Why Is The Long Jump World Record So Hard To Break?
Mike Powell‘s WR has stood for 27 years and the #2 mark from Bob Beamon celebrates its 50th anniversary today. What explains their longevity? Are the best athletes in the NFL? Are the runways too soft? Is there a mental block?
By Jonathan Gault
October 18, 2018
In 1968, Sports Illustrated‘s Coles Phinizy wrote that Bob Beamon‘s newly-set long jump world record of 8.90 meters (29-2 ½) could last until “around the year 2020 A.D.” If it weren’t for Mike Powell‘s 8.95-meter jump in 1991, he’d have been right. Beamon’s jump remains the second-longest legal jump in history, and today marks its 50th anniversary, making it the oldest Olympic record on the books by 20 years. And if recent history is a guide, Beamon’s Olympic record could stand another 50 years; in the last three Olympics, no man could surpass even 8.38 meters (27-6).
(Related: LRC Feature A Leap For The Ages: Bob Beamon’s 29-Foot Long Jump Turns 50)
Powell’s world record has now stood four years longer than Beamon’s — it’s up to 27 years and counting — and has not been challenged for decades. You see, the long jump is in something of a rough patch. The four longest jumpers in history are the same now as they were in 1991, and of the 10 longest jumpers in history, only one — #10 Juan Miguel Echevarria of Cuba — has set his PR since 2009. Only two men — Echevarria and Luvo Manyonga of South Africa — have come within a foot of Beamon’s 8.90 this decade. Powell’s 8.95 is the fourth-oldest men’s world record on the books; the other three are all in the throws, two of which are very questionable (shot put world record holder Randy Barnes was banned for life for using performance-enhancing drugs; discus world record holder Jürgen Schult competed for East Germany, which operated a state-run doping regime).
So what explains the world record drought? Let’s examine some of the most popular theories.
1) The long jump doesn’t get the best athletes anymore
Six of the top seven men on the all-time long jump list are American, but only one of those athletes, Dwight Phillips, has set his PR since the turn of the century. One theory is that the freak athletes like Beamon and Powell are no longer finding their way to the long jump.
“The best athletes are playing the big (team) sports,” says Nic Petersen, the renowned jumps coach at the University of Florida. “They’re playing football, they’re playing basketball. So we’re not necessarily getting the same level of talent that maybe was going on in the ’90s.”
2-time NCAA long jump champ Marquise Goodwin
Powell, who idolized Carl Lewis as a teenager in the early 1980s, agrees.
“When Carl was jumping, Carl made the long jump glamorous and so we had a lot of athletes going into the long jump,” Powell says.
But Powell goes further: he believes that even within track & field, the long jump is not getting the top athletes. In his prime, Lewis wasn’t just the world’s greatest long jumper, but the greatest sprinter too, winning back-to-back Olympic 100-meter titles in 1984 and 1988. Today, very few professional athletes double up in the sprints and the long jump, and Powell believes that many of the athletes with the sprint speed to become a world-class long jumper become sprinters instead, where there is more money and fame available than in the jumps.
“Since [Carl and I] stopped jumping, it’s really fallen down compared to other events, 100 meters, 1500, pole vault, stuff like that,” Powell says. “We’re a C-level event now. So a lot of athletes don’t even go and try and do it. I mean [Usain] Bolt, that was an obvious thing for Bolt to do and he didn’t feel the desire to go and try to do it.”
Lewis, a four-time Olympic long jump champion, doesn’t totally buy this argument — “I just think it’s a cop-out [to say the talent has gone to other sports]” — but Lewis did admit that it’s extremely tough to balance a career as a jumper and a sprinter. When Lewis decided to chase four golds at the 1984 Olympics — in the 100, 200, 4×100, and long jump — he felt that his long jump suffered because he was not able to devote as much energy to it as a pure jumper would have (it didn’t suffer that much; he still won the gold in Los Angeles).
“A lot of great athletes in track & field stop long jumping because it’s too hard,” Lewis says. “I don’t think it’s other sports; I just think the event’s too hard.”
2) Everything has to be perfect
Talent alone is not enough to break the long jump world record. There was no more consistent jumper in history than Lewis. Of the top 20 legal jumps in history, Lewis owns 11 them; no one else owns more than one. Yet Lewis never broke the world record. His 8.91-meter jump at the 1991 World Championships would have broken the world record, but the wind (3.0 m/s) was over the allowable limit. Then there’s the story about Lewis’ 30-foot (9.14m) jump in Indianapolis in 1982, a foul that Lewis says was not actually a foul.
Ivan Pedroso of Cuba jumped farther than Powell’s record, going 8.96 in the Italian mountain town of Sestriere in 1995, but it was never ratified because a man was blocking the wind gauge during the attempt.
Every jumper has a story about the one that got away — a monster foul, a jump that was just barely wind-aided, a jump that could have been farther with a friendly wind (Dwight Phillips’ PR of 8.74 — the 11th-best jump in history — came into a 1.2 headwind). Very few jumpers have a story about the one where everything came together.
“How many times did Pedroso foul nine-meter jumps?” Petersen says. “It just kind of goes back to luck of conditions and wind and making sure you just happen to be in the right place.”
Bob Beamon did have a jump where everything came together. When he jumped 8.90 in Mexico City, he did so at 7,350 feet of altitude (which allowed him to sprint faster in his approach and hang in the air longer) with the maximum allowable tailwind. He also got lucky with the weather: had he taken his jump just 15 minutes later, he would have done so in a downpour, killing any chance of a monster leap.
Beamon’s jump was magnificent, but if he had done it at sea level into a headwind, we probably wouldn’t still be talking about it 50 years later. The next-best jump of his career was 8.33 meters, which would put him in a tie for 106th on the all-time outdoor list. But Beamon points out that there are many people who have taken jumps at altitude; there are only two men who have jumped 8.90.
“I think he could have jumped 29 feet at sea level and everywhere,” Lewis says. “Of course, the conditions were perfect and all of that, but I think that he could have done it anywhere. But he didn’t because it just didn’t all come together.”
Beamon isn’t the only athlete who benefited from favorable conditions. Two of the three longest legal jumps of all time — Powell’s 8.95 world record, and Lewis’ PR of 8.87 — came at the same competition, the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. After the championships concluded, it was reported that the surface of the track and the runways was extremely hard, benefiting the sprinters and jumpers, and that future tracks that reached the same degree of hardness would not be certified by the IAAF (all marks from the 1991 Worlds still count).
There is evidence to support the assertion about the hardness of the track at the 1991 Worlds beyond the incredible marks in the long jump. In the 100 meters, six men ran under 10 seconds, the first time that had ever happened (and it would not happen again for 17 years). All six of them set personal bests, with the first two finishers — Lewis (9.86) and Leroy Burrell (9.88) — both breaking the world record of 9.90.
“I remember when I first walked onto the track and I started to run, I was like, Man put me in the 100, this thing is faaaast!” Powell says. “The surface was really, really hard. It was hard and bouncy and I know that afterwards, they don’t make tracks like that anymore. It definitely did help…that one was definitely springier than other tracks that I’ve been on.”
Lewis, on the other hand, says he doesn’t believe in fast tracks, saying that Powell’s world record was a product of his mindset, the atmosphere, and an intense competition between Powell and Lewis.
“Everyone says all of that,” Lewis says. “I‘m not really a fan of all of that. I think there are slow tracks but I don’t think there are fast tracks. I just don’t. Slow people don’t run fast on fast tracks. I just think the energy was right.”
Powell’s view? If the Tokyo track was super fast, then yes, that was an advantage. But that is sports. Hicham El Guerrouj ran on faster tracks than Jim Ryun. Eliud Kipchoge ran in better shoes than Frank Shorter. No matter how great the technology, is still up to the athlete to take advantage.
“[In Tokyo], they felt like that maybe they gave too much of an advantage to the athletes, and selfishly speaking, I’m glad they haven’t duplicated [the surface],” Powell says. “When Bob was competing, he didn’t have the advantages that Carl and I had. And now Carl and I don’t have the advantages that the athletes now have — that would mean training-wise, supplements, shoe technology, track technology, training philosophy. You know all, that stuff. As time goes on, I’d think back, man, what if Jesse Owens was competing in this era? Even when I was jumping, I was thinking, man, if Bob was out here, woo!”
3) The mental block
Sometimes when an athlete breaks a barrier, it can usher in an era of record-breaking as his competitors adjust to the new reality of what is possible — think Roger Bannister, whose historic 3:59.4 mile world record lasted just 46 days. Lewis believes that, because Beamon’s jump was so far beyond what anyone had previously accomplished, for the first decade of its existence, Beamon’s world record had the opposite effect.
“I think in a lot of people’s minds, they were allowed to say well, this is just not breakable and we can’t go that far,” says Lewis. “I just think that people dismissed [the possibility of breaking] it, to be honest.”
But by the 1980s, Lewis was consistently jumping in the 8.70s, and his performances inspired the man who would eventually break Beamon’s record.
“It was also a mental barrier, for people to think to even think they could go that far,” Powell says. “Carl Lewis, he bridged the gap.”
Now that Powell’s record has stood even longer than Beamon’s, Lewis believes that a new mental barrier has been constructed around 8.95.
“I think the last person that really, really, really tried to [break the record] was Dwight Phillips,” Lewis says. “No one else has really tried.”
Petersen agrees that there is a mental hurdle that jumpers must clear before Powell’s record is broken.
“I think part of it is that we have to challenge ourselves as coaches and athletes and we’ve got to make sure that these athletes understand that it is possible,” Petersen says. “Because I think they look at it, and they see it, it’s so far, and they don’t necessarily believe it’s possible.”
However, Petersen believes that change could be in the air. Juan Miguel Echevarria’s 8.68 in Germany in June was the world’s longest legal jump in nine years. Echevarria went even further in Stockholm — his 8.83 (barely illegal for record purposes due to a 2.1 tailwind) was the world’s longest all-conditions jump since 1995. Eight men jumped 8.40 meters or further outdoors this year, the most since 1997.
“[Marquis] Dendy wants to be the first guy to jump nine meters,” says Petersen, who coached Dendy, the 2016 World Indoor champ, as a collegian at Florida and now as a pro. “He talks about it all the time, it’s something he wants to do. You’ve heard [Olympic champion] Jeff [Henderson] talk about it. Luvo, of course, is talking about it. I think maybe we’re at a point where long jump is coming back.”
Dendy believes that if the world record is to be broken, that sort of critical mass is essential. Get all the best guys together in the same meet, and they’ll bring out the best of each other, he says.
“I think once you have everyone all in one flight or all in one field, and they all feel that energy like we can do something big right here, [that’s when the world record could be broken] because down on the track or on the runway, that energy is always matched,” Dendy says.
4) It’s really freaking far
When I asked Ralph Boston, the 1960 Olympic champion and 1968 bronze medalist, why Beamon’s record stood for 23 years, his answer was simple: “It was that good.” And that is the same explanation for why Powell’s record stands unbroken 27 years later.
“It’s just a hell of a distance,” Powell says. “It’s far!”
History also shows that when the long jump world record is broken, it can be a long time until it’s broken again. For 75 of the last 83 years, the world record has been held by just three men: Owens (25 years, from 1935 to 1960), Beamon (1968-1991), and Powell (1991-present).
Whenever a record stretches into its third decade, there will be those who inevitably suggest it had to be achieved through the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but Powell uses the examples of Owens and Beamon to support his case that he did it clean (Powell has never been linked to PEDs).
“Jesse Owens had the record for 25 years; Bob Beamon had the record for 23 years; I have had the record for 24 years, so is somebody suggesting that something was wrong with Jesse Owens and Bob Beamon, so we have to change those records too?” Powell told BBC 5 Live in 2016, responding to a proposal that suggested resetting world records in track & field. “Who is this person? Have they ever competed? Do they know anything about athletics? Do they know anything about human genetics?… That’s my life and I stand on that. Are you accusing me then of cheating? Then okay, that means you called me a liar and you’re going to call me a liar in my face. I’m a man and you’re a man, you are going to have to deal with me.”
Will Powell’s world record be broken anytime soon?
Powell remains a big fan of the sport, and he knows a big talent when he sees one. He was worried about losing his record to Pedroso (8.71 pb). He was worried about losing it to Phillips (8.74 pb). Now he’s worried about losing it to Echevarria (8.68 pb).
Tall and powerfully built, Echevarria looks more like a 400-meter runner than a long jumper, but the Cuban could be the biggest threat yet to Powell’s record. He burst onto the scene in March, when, aged just 19, he leaped 8.46 meters — the longest indoor jump in nine years — to win the World Indoor title in Birmingham, England. Three months later, unleashed that windy 8.83 in Stockholm, a jump so long that he banged his feet on the end of the pit. If he is to challenge 8.95, however, he must stay healthy; Stockholm was his final Diamond League meet of 2018 as he cut his season short due to injury.
“If he can just stay healthy, oh absolutely [he can break the world record],” Dendy says.
For his part, Powell says that he is mentally ready for the record to be broken. He never thought his mark would last as long as Beamon’s, but here we are, 27 years later and counting. Powell says that Echevarria has a “good chance” to break the record, but it will still require everything coming together.
“There’s been other athletes who could’ve broken the record, but they didn’t,” Powell says. “Pedroso didn’t. Dwight Phillips didn’t. [2008 Olympic champion] Irving Saladino [of Panama], he didn’t. So the thing is, Echevarria definitely can, but just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you will.”
More: LRC Feature A Leap For The Ages: Bob Beamon’s 29-Foot Long Jump Turns 50 50 years later, there’s still only one way to describe the men’s long jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics: Beamonesque.