By In Joe Vault

The 30-Foot Jump

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 Sotomayer 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 Galena 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 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. 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 go 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, 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 3/8 inches was also more than two feet longer than he would 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 kids do in the backyard. But at the highest level, at its peak, the long jump is about running and jumping only in the 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 so 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, he 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’s jump and Soviet Robert Emmiyan had both jumped 29 feet, but both were at altitude). He 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 is 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 August 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 3/8 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 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 counted as 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 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 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, he 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’s 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, interview 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 naiveté,” he says. He had grown up in New Jersey, the son of teachers and track coaches. His father, William, had taught him out 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 the strange 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 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 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 both 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.”

He pauses.

“Gone,” he says again.

* * *

Carl Lewis says he’s 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 victories. 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 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 no 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. “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 is like jumping from the 10 yard line into the end zone. It is 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 Carl Lewis ever did. It might be the greatest thing any athlete ever did. And, like the outline his feet and body left in the Indianapolis sand, it is gone.

39 Responses to The 30-Foot Jump

  1. B.E. Earl says:

    What did he mean by “there are no long fouls”?

    Wouldn’t any foul over the line result in a longer jump? Or was he just saying that he was so focused he never fouled long?

    Either way…great story!

    • BearOn says:

      Earl, I think what Lewis meant was that he KNEW he did not cross the board with his foot when he jumped; therefore, when he saw the official call a foul on the jump … the only thing he could imagine was that he had simply jumped too far (which … he quickly reasoned … was impossible).

      Basically, he was so convinced he did not foul on the jump, he could not understand why the official would call one when it immediately happened. (And his immediate reaction was: Did I jump too far?)

    • davbo says:

      He means if you foul you have no jump so the length is totally irrelevant. There are no ‘log’ fouls. They are just could and they don’t count.

  2. jacobus says:

    Wonderful story.

  3. By Octavius says:

    I’m pretty sure he meant that it was either a foul or a jump. If you fouled, it didn’t matter how far you went – just like if you hit a baseball 500 feet foul, it’s just a strike.

  4. Haberdash says:

    Unbelievable. A mere writing exercise for you is better than I could ever hope to produce. You inspire and infuriate me.

  5. Keith says:

    Amazing piece of writing, Joe.

  6. Rational Fan says:

    Haberdash:Ppoz is mostly inspiration, but the nagging infuriation is what will make you a better writer.

    Great story Poz. I like that Lewis seems willing to let it go, but at the same time that competitive drive makes him yearn for recognition.

  7. Unknown says:

    Joe, this is amazing, incredible, unbelievable. And the jumps were pretty good too.

    Seriously, I cannot remember the last time I read an article I enjoyed as much as this, by you or anyone else. The story is just incredible. The best two long-jumpers of all-time, going at it, both having the meet of their lives. And then Powell wins, and breaks Lewis’ winning streak.

    There is not much more I can say about this. But track and field often has the best stories, and you are just the man to write them, Joe. Thanks a lot, and please write about the sport again sometime. There are dozens of stories like this out there, the kind of story that leaves the reader awed at the end. Any writer could make this type of story good, but like I said above, you do it as well as anyone. Here are some examples of topics:

    Michael Johnson and the Atlanta Olympics
    Edwin Moses and his 107-race winning streak
    Haile Gebrselassie vs. Paul Tergat
    Gerry Lindgren, especially his crazy training and personal problems
    Daniel Komen
    Paula Radcliffe, especially with the London Olympics approaching

  8. Bill says:

    I enjoy the baseball and football, but when I see an athletics story such as this or the incredible piece on Rafer Johnson, it’s really something else. Also, nice timing with the t&f world champs coming up later this month.

  9. Tremendous piece.

    I have to say I never really understood why the concept of fouls even exists. Why not just let them run as hard as they want and then just measure the distance between their takeoff and landing? Would that be so difficult? It’s obvious that many great jumps have simply been disqualified because of this.

    Obviously, to do it now would be a problem in terms of comparing records before and after such a change. But I think they should get rid of the fouls

  10. This should be submitted to Glenn Stout for consideration in The Besf Americsn. sports Writing series.

  11. GregTamblyn says:

    I knew Carl Lewis was good. But I didn’t know he was that good. And his attitude about the past is admirable.

    This is great writing. I was transported, and couldn’t wait to find out where you were going with this.


  12. Mark Coale says:

    The reaction by Charley Steiner and Jack Edwards to the Carl Lewis national anthem is still probably one of the five funniest moments in the history of the Four Letter. Lewis’ singing was bad, but likely not no worse than hundreds of anthem singers over the years. He just had the misfortune to have it be part of such a moment of TV that will be re-aired for decades.

  13. kapnasty says:

    Wow seriously that has to be one of your best posts ever.

  14. Balagast says:

    Excellent piece of writing.

  15. Mark Daniel says:

    Great post. I’m unclear on one thing, though. If someone makes a “wind-aided” jump, does that not count? But a jump “at altitude” does count? That don’t make no sense.

  16. joereader42 says:

    Joe, I’m a big fan of your writing and this Blog, but when your write about Track or running, I find it very frustrating. You, as far as I have seen, have never mentioned or acknowledged any event over 400m. Distance running is so much more fascinating and the elites get there through tremendous talent and hard-work, whereas sprinters achieve an elite level through mostly talent. Usain Bolt seems to be who most in the general public think of as the best runner in the world. He’s not a runner, he’s a sprinter. Celebrating 10m before the finish line in Beijing was a great way for him to show everyone how much better distance running is. He’s just some random guy who happens to be extremely talented and hardly has to do any work in comparison to elite distance runners. Where’s the excitement in that? Joe, please, when the 2012 Olympics come around, give distance running a chance. Watch the 5k and the 10k and try to appreciate the sport. Thank you.

  17. Average Slob says:

    Ahh, this takes me back to 1989, when for years my personal goal was 22 feet (sounds pathetic, I know.) So on the final jump of my life, at the State meet, I channel every last atom of energy and cut loose my best effort — and I can still hear the announcer say: 21′ 11 3/4″. NO WAY. You can’t give me the quarter of an inch? Remeasure it! Nope. Rake it, and record it. THE END.

    Long-jumpers always remember. Or some of us do, anyway.

  18. I remember Lewis in a movie called Alien Hunter with James Spader. He wasnt terrible, but he wasnt good. He played a scientist working in a research station in Antarctica. Not sure what my point is…just sayin I guess. I watched his whole career and was a huge fan. He had the most beautiful stride Ive ever seen. Im guessing he made the millions he wanted one way or another.

  19. joereader42… Did you really just ask where the excitement is in watching a man run so fast that he would be breaking the speed limit in a school zone? Is that a real question? I’m confused. And are your REALLY saying that sprinters and jumpers don’t have to work at their craft as much as distance runners? Did you even read the article? I’m not knocking distance running at all – completing a half marathon in the next year is a goal of mine, and I know how hard the elite runners work. And the fact that that can cover the distances they do in the time they do is truly truly impressive. But it ain’t as exciting to watch as a guy going as fast as a car or defying the laws of gravity by soaring through the air.

  20. Dan Shea says:

    Mark Daniel –

    Wind-aided jumps are not eligible to be world records. I think jumps at altitude over 1000m are eligible, although they are marked with an “A” in the record books, a la Maris. (I think. I also hear that the IAAF “have ruled that performances achieved at an altitude greater than 1,000 metres will not be approved for record purposes”: Not sure how that fits with the ‘A’sterisks.)

    Does that make no sense? I guess the thinking is that you can only account for so many variables, and the effect of a 10m/s tailwind is a lot greater than that of most altitudes humans are comfortable at. If people start trekking to Everest Base Camp to set world records in the high jump, we might see a change in mindset.

  21. Unknown says:

    joereader42, like you, I find distance races a lot more exciting than sprints, but I just cannot agree with your sentiment. First, distance running requires an incredible amount of talent relative to ability. Probably not quite as much as sprinting, but very close. Like it or not, almost everything in sports is based on talent.

    Second, sprinters, jumpers, and throwers, as well as distance runners of course, do tremendous amounts of work to achieve what they do. I mean, just look at Joe’s article about Carl Lewis. And Tyson Gay is famous for not having a life outside track. You say that Bolt has not had to work hard; well that is just wrong. Maybe he could run 10.2 or something without training — that would make him a tremendous talent — but to achieve what he has achieved, he has had to work.

    Now I am not saying that Bolt is one of the hardest workers among elite sprinters. Obviously, he is just more talented than everyone else. But have you ever heard of Daniel Komen? He was a Kenyan runner in the late 90s. He rose to prominence in 1995, during Gebrselassie’s heyday, and he was very nearly as good. He had just started running, and was already one of the best runners in the world. His rise was so abrupt that he wasn’t even named to Kenya’s Olympic team in 1996 (they do it differently than we do). But while others were consumed by the Olympics, Komen went on the most incredible period of running that the world has ever seen. I don’t know exactly what all of the races were, but it culminated in the following ridiculous 3k: You should really watch this video if you like distance running, but the point is that Komen’s 3k is completely in line with Bekele’s 5k and 10k records. And this is from some “random” (probably doped up) Kenyan who just happened to be more talented than everyone else. And then his 1997 was great again, and then he essentially disappeared. He had made more money than he knew what to do with, and he decided to party instead of train. This is a great article on the whole thing by Matt Fitzgerald:

    Continued below

  22. Unknown says:

    So, no, I don’t think that talent is much more important to sprinters than distance runners, not at the elite level. Distance runners probably have more pain of exertion than sprinters because sprinters’ races are over so quickly that long hard runs or tough interval workouts are unnecessary, but if that’s what you are looking for, you should watch swimming — or probably cycling too — because they have a lot more of that than runners. Sprinters and jumpers work tirelessly on technique and power, and I don’t like to see that diminished.

    And celebrating, wow! There is so so SO much more celebrating in middle/long distance running than in sprinting. This year at the Kenyan trials 1500m, Silas Kiplagat turned around and wagged his finger at the field as he was winning. Last year at a Diamond League meet, Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop started celebrating WHILE IN SECOND PLACE, and then proceeded to kick around and win by a second or two. I’ve got to admit that was pretty cool. Even Bekele always does a mini-celebration after he has put 4 seconds on the field on the final lap. Now I didn’t like Bolt’s celebration, and I don’t like this, but you can’t tell me that Bolt’s was worse.

    Running isead the artic a weird sport in that distance running has a far deeper fanbase (go to if you don’t believe me), but the casual sports fan much prefers sprinting. Therefore, you see a lot more coverage of the sprints, but the distance coverage is usually a lot better (unless NBC or someone gets it, but that is a different matter). It sometimes frustrates me too that distance running doesn’t get more coverage, so I understand where you are coming from. But you absolutely CAN NOT turn around and insult sprinters and expect to have your point taken seriously. That is completely childish: “The world is unfair against me, so I am going to put down those who I deem the world is unfair towards, even if it isn’t their fault.” To the poster who first responded to this guy, thank you for being so even-handed. I could barely hold it together here myself, and I am supposed to be on his side!

    That said, I do think it would be great if Joe could write about distance running. I am the commenter who gave some suggestions above, and a lot of those ideas were about long-distance runners. Now the one difficulty is that, as I said above, the distance running fanbase is more deep than broad. Lots of very knowledgable people would read the article, and maybe some would pounce on any mistakes. That said, I think Joe would easily be up to the challenge! Do it, Joe!

  23. joereader42 says:

    Alright, I just got owned by Unknown. I will first disagree with him/her on a couple points before going into more detail on that.

    When Bolt celebrated in Beijing, he probably took off .1 seconds from what he could have run. This estimate is based on two things: I remember “experts” saying this at the time and Bolt would soon run 9.58 for 100m, .11 seconds faster than Beijing. For 100m, .1 seconds is huge – when he ran 9.58, he broke his own WR by the largest margin (.11) since they started electronic timing in 1977. Instead of waiting only a few seconds, Bolt slaughtered his big Olympic race (not the Olympic Trials or a Diamond League race).

    I’m not sure where you got this from: “But you absolutely CAN NOT turn around and insult sprinters and expect to have your point taken seriously.” I do not like that Usain Bolt is the best 100m and 200m sprinter in the world and I’m not a big fan of sprinting. However, I have a ton of respect for elite sprinters in general because they are tremendous athletes who work very hard. A better way to express the point I was trying to make above is made if you think about this: Bekele would obviously not be an elite sprinter, but he is SO much better at sprinting than Bolt would be at distance running. Seriously, can Bolt even run a 20-minute 5k in the shape he’s in right now? I’m sure many of you will have the reaction: “Of course he could! That’s ridiculous!” But I think that is based on the assumption that someone who has such tremendous speed has to be able to do that, but what distance running experience does Bolt have? He hardly needs any to be the best sprinter in the world!

    I think Unknown makes a few great points and expresses them beautifully. Here are some I completely agree with and deserve to be re-read:
    “Distance runners probably have more pain of exertion than sprinters because sprinters’ races are over so quickly that long hard runs or tough interval workouts are unnecessary.” This is something I find very appealing about the sport.
    “distance running has a far deeper fanbase (go to if you don’t believe me), but the casual sports fan much prefers sprinting.” I frequent letsrun already and I strongly agree with the statement.
    “That said, I do think it would be great if Joe could write about distance running….Now the one difficulty is that, as I said above, the distance running fanbase is more deep than broad. Lots of very knowledgable people would read the article, and maybe some would pounce on any mistakes. That said, I think Joe would easily be up to the challenge! Do it, Joe!”

    Thanks for the help, Unknown!

  24. Unknown says:

    Hey, thanks for responding, joereader42. Sorry if I was a little harsh, and thanks for taking my points so well.

    About the celebration, I understand what you mean with the difference between the Olympics and other events. But I don’t really think the size of the event determines the celebration very much; if these races I mentioned had been the Olympics, I think the celebrations would have been the same. For example, I mentioned Kenenisa Bekele. He has pretty muted mid-race celebrations, but he definitely does it at the Olympics and World Champs, sometimes for like 200m. Also, have you ever seen triathletes finish a race? I’m sure this is not true for everyone, but every race I have seen if the winner has enough margin, he or she will run along the side of the road giving everyone high-fives. And going back to running, here is Meb Keflezighi winning the 2009 NYC marathon: Not a Kiprop/Kiplagat celebration, sure, but he does pop the USA on his singlet a few times and wave to the crowd. This is by far the biggest win of his life, so you can’t say he wouldn’t have done the same thing in the Olympics.

    So I think the reason you are more annoyed with Bolt is because is was a WORLD RECORD run, not just an Olympic victory. I think this is what matters because after all, he slowed down his own record time because of his celebration. But the thing is, distance runners set world records only in rabbited races with that sole purpose. Why would you run a race to take a shot at the WR and then lose it because you celebrate all down the back stretch? But if there were world records being set at Olympic-type meets, I’m sure we would see celebration there to. So I don’t like Bolt’s celebration either, but I really don’t think it is below what a lot of distance runners would have done.

    I agree with you that Bolt may not be able to run a 20-minute 5k. I really have no idea what he would run, but I definitely think there is a good chance that is would be over 20:00. Meanwhile, Bekele would probably be able to run around 23 seconds for 200m, which is much much better. So I agree with you that distance runners are much better at sprinting that sprinters are at long distance. But I don’t think this matters a whole lot because everything is a combination of talents. Bolt can’t run a 20:00 5k? Well most ultramarathoners probably can’t run a 14-second 100m. Bekele has to have a lot of speed because his races are simply short enough that people can still run them very fast. If he were a 100-mile champion, maybe this wouldn’t apply. But the thing is, how much can Bekele squat? Very very little because large muscle development is a large hindrance to distance runners. But for sprinters, the large hindrance would be slow-twitch muscle fibers. So this is why Bolt can’t run distance and Bekele can’t squat; they are optimized for particular tasks, and these tasks are contrary to the exercises I have given them. Yes, it is not just Bekele sprinting vs. Bolt running 5000m, but sports are not simple enough to always have that comparison. And I bet Michael Phelps can run 5000m a lot better than Bekele can swim the 200 fly!

    By the way, the article now has the quote of the day on letsrun! So expect to get a few more long and boring comments like mine.

  25. joereader42 says:

    Unknown, thanks for you thoughts. I was pretty surprised when I saw the quote from this great article had made it over to letsrun.

    I don’t completely disagree with your comments on celebrating, but my opinion now is still a lot closer to what it was before than it is to yours. At the end of his marathon, Meb Keflezighi’s celebrations didn’t seem to cost him more than a second or two. This is so much less significant in a marathon than .1 seconds is for 100m. But, I think you are right; the thing that annoyed me most is that Bolt’s celebration was in a race that set the WR. It really bothered me that for a significant period of time, that was the fastest 100 meters ever, because of how flawed it was as a race, and how much faster he could have gone if he had only decided to do so. He had the option of going around 9.59, but decided he’d be fine with 9.69 if he gets to celebrate a few seconds earlier than if he tried his best.

    Your point about the muscle fibers is very good. I see that this is a much better way of looking at it.

    I kind of said this before, but I just want to stress this: I have nothing against spriniting or sprinters. However, I find two things very frustrating. One is that Usain Bolt is the best 100m and 200m runner in the world, and I wish it were someone else. But the main thing is what you touched on earlier. Fans of sports that don’t include Track and Field are much more drawn to sprinting than distance running, which I much prefer. Not just random people on the streets, but also NBC, ESPN, and SI all have no interest in distance running, just because they don’t have the patience to try to appreciate it. This is why I made a few (too) bold statements that could make it seem like I hate sprinting, which I should have made clear is not the case.

  26. Rich Cain says:

    What comes to mind after reading this:
    1) If not for the 1980 boycott, Lewis would have likely won the gold medal in Moscow. That would have made FIVE golds in the long jump (assuming everything else went the same for him and he competed in Atlanta).

    2) Lewis was the best long jumper in the world from 1979 until 1996. Think about that. What other athlete has ever been the best at anything for that length of time?

    3) Not only was Lewis the best long jumper for 17 years, but he was the best sprinter in the world for about eight years. He was US Champion five times between 1981-1990.

    4) Lewis steadfastly refuses to jump at altitude because he wanted nobody to say that his record-breaking jump wasn’t legitimate in some way. He wanted to break Beamon’s record at sea level.

    5) Carl Lewis was ahead of his time.

  27. Alan Hawkins says:

    Thanks for the mention of my college classmate Larry Myricks he was so much better than the notice he got … Lewis and later Powell kept him in the shadows… but he had two real shots at Gold taken from him by injury and boycott. ’76, ’80.

  28. cecillovel says:

    The response through Charley Steiner and also Connector Edwards on the Carl Lewis country wide anthem continues to be most likely one of many five most hilarious instances inside good reputation for the 4 Letter. Lewis’ performing had been negative, yet probably not really zero even worse compared to a huge selection of anthem performers through the years. They just experienced your bad luck to have it engage in this kind of second involving Television set that’ll be re-aired for several years.

  29. Great article! This guy was an awesome athlete, and he hurt himself marketing wise with a few things but you have to appreciate his talent. You’re a talented writer btw. Super job

  30. Fred de Nancy says:

    In fact, I read that Carl Lewis’ performance in 1982 in Indianapolis was around 30 feet 2 inches.

  31. pd3244 says:

    I remember watching that night on TV – in my mind – because of the “intense pressure” you mentioned; Carl Lewis’ response to the new WR by Mike Powell is the single best athletic performance ever. Carl Lewis did something that no one had ever done before – or since – 2 consecutive jumps of 29-feet or longer. This would be a great 30for30 piece — drama, history, grace, power, joy, sorrow – it has EVERYTHING. Great piece – loved every world. Thanks for bringing new attention to that moment in time.

  32. rarchimedes says:

    i was able to watch almost all of Carl Lewis’ performances that made it onto TV. I was watching TV when Beamon made his phenomenal jump. That will probably go down in track history as the most famous single event as well as the most unexpected. I prefer Lewis’ persistence and consistency as well as his amazing athleticism. I enjoy all the events in T&F, so I will not denigrate any athlete who does well in them.

    I will make one comment on who can run what that is not his/her specialty. In high school, I was 6′ and about 180 lbs with a 30″ inseam, meaning that I had a big body and very short legs, and I could run 200 meters in under 23 seconds. I think that Bekele could probably run a 200 in under 23, running backwards. Maybe not, but you get the idea. And yet, the difference between even a 21 second 200 and Usain Bolt is light years. That is why sprinting records are usually broken in hundredths of seconds while distance records are many times broken in much larger increments. When a sprinting record is set by a full tenth, it is quite an effort. The mechanics of the start are largely irrelevant at any distance over 1500 meters.

    Just enjoy and support it all as it disappears from our world.

  33. Michael Murray says:


    This Joe dude has got to be one of the best sports writers ever. Absolutely incredible article and this is coming from a guy who 80% of the time responds to articles when I have something negative to say. Yes, Carl was first and foremost a long jumper, in fact, having great speed was almost a curse. When I was in involved in high school and youth club track, I had teammates who use to beat Carl all of the time in the sprints, but they never beat him in the long jump. Carl was an incredible long jumper from the very beginning, he was a jump servant and rarely had a bad day. Carl’s sprint poweress came from great coaching of course and physical maturity. He was underdeveloped as a child and didn’t grow into his man body until he was about 19-20 years old. But, I am not sure if his great sprint speed is what made him a great jumper, because he was jumping pretty far before he ever ran a sub-10 100m.

    Four things: (1) I think Carl became proficient at not fouling in part out of necessity. A high school dual meet for example, only lasted about 2 hours and he learned how to quickly take care of business in the long jump to be available for other events that were sometimes going on at the same time. (2) One thing you teach jumpers not to do, that Carl always did was look at the board on take-off. Carl always knew if he fouled, which he rarely did, but he knew exactly where his feet landed. (3) I recall Carl having another long-long jump, I can’t recall if it was close to 30 feet, but it was called a foul and Carl and lots of other people thought it was a fair jump. (4) In terms of his legacy, he left a lot of food on the table. Carl probably would have medaled in the long jump at the 1980 Olympics had there not been a boycott. Carl probably would have medaled in the long jump and sprints had there been a 1981 World Championships; the World Championships didn’t start until 1983. Carl would have gotten a silver medal in the 4×1 relay in the 1996 Olympics had he been on that relay, which from memory Carl chose not to run because they refused to allow him to anchor. A less talked about, but also important aspect of his legacy is his contribution to sprint and jump technique and making track & field a professional sport.

    With all of that said, he was an incredible athlete, but not always the nicest person. People close to him say he was misunderstood, but I know personally, at time his demeanor left a lot to be desired. – Thanks

  34. Noel Brinker says:

    I was there on that night in Indianapolis in ’82. The long jump was my event. I knew Lewis was capable of breaking the record that night, but he had fouled on previous jumps. I trained my binoculars on the board as he came down the runway. He did not foul on that jump. I was elated that I had witnessed a new world record. I don’t know about 30′, but it was at least 29″6″. Unfortunately we will never know. I do know I had just seen the greatest long jumper of all time, and Lewis proved that throughout the rest of his career.

  35. Jerry Skurnik says:

    I’ve always believed that the main reason Lewis didn’t get the praise he deserved was because of the ignorant sports writers who covered the 1984 Olympics. Because it was in the US, it was covered by more writers with no knowledge of track & field than previous games. So these nitwits, before the long jump hyped speculation that Lewis would break Beamon’s record. Lewis, of course, knew that over-exerting himself in the long jump on cold night (and it was cold – I was there that night) in a foolish attempt would hinder his chances his chances to tie Owens by winning 4 golds. He jumped 28 ft even on his first attempt, then fouled and passed on his last 4 attempts since every knew nobody else in the field could jump even 27 feet. The 80,000 dopes in the stands who read the sportswriters then booed Lewis. And the booing was the main story the same writers wrote about his great win.

  36. Zack Leto says:

    I found it the jump & Carl Lewis’ frustration after:

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