Jeff Henderson claimed Olympic gold in the long jump Saturday night. He’s the first American to win that event since 2004, though the U.S. has won long jump gold 22 of the 28 times it’s been contested at the Olympics. And this is probably the first time you’re hearing his name.
That’s because—despite the event featuring late drama and two Americans battling the reigning champ, Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford, for the title—NBC barely paid attention to the event, airing only a handful of jumps on television. Henderson came into the final round in third place, and his winning jump of 8.38m went just a centimeter past runner-up Luvo Manyonga, who is coming off a suspension for abusing crystal meth. Rutherford took third, blaming a judging cock-up for his failure to defend the gold medal. Jarrion Lawson, who this year became only the second athlete to win the 100m-200m-long jump triple at the NCAA tournament—Jesse Owens was the other—dragged his hand to foul what would have been the winning jump in the final round. He finished fourth.
That’s a lot of drama, and NBC lives for drama. But viewers, apparently, don’t live for long jump. That may be jarring for readers of a certain age to realize, as the long jump was once a marquee event. So what happened?
The answer may be very simple: that Mike Powell’s record has edged against the limit of human potential, leading fewer athletes to take interest in ever challenging it—a negative feedback loop of fewer elite athletes competing in long jump and less television time being dedicated to it.
Four-time Olympic long jump champion Carl Lewis says the state of American long jumping is “pathetic” and that U.S. men’s track is stuck in a “culture of mediocrity.” (Mike Powell has reportedly expressed the same sentiments.) Lewis, currently an assistant coach at the University of Houston, might as well be talking about the event in general. Henderson’s winning jump of 8.38m ranks as the 344th-longest long jump of all time. Lawson’s leap of 8.58m at the U.S. Olympic trials is the best jump this decade; it only ranks 61st all-time.
Only one jump this century is in the top 10 all-time, and it’s Dwight Phillips reaching 8.74m at the 2009 Prefontaine Classic. This is despite years of a trend toward increased specialization among athletes. The 1991 world championships in Tokyo are remembered for Mike Powell breaking Bob Beamon’s 23-year-old long jump record, but Carl Lewis became the Fastest Man Alive just five days earlier—and not only leapt past Beamon with a wind-aided 8.91m seconds before Powell’s record-breaker, but claimed the third-longest legal leap (8.87m) right after that.
We are now two weeks away from the 25th anniversary of Powell’s feat, which was far from anomalous. (Powell holds six of the other 50 longest jumps all-time.) Yet the mystique of the impossible—a 1977 paper by sports medicine pioneer Ernst Jokl argued that Beamon’s record would never be beaten—that made long jump so appealing in the 1980s is completely lacking. In a few months, Powell will have held his record longer than even Jesse Owens, whose 8.13m mark stood for more than 25 years until Ralph Boston bested it in 1960, did. Only three events have longer-lasting records than the long jump: discus, shot put, and hammer throw.
It’s tempting to consider the record untouchable by legitimate means; the curve of long jump all-time records looks remarkably similar to that of the home run rate during baseball’s steroids era. But there’s no evidence to suggest Powell or Lewis were doping, other than very low levels of stimulants in Lewis’s system; even if they were doping, there’s no less evidence that today’s top track stars are, too.
Beamon’s record stood as long as it did because it was a superhuman achievement, aided by the perfect conditions of elevation and weather. He surpassed the previous record by almost two feet. Mike Powell did the impossible in beating it, and it seems the status quo wisdom is that his feat either can’t be repeated, or it’s not worth the effort to do so.
Jarrion Lawson is only 22 years old, and probably has several more Olympics ahead of him. But the person who will truly challenge for Powell’s record may not even be jumping yet, and as long as NBC continues to ignore the event and its history, he’s probably not going to be American.