’88 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.
Carl Lewis won FOUR STRAIGHT long jump golds. It’s like painting the Sistine Chapel at least twice.
Precision was the reason. 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:
Bob Beamon, 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches
Robert Emmiyan, 29 feet, 1 1/8 inches
Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 10 inches
Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 8 7/8 inches
Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 8 7/8 inches
Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 8 1/2 inches
Larry Myricks, 28 feet, 8 inches
Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 7 3/8 inches
Carl Lewis, 28 feet, 6 7/8 inches
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, it got even better. He landed beyond Beamon — Lewis 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 medal-winning performance.
Only then did Mike Powell make history. 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. 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. Lewis was stunned and distressed.
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 effort — perhaps the greatest long jump achievement in the history of the sport. He TWICE jumped 29 feet. Twice. In a row. He jumped 29 feet 1 1/8 inches on his penultimate try. And he jumped almost exactly 29 feet on his last try.
Amazing. Ridiculous. Before that day, only two men 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 some irony for you: Carl Lewis says now that if he had broken the record in 1991, he would have retired 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, there was still unfinished business. He never quite got the record. But he did win two more Olympic golds. 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. That world-championship performance in 2022? Do you know how many times Carl Lewis jumped longer than 8.36 meters in competition? You won’t believe it: He did it 44 TIMES. Yeah. Forty-four. Carl Lewis had 24 non-wind aided jumps in competition longer than that in his career. TWENTY-FOUR.
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?
We seem to have lost our exuberance for mystery, haven’t we? For legend. 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. 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, isn’t there? 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 only imagine.
By 1982, Carl Lewis had every intention of becoming the most famous, richest and most beloved athlete on planet earth. And why not? Who else had his talent? Who else had his sense of style? Who worked harder?
“I guess, looking back, it was naivete,” he says. 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. Sure, 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 also would make quite a lot of money.
Love, though, 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 the 100 at the World Championships, anchored the relay team to gold and a world record and set the U.S. 200-meter record — it was runner Mary Decker who was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
When Lewis won four gold medals in 1984 — one of the greatest achievements in U.S. sports history — Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton were named SI’s Sportsmen of the Year. None of the big American companies offered Lewis endorsements after those Olympics.
“I think the American public wants you to look macho,” Nike’s Don Coleman said at the time, echoing 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 earned so much money and worldwide fame, he was featured on plenty of magazine covers, he met Presidents. He was 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 he was also drafted by the Chicago Bulls, though he didn’t really play basketball (“That was just a publicity stunt, I think”).
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. (Editor’s note: He pulled out of the race after he failed to prove residency.)
He says he has achieved many, maybe even most, of those enormous dreams he felt as a restless young man.
But he does wonder: What would have happened had the jump counted?
It was July 24, 1982, 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.
But he was already an elite long jumper. His schedule that day was wild. He tried his first jump, fouled, and then had to rush off to run in the 4×100 relay. His team ran the fifth-fastest time ever. He returned to try another jump, and he fouled again (this was early in his career when he was athletically supercharged but had not yet perfected his form). He was taken away again to accept the relay gold medal.
He returned and fouled a third time.
Then he was ready. He would remember his body buzzing with energy. “I felt like I could fly,” he would say. 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 30-foot jump was inside him. He just KNEW it. He 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 aware of everything. Lewis felt hyper-aware aware.
He felt that perfect, clean liftoff as he hit the board. He was right. He could fly. When he hit the sand, he already knew. He had broken Bob Beamon’s unbreakable world record. But even more, he had jumped 30 feet. He looked down and saw where he was and his mind just 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, as you know. When he looked back, Lewis for the first time saw that the official had said he fouled. And, as he said, there are no long fouls.
Lewis did not even know how to react because 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. They couldn’t take that away from him. Only they did take it away from him. 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 have 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.
Lewis did win the competition, naturally. On his next try, he jumped a clean 28 feet, 9 inches — at the time the second longest jump ever. But he could not get that 30-foot jump out of his mind then, and he never really has.
“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 adds, “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 then he stops. 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.”
Sports Illustrated never named him Sportsman of the Year, but did name him Olympian of the Century. That’s not bad. The International Olympic Committee called him the Sportsman of the Century.
Still when you say the name, “Carl Lewis,” in a society that forgets quickly, people may or may not remember. They may or may not remember the stride, the open hands, the grace as he made the turn or sprung from the blocks. Some do remember the way he savaged the national anthem, or the staggeringly limp first pitch he threw or the aborted film career he wanted or the wild quotes. 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.
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. That 30 foot-jump might be the greatest thing that Carl Lewis ever did in a spectacular career. 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.