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Carl Lewis hadn’t lost a long-jump competition in ten years. He had won 65 in a row.

His run-up was a study in technical perfection. His head still, his hands flattened, cutting through the air in high sweeps to his left and right. He rarely looked at the board as he hit it. He didn’t need to.

Mike Powell would see his lithe, bullet straight back whenever he closed his eyes. This almost effeminite man with acne on his cheeks and a body so finely tuned that it was preturnaturally disposed for running and jumping with grace and poise, like all hell, like no-one had before him.

Powell was only the second best long-jumper in the world. And Lewis was Powell’s white whale.

I remember it like it was yesterday. August 30, 1991. The second last week of the school holidays, I was thirteen, and the evening sessions of the Tokyo World Athletics Championships were broadcast live at breakfast time.

As the competition wore on, and the other jumpers drifted into the periphery, stage hands at the greatest show on earth, Lewis knew something was up. He’d just jumped the longest distance of all time, but there was a tailwind behind him, ruling it illegal.

He still celebrated. Bob Beamon’s record had stood since the Mexico Olympics in 1968. It was carved in stone. Immutable. Lewis had spent years just trying to get close.

As Powell readied himself for his final attempt Lewis sat at the end of the run-up, his tracksuit on, a large white USA across his chest, projecting a preturnatural calm. His legs straight out ahead, leaning back on his hands. Alert to everything. Trying to look like he was just there to enjoy the games.

But his eyes betrayed him.

He’d never done this before in a tournament. He was willing to use every trick at his disposal.

He sat there silently trying to unsettle Powell. One word on his lips.

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;


Lewis irritated me. He was too clean, too humourless, too driven. His endless parade of victories too inevitable.

I remember the desperate sympathy I felt for Ben Johnson when he arrived back at Pearson airport in Toronto three years earlier. He had blood shot eyes and stared at the ground as Mounties guided him through the bedlam. His mum, half his size next to him, looked bewildered.

I never forgave Lewis’ unbridled glee on discovering that he would be the 100m Olympic champion by default.

Powell bustled in his run-up. He had a thin moustache across his top lip, a gold earring in his right ear. He didn’t have the fluency of the fastest man in the world. He fought his way to the board like he was running through the tar that Lewis just glided across. His bottom teeth would overlap his top lip as he puffed out his cheeks.

He hit the board just a couple of centimetres behind the plasticine marker and he flew like only a man can fly. It was ungainly, unnatural, even. His arms spun, his legs pounded on through the air. His head fell back as he thrust his hips forward, striving, reaching over the sand.

He knew it was good as he landed but he had to wait a moment. For them to check the wind. For them to measure the jump.

When Beamon landed his “jump of the century” he had to wait almost 20 minutes for the result to come in. They weren’t prepared to measure a jump so far.

Powell’s wait wasn’t that long but, shit, it must have felt like it. Lewis looked on. And the crowd rubbed their eyes at what they had just seen, the culmination of a battle unlike any that had taken place before.

And when the result came through he bounded off along the long curve of the track, both hands clasped above his head, springing as only a professional jumper can, on the tips of his toes, never once casting his eyes back at a Lewis who was now preparing to to take his final jump. His final jump which would never be enough.

Mike Powell has still jumped further, legally, than any other man on earth.

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