Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

From time to time athletics witnesses landmark contests where more than one competitor betters an existing world record. Thirty years ago tomorrow (August 30) it happened in the long jump at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, when Mike Powell and Carl Lewis took the long jump to new lengths.

The phenomenon of the big breakthrough event has been one of the most thrilling aspects of the sport down the years - and Tokyo has witnessed the most recent manifestations during its staging of the Olympics.

The men’s and women’s 400 metres hurdles in the Japanese capital’s new and sadly empty Olympic Stadium re-wrote the books.

First Norway's Karsten Warholm lowered his own 2021 mark in the men’s event of 46.70sec - bettering the 46.78 set by Kevin Young of the United States at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics - to 45.94, and was followed home by Rai Benjamin of the US in 46.17.

The day after, Sydney McLaughlin came home for gold in 51.46sec, clear of her United States team mate Dalilah Muhammad, who clocked 51.58 - both times being inside Muhammad’s 2019 world record of 52.16.

Looking back to similar instances, the mind is inevitably drawn to the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The men’s 1500m there saw gun-to-tape winner Filbert Bayi of Tanzania and New Zealand’s fast-finishing John Walker register times inside the world record of 3min 33.1sec set by Jim Ryun of the United States in 1967.

They clocked 3:32.16 and 3:32.52 respectively, with Kenya’s Ben Jipcho taking bronze in 3:33.16.

In terms of field events, the triple jump competition at the 1968 Olympics, held in the thin air of Mexico City, produced an extraordinary sequence of world records.

Before the Games, the world record stood at 17.03 metres, set by Poland’s Jozef Szmidt. That mark was bettered in qualifying as Italy’s Giuseppe Gentile recorded 17.10m, and in the following day’s final, on October 17, he registered a first-round effort of 17.22m.

That would only suffice for bronze, however, at the end of a competition that saw three more world records.

In round three the favourite, Russia’s Viktor Saneyev, jumped 17.23m. In round five the lead was taken over by Brazil’s Nelson Prudencio with 17.27m.

But on his sixth and final effort, Saneyev gained gold and regained the world record as he went out to 17.35m.

In the course of the qualifying and final, Szmidt’s record was beaten nine times and equalled twice. The top five in the final all broke it at least once. Meanwhile Szmidt, the 1960 and 1964 champion, finished seventh with 16.89m.

Flibert Bayi of Tanzania beats John Walker of New Zealand to the 1974 Commonwealth 1500m record as both break the previous world record of Jim Ryun's ©Getty Images
Flibert Bayi of Tanzania beats John Walker of New Zealand to the 1974 Commonwealth 1500m record as both break the previous world record of Jim Ryun's ©Getty Images

The following day saw just one world record in the men’s long jump final. But such was its magnitude that it sent shock waves through the sport.

Bob Beamon’s achievement in adding 55 centimetres to the world record with his effort of 8.90m was monumental.

Thirty-three years earlier his fellow American Jesse Owens had provided the event with a similar landmark world record - set at Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935 in the space of 45 minutes where he set five world records and equalled a sixth.

Owen’s long jump mark of 8.13m stood for more than quarter-of-a-century before his compatriot Ralph Boston recorded 8.21m at Walnut, California on August 12, 1960. Boston edged that mark up four times over the next five years, reaching 8.35m in 1965.

Two years later Russia’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan matched that record - but in the thin air of Mexico City, located in high plateaus in the centre of the country at an altitude of 2,240 metres. The following year, in the same arena, the long-jumping landscape changed completely…

Altitude favours performances in the shorter, more explosive events, such as sprints and jumps. And while there is no precise method of calculating the advantage, knowledgeable statisticians within the sport reckon that, to take the example of the long jump, performance at altitude can make up to 30 centimetres difference.

Beamon benefited from that in the same way as all his competitors in a field that included Boston and Britain’s defending champion Lynn Davies. But he finished 71 centimetres clear of his nearest rival, Klaus Beer of East Germany, who took silver with 8.19m.

In celebrating the 50th anniversary of Beamon’s leap for the ages, the World Athletics site included some of the contemporary reportage produced by the hugely respected athletics journalist and statistician Mel Watman.

"The officials in charge of measurement seemed to be taking an awfully long time so it seemed a pretty good bet that the world record of 8.35m had been bettered, but was it as far as the magical 28 feet?," Watman wrote.

"Still no figure flashed on the electrical indicator board, then suddenly everything was happening. Beamon was dancing around, kissing the track even, and fellow competitors dashed over to congratulate him. At last the board flickered into life. The figure 8 flashed up, then a 9 … momentary confusion then the stupefying realisation that the jump was 8.90 metres. A frantic check of the tables … 29 feet 2 inches!

"Those among the 60,000-odd spectators present who had witnessed the actual jump knew they had been privileged to see perhaps the greatest single achievement in the entire history of athletics. 

"It could well survive as world record into the 21st century; after all Jesse Owens' 8.13m in 1935 stood for 25 years and that was only six inches better than the previous record. 

"All Beamon had done was to add more than 1 ¾ feet to the mark shared by Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. If I hadn't seen it myself I would never have believed it. Several generations are going to have to live with it … the unattainable record."

Russia's Viktor Saneyev finished in gold medal position in a world-record fest of a triple jump final at the 1968 Mexico Olympics ©Getty Images
Russia's Viktor Saneyev finished in gold medal position in a world-record fest of a triple jump final at the 1968 Mexico Olympics ©Getty Images

Unattainable, that was, until August 30, 1991, when two American athletes at the top of their game converged on a night of steamy humidity and swirling wind in Tokyo to produce the greatest and most gripping long jump competition ever witnessed. So far.

At the age of 30, Carl Lewis had established himself as one of the greatest athletes of all time - a sprinter and a jumper. He already had six Olympic golds by that point in his career – more were to come at Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996.

He was the Olympic 100m champion of 1984 and 1988, and five days earlier he had won his third world title in that event in a world record of 9.86. Fast on the runway? Tick the box.

Lewis was also the two-time Olympic long jump champion, and he arrived in Tokyo with an unbeaten run of 65 events in that discipline, stretching back to 1981. 

Powell, meanwhile, arrived with his own lesser but still impressive statistic - he had won 13 of his 14 long jump competitions that season. The only man to beat him, at the American Championships in New York City, replacing him at the top by one centimetrwith his last jump - was Lewis.

That was the only previous long jump competition Lewis had taken part in that year. But, for all the leggy talent of the 27-year-old challenger Powell, he arrived in Tokyo as strong favourite to win a third successive world long jump title.

And for most of the competition, that looked about to happen.

The windsock by the side of the runway had a secret life as the competition got underway, flexing and falling, flexing and falling.

But, after an indifferent, straining opening effort of 7.85m for Powell, Lewis’s first jump took place in zero wind - and he landed at 8.68m, just four centimetres short of the distance which had won him the Olympic title in Seoul three years earlier.

No less an expert than Peter Matthews, a doyen of athletics knowledge, said in his TV commentary at that point: "That might be the gold medal straight away for him, although Mike Powell could have other ideas I guess. I’m sure Mike Powell ought to have other ideas but I frankly would be surprised if anyone exceeds that."

On any normal night, Matthews would have been right.

Powell, at this point, had a personal best of 8.66m, and had cleared 8.73m in the high altitude of Sestriere. So Lewis could not feel entirely comfortable with his lead, substantial as it was.

Round two. Powell improved to 8.54m. Lewis had a big foul.

Round three. Powell recorded 8.29m. Lewis went big again, landing in the sand close to the nine metres mark, and for the first time in the event he looked excited. He grimaced momentarily at the wind reading of 3.2 metres per second, well over the admissible level for record purposes of 2 metres per second. But whatever he had done counted in the Championship, legal or not for record purposes.

The figures came up. He had jumped 8.83m. Gold was surely in the offing.

Bob Beamon of the United States sets what many felt was the
Bob Beamon of the United States sets what many felt was the "unattainable record" of 8.90 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics ©Getty Images

But Powell was not done. While he did not have the speed of Lewis on the runway, he had a greater natural spring, and in his fourth round he sprung – landing very close to Lewis’s best mark. Full of nervous joy, he ran back down the runway. Only to turn in dismay and consternation as, belatedly, a red flag rose.

Back he went to the take-off board, his face bent down urgently to the plasticine marker.

Let Matthews take up the commentary again…

"That surely is the jump of the day for him. Oh! The red flag is raised. He doesn’t believe it. The official took a long time to raise the flag. He must have been so, so close to the plasticine. He says ‘Where, where? It isn’t there! I can’t see it!’ Well he’s a very upset man indeed - that was more than 8.54 and maybe getting close to Lewis’s 8.83."

The camera didn’t lie. Powell’s toe had been minimally over the line. And to crush him further, Lewis further increased his lead when he took his fourth-round turn, producing an epic effort of 8.91m. The furthest ever seen, albeit with a wind reading that was tantalisingly over the allowable limit at 2.9mps.

Strictly speaking, the world record was only beaten once on this night. But the relatively small wind advantage for Lewis's fourth jump was more than counterbalanced by the fact that it was recorded at sea level rather than altitude. Any major dude of a statistician will tell you - it was a world record effort.

Lewis had grimaced momentarily at seeing that reading before his mark came up. But the arrival of the magic figures on the board prompted him to joyful celebration.

"What a shame that wind is a little over the limit but that is undoubtedly the greatest jump we have seen," Matthews said. "It doesn’t have the advantage of high altitude like Bob Beamon had, and Carl Lewis has produced the jump of all our lifetimes. The photographers and everyone else here are on their feet. 8.91.

"Well the impact that the world felt when Beamon went out to 8.90 was terrific, and Carl has at long last excelled it. Even if it’s not a world record."

One of the other historic elements of this intense competition was the fact that it was the only time American network television, in this case NBC, devoted more than 20 minutes to a single field event competition.

The main NBC commentator involved, Dwight Stones, knew all the tips and wrinkles of the athletics scene as a two-times Olympic high jump bronze medallist and three-times world record holder.

He noted, as Powell went to his mark for his jumps, that Lewis was, casually but clearly, in his rival’s locality, lounging at one point right alongside the runway, and then moving back directly behind Powell as he made his run-up.

The suggestion that Lewis was trying to psych his fellow American out was entertained and then dismissed with the assertion that Powell knew just how hard it would be to defeat the perennial champion having tried for so long. The career win/lose figures before this final were 15-0 in favour of Lewis…

Carl Lewis set his best wind-legal mark of 8.87m and a windy 8.91m in the 1991 World Championship long jump final in Tokyo. It wasn't enough for gold ©Getty Images
Carl Lewis set his best wind-legal mark of 8.87m and a windy 8.91m in the 1991 World Championship long jump final in Tokyo. It wasn't enough for gold ©Getty Images

And so the fifth round arrived. Powell first to go. He needed something like, or more than like, his fourth-round effort, and he needed it to be legal. He set off with intent, and seemed almost to skip a gear and accelerate further as he neared the board, even though the images shown after made it clear he had a couple of inches to spare on take-off.

The lift. The legs. The landing. The electrified rising, knowledge of something special and wonderful already boiling within him.

The wind speed was legal - just 0.03mps. As the judges deliberated, Matthews commentated.

"Carl Lewis, undefeated in 65 long jump competitions coming before. He’s produced the longest jump in history, 8.91 - and he’s being beaten!  It’s 8.95!

"Bob Beamon’s world record has been smashed by Mike Powell. Five centimetres added to that historic jump made nearly 23 years in the high altitude of Mexico City. And could we believe it, two men in this competition have got beyond that. Carl Lewis, who’s got another two jumps to come, and Mike Powell, who is now the world record holder in the long jump."

On any normal night, it was over. But this was not a normal night, and Carl Lewis was not a normal athlete. How would he respond?

The answer was - magnificently. His fifth effort was huge, 8.87m, in a legal wind. The longest legal jump he ever attained. And he looked downcast. Short by eight centimetres.

One final throw of the dice in round six. Powell went big again - and the red flag flew. As Lewis gathered his thoughts before his final effort, the camera closing in upon his face, the world record holder bowed his head and prayed.

Another huge effort from the multiple champion, troubling the sand near the nine metres mark. Was it enough?  He thought not.

Before the final mark was announced he went over to Powell, who was sitting, and clasped his hand. At that moment the mark for Lewis’s last effort appeared. Huge. 8.84m legal. His second best ever. And not enough.

Powell sank forwards onto the infield before careering off in joy.

Mike Powell described achieving his world record jump of 8.95 metres as the
Mike Powell described achieving his world record jump of 8.95 metres as the "culmination for everything that has gone wrong for me in life" ©Getty Images

Reviewing the new world champion’s world record effort, Matthews commented: "It’s just like Beamon. It’s just like the world saw that tremendous speed down the runway and everything was right about that jump. The leg shoot was fantastic, the technique was perfect, see how he hits the board - pretty good - there’s a millimetre or two to spare, but it wasn’t just over as the previous jump had been. And the world record has gone at last - and not to Lewis.

"In no competition before have two men ever jumped remotely like this."

Speaking to World Athletics earlier this year, Powell recalled his day of days.

"I had been chasing Carl for eight years," he said. "And when I first started competing against him he was beating me by like 50 centimetres. And in the last competition before the World Championships he beat me by one centimetre on his last jump.

"So I knew that I was closing the gap, and that when the World Championships came round that was going to be my opportunity to finally beat.

"I knew I was going to have to be prepared to break the world record in order to win.

"It was really really fast, a hard but bouncy surface. It was a great surface for me. People were complaining about the weather but to me it was perfect, it was a typhoon that was supposed to be coming in, really, really muggy.

"It was the kind of weather where there would be like a lightning strike with no rain around. Ions in the air. So it was full of electricity and for me it was perfect. And actually the same kind of weather that happened when Bob Beamon broke the world record.

"In the days leading up I was visualising breaking the world record. And I knew Carl was going to be going for it. Carl always starts up strong.

"Carl would jump consistently well all day. When he jumped 8.68 on his first jump I wasn’t surprised at all. Actually I thought he might jump farther.

"For me it was, OK, I have six attempts to get one good one.

"My first jump was horrible, but when I did my second jump I wanted to get a fair jump in. It felt like 8.25, maybe 8.30. So when they say ‘8.54’ I was like ‘Oh yeah.’ I said if that’s 8.54 I know I’m going far today. So I was really excited at that point because I knew I had a lot more to go."

Mike Powell won the greatest long jump competition ever seen as he claimed the 1991 world title ahead of Carl Lewis with a fifth-round world record jump of 8.95m that still stands today ©Getty Images
Mike Powell won the greatest long jump competition ever seen as he claimed the 1991 world title ahead of Carl Lewis with a fifth-round world record jump of 8.95m that still stands today ©Getty Images

After Lewis extended his lead with the longest jump ever seen, a windy 8.91m, Powell said: "He pumped his fist to the crowd, and he jogged past me, pumping his fist, going ‘Yeah, that’s right! That’s right!'

"And at that moment I was so angry. I just felt I wanted to get up and punch him, I wanted to fight him, because he was like my enemy at the time. I took it personally. I had the feeling I just wanted to get into a fight.

"So once he did that I said, ‘OK, now we are about to get it going. Let’s start. I’m ready to go.' And I wanted to wait until my last jump to really get it going. But I was so fired up from his response to his jump, because I just took it personally, that he was like letting me know, ‘that’s it’.

"I was angry. My adrenaline was so, so high. I was going through my visualisation and I never saw it more clearly. So I just thought to myself: go. And then I had a great jump, had a lot of air-time. And then the crowd let me know how far it was, because they were just screaming.

"I could hear people saying ‘world record.’ It was so loud in the stadium. It just felt good. My approach wasn’t perfect but I got a chance to get a lot of good height. And I just knew that I’d jumped past him.

"And so I was just sitting there waiting for the measurement to come in. I was really happy because I saw that the wind was 0.3. It seemed like it took a long time for the mark to come up. And the numbers came up slowly, one at a time, it was like, eight point nine…five!

"I will never forget that. I was so, so happy, running down the track, I was like, ‘Yes! I got it! I finally got the record.’

"But then I had to calm down and watch Carl take two more jumps."

Powell sat with his hand on his heart, literally. Memories of the last jump in New York in his mind.

"When I saw the mark for Carl’s last jump I knew I had won. I was so happy I just started running and when I saw the official that had called a foul on my fourth jump, I just picked him up and hugged him! And for a Japanese that was so much out of their culture.

"Then Carl came down and congratulated me. After the competition in New York where he beat me he put his arm around me and walked me back down the track and said ‘OK, you know, that was a great competition.’

"So after that last jump he came up to me and I walked him down the track saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re a great competitor!’ So I got him back for that!

"For me it was the culmination for everything in my life that had gone wrong for me, for every time someone had called me names, or any girl had turned me down for a date, or anybody that doubted me.

"That jump was for them, to say like - take that! So it was way bigger than just a competition for me. It was me against everything that had happened in my life and against everything that was going negative against me in the world and letting people know that I’m making my stand, I’m making my mark, now. So it was much more than a jump for me. It was a turning point in my life."