Olympics: The Long Jump

To the delight of the home crowd, the Olympic long jump was won by a red-haired Englishman named Greg Rutherford, whose great-grandfather was a prominent soccer player before WWI. Rutherford`s winning leap of 27` 3.25″ was the shortest gold medal leap since 1972. 

The long jump has a lot of mythology about it because its records are rarely broken. Jesse Owens` 1935 record lasted into the mid-1950s, Bob Beamon`s 1968 record lasted until 1991, and the current record is 21 years old and is in no danger. Even lower level records sometimes last a long time. I can recall in the early 1970s hearing on the radio that a Southern California junior college long jumper had broken the national JuCo record that had been held since the late 1930s by Jackie Robinson. The future Brooklyn Dodger was the  long jump favorite heading toward the 1940 Olympics that got called off.

A few days ago, Josh Levin had an interesting article in Slate about why long jumping winning marks have fallen since the 1991 World Championship in Tokyo when Carl Lewis jumped 29` three times in a row and lost to Mike Powell`s world record of 29`4″, which broke Bob Beamon`s famous 1968 record by a couple of inches.

In contrast, the men`s 100m dash was broken as recently as 2009 by Usain Bolt.

Obviously, as Levin notes, better drug testing has brought long jumpers back to earth.

Also, it has become rare for the top 100m dash men to also long jump, the way Owens in 1936 and Lewis in 1984 won four gold medals by combining the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, with the long jump. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that local peculiarities matter a lot in famous records. Beamon broke the existing record by 22″ at the Mexico City Olympics, and about half of that margin was due to the thin air at 7300 feet altitude. (It was still an astonishing leap, but lots of other long-lasting records were set in Mexico City due to the altitude.) 

In Tokyo in 1991, like in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 where Michael Johnson set a famous sprint record, the track surfaces were made super-hard to encourage records in the explosive events. (Hard surfaces are good for sprinters and long jumpers, bad for distance runners, who get beaten up by them.) Carl Lewis set a world record of 9.86 in the 100m, leading an unprecedented six runners across the finish line in under ten seconds. But, as Levin notes, 100m times have continued to fall because it`s a glamor event with a fair amount of money involved, while the long jump has lost its glamor status. 

The long jump is really hard to do well. The ideal long jumper is both the world`s fastest man (Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis), a great athlete, a technician, and a little lucky, too. Lewis was hardly an unlucky man overall, but he never held the long jump world record because Beamon and Powell had a little more luck at the perfect moments.

With the rare, storied exceptions of Jesse Owens v. Luz Long in 1936 and Lewis v. Powell in 1991, long jump competitions tend to be anti-climactic and frustrating for audiences. A lot of leaps turns out to be fouls and the standard practice is not even to measure fouls, such as on the legendary 1982 jump that Lewis claimed might have been 30 feet.

A typical anti-climactic performance is Lewis at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. He comes out, jumps 28 feet on his first try, then figures that in the cool damp L.A. night time air, nobody else is going to come within a foot of that and he needs to conserve energy for the rest of his busy schedule. So he packs it in for the night to boos from instant experts who wanted him to pursue Beamon`s record (even though Lewis was likely a lot better judge of what he was capable of at the moment than anybody else in the Coliseum).