Great Matchups — Carl Lewis vs. Mike Powell, Tokyo ’91

IN THIS, THE THIRD in our series of Great Matchups as presented in the pages of T&FN, we move from the track to the field for one of the most iconic duels in our sport’s history.

Over a span of 9 Olympics and World Championships 1983–’96 only one time (1995) did a long jumper other than Carl Lewis or Mike Powell head home with the gold. Unparalleled for near flawless consistency in reaching monster distances at major championships, Lewis, history shows, won the epoch—which began 5 years before Powell’s name belonged in the same conversation. But it was Californian Powell, 2 years younger, who prevailed in their summit meeting at the ’91 World Championships in Tokyo, a competition for the ages.

Here’s our reportage on that epic clash. Two stories from the November ’91 issue are included here, beginning with the event reportage:

Powell Ends Lewis Streak

by Don Potts

Mike Powell’s World Record win gave him his first-ever T&FN cover appearance. (MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT)

Mike Powell had a dream. He dreamt he beat Carl Lewis. He dreamt he beat Bob Beamon.

On Friday, August 30th, his dream came true. Few except Powell and coach Randy Huntington would have bet it was going to happen in Tokyo.

Both Powell (26-10½/8.19) and veteran Larry Myricks (26‑11/8.20) qualified on first jump. Lewis had a “monster” foul, so he took a safety jump of 28-1 (8.56) the second time, only getting a bit of the board. It was the longest qualifying jump in history; not the stuff Powell’s dreams were made of.

The Thursday qualifying produced one surprise in that Soviet 29-footer Robert Emmiyan failed to make the final by a centimeter.

In the final the jumping order placed Powell 7, Myricks 9, and Lewis 11. No one else really figured to be in the medal hunt. Powell began with a miserable jump of 25-9¼ (7.85), having difficulty in finding the board. Myricks fouled, just over 28.

Then Lewis set the tone for the competition by sailing out to 28-5¾ (8.68) for a mark which Myricks had beaten only twice in his career and which Powell had topped only at high-altitude Sestriere with wind assistance.

In the second round Powell went 28-¼ (8.54), which raised him to 2nd, and Myricks moved into 3rd with 26-11 (8.20). Lewis barely fouled on a jump around 28-6 [c8.70].

Round 3: Germany’s Dietmar Haaf moved into 3rd with a windy 26-11¾ (8.22). Powell jumped 27-2½ (8.29) while Myricks fouled again. Lewis consolidated his lead by riding the fitful zephyrs to 28-11¾w (8.83), his longest mark ever.

Powell showed he was still in the running in round 4 by stretching out to a foul of about 28-9 [c8.75]. Myricks moved back into 3rd with 27-7½ (8.41), consolidating a U.S. sweep.

Lewis was clearly on a roll as he soared to 29-2¾w (8.91w). That beat Beamon’s record by a centimeter, but the 2.9 wind was a bit too much.

Then came round 5, and Powell was ready. He ran down the runway, made a perfect takeoff and had a fantastic landing, getting maximum extension, and reached 29-4½ (8.95), 2 inches [5cm] beyond Beamon.

After first checking to see the white flag indicating a fair jump Powell checked the wind reading (0.3) and then waited for the measurement. When the 8.95 was flashed on the board he knew he had realized half of his dream. Beamon’s record was gone.

But Lewis, the master of the come-from-behind jump, had two more shots. Powell’s jump had changed Lewis’s expression from smiles to a grim-faced determination. His fifth jump was his best ever, a 29-1¼ (8.87) effort against a wind of 0.2.

Powell shocked the long official with a bearhug. (CLAUS ANDERSEN/ALLSPORT)

Powell fouled his last jump and waited for Lewis to take his final attempt. But Lewis couldn’t do it and reached “only” 29-0 (8.84) on his final effort. And so the other half of Powell’s dream was realized.

He had beaten Lewis and in so doing ended the latter’s 10-year, 65-meet winning streak. Lewis had turned in the greatest series ever, in a losing effort. His five jumps averaged 28-11¾ (8.83), better than his PR going in.

He threw his arm around Powell’s shoulder and grasped his hand in congratulations and retreated from the field with colors lowered but not dragging.

In breaking Beamon’s standard Powell also preserved Jesse Owens’ last record: longevity. The legendary Ohio Stater held the long jump WR for 25 years, 2 months, Beamon had reached 22 years, 10 months.

Now there is a new Powell dream: beat 9m (29-6½), or even 30-feet (9.14).

But the real question is: can Mike Powell beat Mike Powell? Beamon never beat Beamon.

(August 8/30):
1. Mike Powell (US) 29-4½ (8.95) WR, AR
(25-9¼, 28-¼, 27-2½, f, 29-4½, f) (7.85, 8.54, 8.29, f, 8.95, f)
2. Carl Lewis (US) 29-2¾w (8.91)
(28-5¾, f, 28-11¾, 29-2¾w, 29-1¼, 29-0) (8.68, f, 8.83w, 8.91w, 8.87, 8.84)
3. Larry Myricks (US) 27-7½ (8.42); 4. Dietmar Haaf (Germany) 26-11¾w (8.22); 5. Bogdan Tudor (Romania) 26-5½ (8.06); 6. David Culbert (Australia) 26-3¾ (8.02); 7. Giovanni Evangelisti (ltaly) 26-3½ (8.01); 8. Vladimir Ochkan (Soviet Union) 26-2¾w (7.99); 9. Jaime Jefferson (Cuba) 26-¾ (7.94); 10. Andre Müller (Germany) 26-¾w (7.94); 11. Zunrong Chen (China) 26-0 (7.92); 12. Konstadínos Koukodímos (Greece) 26-0 (7.92); 13. George Ogbeide (Nig) 25-6¼ (7.78).

Powell’s Dream Jump

by Ruth Laney

Hey! That’s probably a WR!” Powell thought after his big jump. (TAKASHI ITO/SAILER LTD.)

It was the oldest World Record in the sport. Bob Beamon’s fabled 29-2½ (8.90) jump at the Mexico City Olympics, aided by altitude and at-least-maximum-allowable wind, had become myth. It was the record, they said, that might never be broken.

Then along came Carl Lewis. If anyone could break the record, they said, it was Lewis.

Mike Powell took these comments as “personal insults.” No. 1 in the world in ‘90, he still got no respect.

He had known he could break the record, ever since a 29-2½ (8.90) foul in ’89. But in 15 meets since ’83, he had never beaten Lewis (of course, nobody else had either). At TAC, he missed by half an inch.

Powell kept the faith. He went to Sestriere, Italy, to jump at 6700-feet [c2000m]. Lewis pulled out with back pains. Powell sailed to a windy 28-7¾ (8.73), and had two 29-foot (c8.85) fouls.

He was ready for a showdown. “I didn’t fear Carl anymore,” he said. “I was capable of the WR. I knew it would take the perfect track, a big meet, and my being behind.”

In Tokyo, he had all of the above. A typhoon threatened even as a full moon glowed above the Olympic Stadium, whose 50,000 seats were nearly filled. The runway was fast. Only swirling winds or his own nerves could stop him.

On his first jump, “I was so psyched up, I almost hyperventilated.” He went only 25-9¼ (7.85). “I told myself, ‘You don’t have to be all crazy. Let your body do what it can do.’”

Lewis took the lead on his very first jump, maintaining it through four rounds. Déjà vu. Powell grew angry. He had talked the talk; now it was time to jump the jump.

Round 5. Powell stood at the end of the runway, his brow furrowed. Oblivious of the crowd—and of Lewis’s staring at him—he went over and over the jump in his mind.

Springy and fast, he hit the takeoff board and let out a yell. Skidding through the sand, he let out a bigger yell.

“Hey! That’s probably a WR!” he thought.

The board flashed “8.95.” In one great Beamonesque leap, he had done it! Powell erupted, ran alongside the stands pumping his fist, slapping his hands with other jumpers.

His heart beat wildly; he felt faint. “Breaking the WR was traumatic; I wanted to let it sink in “ he said. “At the same time, Carl Lewis was trying to break it. I’m so accustomed to him beating me, I thought he was going to jump 9m [29‑6½].”

Powell said to Larry Myricks, “Carl might beat me, so I have to say it right now: I’m the World Record holder.”

But Lewis fell short, and Powell burst into whoops, running crazily across the infield, then startling the board judge with a bearhug.

“This was the realization of a dream I’d had for 7 or 8 years,” said Powell, grinning.

Lewis couldn’t hide his chagrin. “I had the greatest series ever,” he said. “But Mike won it on that one jump.”

Responded Powell later, “I’m the World Record holder. If he wants to say negative things about me, he’s just going to fuel my fire, I’m ready to jump against him anytime.”

Back home in L.A., Powell met Beamon, who hugged him and cried. They talked for 3 hours. “I had the feeling he was passing me the torch,” said Powell.

A Philadelphia native, Powell moved to California with his family at age 11. At West Covina’s Edgewood High basketball was his first love. (He won the Foot Locker slam-dunk contest last year.)

By his sophomore year at UC Irvine, he had jumped 26-5¼ (8.05) and switched to track. He improved by inches.
The closest he got to the ’84 Games was working as a driver for Swedish media. But in ’88 he made the team on his last jump (6 weeks after an emergency appendectomy) and earned silver in Seoul, behind Lewis.

The turning point was meeting coach Randy Huntington in ’87. “I’d been watching ‘Mike Foul’ for years, so we worked on his approach,” said Huntington, who stresses “controlled maximum velocity” over the last 30m. “He’s capable of going farther. 30-feet [c9.15] is definitely a possibility.”

Powell’s goal: consistent 28-footers, and eventually 9m. “When anyone tells me I can’t do something, you can be sure I’m gonna do it soon,” he said. “People used to say, ‘Look at those little skinny legs.’ So I’d play football and tackle the biggest guys.”

In Tokyo, he tackled the biggest ever. “It’s like a heavyweight fight,” explained Powell. “You can’t beat the champ with a split decision. You have to knock him out.”

previously in Great Matchups:

Liquori vs. Ryun — The Dream Mile

Geb vs. Tergat — 5 Fabulous 10Ks