EVEN CASUAL FANS of our sport recognize the name of Jesse Owens, and with good reason, even though his stunning exploits came almost 90 years ago.
People lacking in a proper sense of history and technological advancement are sometimes tempted to write off his talents by saying, “But even high school kids of today can run as fast and jump as far as he did.” That’s true, as far as it goes, but totally lacks context.
The proper context, as I see it, is the talents that Owens displayed on his “day of days.”
I’m talking about May 25, 1935, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the Big 10 Championships. And I challenge any modern athlete to match Owens’ 6-WR rampage. Owens tied the 100y best and set new standards in the 220 straight (and 200 en route), 220 straight hurdles (and 200 en route) and long jump.
Again a little context is in order: the challenger to Owens has to wear heavy leather shoes, compete on a dirt track/turf runway, and must accomplish the feat in some 45 minutes:
•3:15 — run 100y in 9.4 (roughly equivalent to an auto-timed 10.50 for 100m, although conservative timers may have cost Owens another 10th).
•3:25 — long jump 26-8¼ (8.13); the kicker is that the mark has to be achieved with a single attempt.
•3:45 — run the 220 straight in 20.3 (applying more voodoo conversion factors call it a modern 20.84).
•4:00 — hurdle the 220 lows (30-inch/76.2cm) in 22.6.
A fun afternoon’s work. I first suggested that Carl Lewis try this challenge back in ’93. His bona fides as a sprinter and jumper were buttressed by his having hurdled in high school. And the 220 lows was more of a sprinter’s race than a hurdler’s.
I realized then, as now, that no athlete with that particular set of skills would be likely to take on the injury risk that would be part and parcel of the whole enterprise. Unless, of course, somebody could sell a big made-for-TV extravaganza. Paging Guinness!
Who among today’s athletes would have a legit shot?
The first U.S. name that comes to my mind would be Grant Holloway, who can obviously hurdle the heck out of things. His résumé is lacking any 100 credentials but he has run 20.66. His LJ best is a creditable 26-9¾ (8.17) but he has only jumped as far as Owens twice. Here he’d essentially be asked to PR, and with just a single try.
Matthew Boling has joined the ranks of 27-foot jumpers this year (27-¾/8.25), but that’s his only meet at the required Owensian level. With 9.97w/20.06 dashes the speed is obviously there. He’d have to learn at least rudimentary hurdling skills.
Then there’s Jarrion Lawson, who pulled off an Owens-like 100/LJ double for Arkansas at the ’16 NCAA. He has showed 10.03/20.17 speed and 28-1¾ (8.58) bounce. But can he hurdle?
Jamaica’s reigning LJ world champ Tajay Gayle has made noise about turning to the sprints and improved his 100 best to 10.18 last year. Can he hurdle?
But the best candidate would be Olympic decathlon champion, Damian Warner. 100 speed? 10.12, check. Hurdling ability? 13.27, check. Long jump credentials? 27-2/8.28, check, but with an asterisk. The asterisk is the same as Holloway and Boling: very few jumps long enough and the need to produce one with a single attempt. But as a 10-eventer the Canadian is already used to a restricted set of jumps.
How about deca WR holder Kevin Mayer? At just 25-7¼ (7.80) he fails the LJ test badly.
Mayer’s predecessor, the now-retired Ashton Eaton, pretty much mirrors Warner, showing very good speed and hurdling ability, but having few LJ marks that taped out far enough.
Earlier in this tome I suggested having somebody try to match the feat in a made-for-TV show. The problem would be that the whole thing could implode early with the single-attempt long jump wiping it out after the first 10 minutes.
So let me suggest a workable alternate: rather than a single athlete against the Owens clock, make it multiple athletes, and with the LJ as the final event. If you fail to match Owens you don’t get to try the next event. A nice solid hour bloc with 45 minutes of action and 15 of commercials, just as TV likes it.
My money would still be on Jesse. ◻︎