One August 30, 1991, there took place one of the greatest athletic battles in history. In the final of the men's long jump at the Athletics World Championships in Tokyo, two men both jumped further and further, farther than anyone had ever jumped before. By the end of the day a world record had been set which still stands today.
Carl Lewis had emerged as a sprinter and long jumper in the early 80s. By the middle of the decade he was no longer jumping against competitors, he was jumping against Bob Beamon's record of 8.90 meters set at altitude in Mexico City. Pundits thought he would eventually break it. Several observers thought he actually did break it when he apparently jumped over 9 meters, over 30 feet, in 1982 in Indianapolis. The jump was invalidated by a foul called for Lewis' toe just over the take-off line. Lewis disputed this and said there was no mark left, and several witnesses agreed, but the track was raked over and the foul stood. Nevertheless Lewis made a jump that day of 8.74 meters and in 1983 8.79, the second longest jump ever.
Lewis continued to attempt to jump past Beamon's record throughout the 80s but never succeeded. Perhaps what he needed was a competitor. And that person emerged in the late 80s in Mike Powell. Powell took silver in the 1988 Seoul Olympics at 8.54. In the Spring of 1991 he jumped 8.63 meters to set up a compelling match up with Lewis at the 1991 World Championship in Athletics in Tokyo.
In the long jump there are legal jumps and there are measured jumps. Legal jumps are eligible for the record books. Measured jumps are not, usually because the occur during a wind above the limit of 2 m/s. Measured jumps however are usually eligible for that competition. There's also the factor of altitude; people believe jumps at a high altitude such as Beamon's jump in Mexico City have an advantage. Jumps at altitude are considered legal but are marked with an (a) for altitude by the sport's governing body the IAAF. Tokyo was at sea level but the wind was gusting inconsistently.
Carl Lewis immediately set a high bar with a jump of 8.68 in the first round, farther than Powell had ever jumped. Powell responded with a jump of 8.54. In the 3rd round, Lewis jumped 8.83 meters, though it was wind-aided. In the 4th round Powell followed with a massive jump, which appeared near the world record. However, the red flag went jump--Powell had just barely stepped over the line. Powell furiously protested but replays confirmed the official was right. Then Lewis followed with a massive jump of his own, this one at 8.91 meters, but again wind-aided. It was still the longest any person had ever jumped. To win the competition, Powell would have to break the world record.
Great long jumps occur when the jumper gets everything right, and a little luck. The run up, a perfect take off right at the line, good height, a decent landing, good conditions, and (if you care about the record books) a wind below the limit. These factors came together for Bob Beamon in 1968. And they all came together for Mike Powell on his 5th round jump. It was immediately clear that it was huge jump. The board showed the jump was legal, but Powell nervously awaited the measurement, and burst in elation when the scoreboard read 8.95 meters, 5 cm past the world record. It was legal and at sea level. After 23 years Beamon's record was broken.
But the competition still wasn't over. Carl Lewis still had two jumps left, and few onlookers doubted he had the ability to go even further. His 5th round jump was a legal 8.87, which is still today the 3rd longest jump in history. His final jump was 8.84, again legal and the still the 5th longest jump in history. Altogether Lewis and Powell had combined to make three of the five longest jumps in history and 5 of the 10 longest measured jumps in history. (5 of the 7 longest at the time). Powell had set the world record, while for his part Lewis had made 4 jumps over 8.80, the best long jump series ever.
After 1991 no person would ever jump further than 8.74 meters. Lewis and Powell would face each other again in an much anticipated rematch at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Lewis won gold at 8.67 meters, while Powell's silver jump of 8.64 would have won every subsequent Olympics. Since then no jumper has challenged Powell's mark. Powell himself would make wind-aided jumps of 8.95 and 8.99 (the longest measured jump in history), both at a course in Sestriere Italy, famous for wind and altitude conditions favorable to athletes.
Given the era they competed in, there will always be questions about whether Powell and Lewis' jumps were doped. According to the testing of the time both were competing legally. Carl Lewis has admitted to testing positive earlier in his career though Mike Powell has never come under direct suspicion and his vigorously defended his record has legitimate. It's clear today's jumpers are jumping well short of Powell, Beamon and Lewis. The young talent Jarrion Lawson made 2016's best jump at the US Olympic trials of 8.58 meters. Hopefully one day he'll emerge as someone who can contend with the record book. But for now Powell can rest easy.