If ever there was a moment that epitomised the phrase ‘hold my beer’, this was probably it.
In 1991, at the World Championships in Tokyo, the world was bearing witness to one of the greatest clashes ever to take place in athletics. The long jump world record was broken twice in one evening as two all time greats of the sport, Mike Powell and Carl Lewis kept on pushing each other to the limit.
It all culminated in what was undoubtedly Powell’s greatest moment, when he jumped a world record of 8.95m and characterised both his and the event’s greatest moment in history.
At the time, an unbeaten Carl Lewis was aiming to add to his already bulging medal haul. Six gold medals in both the Olympics and World Championships made him the main man across the long jump and the sprints.
But that evening at the Olympic Stadium, Lewis faced the hardest ever fight in his career when he came up against his American compatriot Mike Powell.
The rivalry between Powell and Lewis is often considered one of the greatest in the sport’s history. But prior to the World Championships in Tokyo it had only been about Lewis. 15 times the two had met and 15 times Lewis had won.
But of course, Powell arrived with sheer hunger to finally come out on top against the man who was considered to be the ultimate all-round athlete. That evening Powell was, in his own words, “a man possessed”. His obsession with beating Lewis simply knew no bounds and was what kept on pushing him.
For Lewis, the world record had become his obsession. His ten year unbeaten record and Olympic golds left him with just one task before he completed the puzzle. It had been 23 years since Bob Beamon’s furthest ever 8.90m jump. However, when Lewis and Powell met in Japan, there was a feeling that the long held record was about to reach its end.
But to this day, it is not the record that remains the proudest factor for Mike Powell. For him, the record was merely just a bonus that came on the side of toppling Carl Lewis for a major international gold.
Powell always insists that, no matter what Lewis had done that evening, he was destined to come out on top. “Had Carl jumped 9 metres, I would have done 9.01.” says Powell, “I knew in my heart Carl Lewis wasn’t invincible and I had to prove it to the world…call it vanity, call it ego, it had to happen.”
With the competition reaching the fourth round, Lewis was leading the way and first to jump before Powell.
Then with his fourth effort he stormed to a staggering 8.91m jump that, despite being too windy to be the world record, still stood on the evening and left Powell needing to reach a distance he never had before.
It looked like it may have been a jump to far for Powell, with his fourth round effort ending in a foul.
But with his very next go, everything seemed to fall into place. After all the years of trying, Powell got every small factor right in just that one jump, which propelled him out of the runway and into an all-new dimension.
Then, when he finally came back down and waited for the result to be read, the shackles that had gripped him tighter and tighter each year were all of a sudden shattered into a million pieces. The board now read 8.95m, a new world record and one that, despite all of Lewis’ sheer athletic prowess, was simply too good for him to beat.
Powell had broken all sorts of barriers. He had won his first major gold medal, jumped further than ever before and broken the world record.
However, as he begins to celebrate his 55th birthday this week and looks back at what was undoubtedly his finest moment in the sport, all these factors will probably take a back seat.
His main aim all along was purely to beat the man who, for a decade, had seemed unbeatable.
This moment was not only Powell’s greatest, but the greatest for the discipline itself. Never before had two men battled it out at such a level and it is hugely unlikely that the event, or perhaps even the sport, will witness a rivalry that has pushed both competitors to such levels.
Read last week’s Throwback Thursday on Noah Ngeny here.