My favorite Rio Olympics moments: Henderson and Bartoletta win long jump golds

I'm a fan of the long jump.   It's one of several athletic events that literally helps define the limits of human ability--how far a person can jump.  The event has produced some of the most dramatic sports events in history, including Bob Beamon's record-shattering Leap of the Century in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and the titanic duel between Carl Lewis and Mike Powell in Tokyo in 1991 (I'll be blogging about that event next--it happened 25 years ago Tuesday).  Famous long jumpers such as Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Joyner-Kersey are ranked as among the greatest athletes ever.

So the long jump was one of the events I looked forward to.  Both the men's and the women's produced satisfying climaxes that were decided in the final two rounds.   The men's final took place on August 13th.  It didn't get a tremendous build-up, and perhaps that's justified.  None of the contenders' personal bests were anywhere near the world record.  4-time long jump gold medalist Carl Lewis called the men's long jump the 'worst event in the world' because he felt the standard was very low.  Mike Powell's record of 8.95 meters was considered safe.

The men's final was on August 13th and had a competitive field including the London 2012 winner and 2015 World Champion Greg Rutherford, American Jeff Henderson who had the best jump of 2015 at 8.52 m, and American Jarrion Lawson who still has the best jump of 2016, 8.58 m, set in the US trials.  Other contenders were Chinese athlete Wang Jianan, South Africans Ruswahl Samaai and Luvo Manyonga as well as Swede Michel Torneus who had a jump of 8.44 earlier in 2016.   

In the first three rounds of the final, Rutherford, Henderson, and Lawson all took leads before Manyonga came out of nowhere to take the lead in the 4th round with a jump of 8.28 m.   He had fouled his first three jumps and was not among the favorites.  In the forth round, Rutherford jumped 8.26 to take 2nd.  In the 5th round Manyonga bettered his lead to 8.37 m,  with Rutherford in second and Lawson in 3rd at 8.25.  Before the final round, the BBC Live commentator Tom Ronstance wrote:  "I don't know how many long jump medals have been won in the sixth round. But I imagine it's not many."

The sixth and final round did indeed produce drama.  Manyonga fouled his final jump leaving him to wait to see if his lead would hold.  It looked likely.  But Jeff Henderson, now off the podium, followed with a final jump of 8.38 meters, taking the lead by one centimeter.  The podium was now Henderson, Manyonga, and Rutherford.  Then came the defending champion's and many pundits' favorite Greg Rutherford's final chance.  He jumped 8.29, well short of the lead but still in 3rd.  Lawson, once in 1st place, was now outside the medals.

And then came one final bit of drama.  Lawson had the last jump of the competition.  The 22-year-old had jumped 20 centimeters farther than Henderson's jump at the US trials, so he knew he could do better.  He produced what appeared to be a magnificent jump.  However the scoreboard read 7.78.  As shown in video replays, Lawson's hand touched the ground behind the rest of his body.  It is uncertain what the distance of Lawson's jump could have been but it was definitely enough for a medal and several witnesses thought it was enough for gold.  When the dust cleared, the podium was the USA's Jeff Henderson, South Africa's Luvo Manyonga, and the UK's Greg Rutherford.  The lead had changed 5 times throughout the final.

Henderson's victory had a lot narrative hooks the media love.  He grew up in Arkansas unable to afford any modern training facilities, and his test scores weren't good enough to attend any universities who were interested in him.  He attended a community college and starred on the track team and then graduated from the historically black Stillman College in Alabama.  His mother suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, and cannot remember him.  Henderson said he looked forward to putting the gold medal in her hand.  For his part, Lawson is still only 22 and hopefully has a tremendous career ahead of him.  His 2.58 mark in Eugene, Oregon this year is still the best long jump since Dwight Phillips in 2009.

Henderson holding his Olympic medal. 

Henderson holding his Olympic medal. 

The  women's final was four days later.  The field wasn't as deep as the men's--there were three primary favorites going into the final.  American Brittney Reese was the defending Olympic champion while compatriot Tianna Bartoletta was the reigning world champion with a jump of 7.14 meters in Beijing--the 30-year old had won world championships 10 years apart.  Also a favorite was the European champion Ivana Spanovic of Serbia.  Germany's Malaika Mihambo was one of a few outside contenders.  

Spanovic took an early lead with 6.95 m in the 1st round.  By the 5th round, the favorite Reese was outside the podium in 5th at a dismal 6.79 m.  Her three other jumps were fouls.  Bartoletta had equaled Spanovic's jump and was in 1st on a tiebreaker.  Mihambo was in 3rd.  In the 5th round Reese jumped 7.09 to take the lead.  Spanovic then jumped 7.08 to put herself in silver.   Bartoletta responded with a personal best of 7.17 to take back 1st place.  The podium was now Bartoletta, Reese, and Spanovic.  In the final round, all three made 7-meter jumps, with Reese improving her mark to 7.15, though the podium places didn't change.

Tianna Bartoletta in Rio. 

Tianna Bartoletta in Rio. 

Neither the men's or the women's event saw anything close to a world or even Olympic record.  For the the near future, a world record in the long jump appears unlikely.  The men's record is nearly 25 years old, the women's 28, and no current jumpers are anywhere close.  This and the lack of a record-breaking medal haul from any of the long jumpers meant the events got much less attention than Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Mo Farah or Usain Bolt (never mind negative stories like Ryan Lochte).  American TV network NBC only showed a handful of jumps in their coverage.  But in terms of actual competition and drama, the long jump delivered this year.  Hopefully Carl Lewis will revise his opinion.