Every holder of a world record enters the Olympics knowing that
if he does not win, he will forever hear a refrain that runs
something like, "You lost? Wait a minute. You've run or jumped
better than anyone, ever. How could you lose?"
The man in these Olympics most subject to that pressure--from
without or, more insidiously, from within--was Mike Powell. In
1991 Powell not only broke the most astounding record ever--Bob
Beamon's long jump standard of 29'2 1/2", set in 1968--but also
produced his 29'4 1/2" in the greatest mano a mano battle in
field event history, defeating Carl Lewis, who also jumped his
lifetime best, 29'1 1/4", in the World Championships in Tokyo.
In one night, with one jump, Powell had ended Lewis's decade of
undefeated dominance. But because it was one night, the response
of a shocked world contained a minor key, a nagging, barely
audible Prove it, prove it, do it again, prove it.
So the 1992 Olympics took on an aura of blessed validation for
Powell. Yet in Barcelona no peace did he find, as Lewis came
back to win, and Powell finished second. So Powell came to
Atlanta a great cavity of yearning, the essence of a need that
only gold could satisfy. Gold was there for him. Halfway through
the long jump final, Lewis led, but with a modest 27'10 3/4".
However, Powell, who has struggled with his technique in the
last two seasons, kept hitting his steps wrong, either having to
chop the last two so violently that he reduced his speed, or
The curse was perhaps Lewis's distance, which seemed so
attainable. If Lewis had jumped, say, 28'8", it might have
slapped Powell into that cool, commanding realm he had entered
in Tokyo, where the knowledge of necessity had made him
deliberate and relaxed. In Atlanta, though, Powell kept pounding
away at his jumps, slamming into the board, radiating effort. On
his fifth jump he injured a groin muscle. It seemed over.
Powell, if anything, hides his weaknesses. He would never limp
to a medical attendant unless seriously hurt. But when his name
came up for his sixth and last jump, there he stood on runway's
People called out to him from the stands not to do it. The
forces of a 29-foot jump approach those needed to break bones in
the soundest of jumpers. "He's crazy," said one dumbfounded
witness. "Why would he do that?"
He could do no other. He ran. He jumped, and in midair, when he
needed to lift his legs for landing, the muscle in his groin
betrayed him, and Powell pitched forward, headfirst into the
sand. He lay there. At first, you worried that he would smother,
facedown in the sand. Then the attendant was with him, and you
could see that he was breathing by the shaking of his sobs. The
attendant didn't try to move him. She simply stroked his
shoulder gently. Her gesture contained both the wish and the
impossibility of consoling the inconsolable.
"I have never hurt more in my mind, in my body, in my heart,"
Powell would say two days later, when he was able to speak of
it. "I couldn't believe it. I was Mike Powell. This wasn't me.
Didn't I get another try?"
That thought, that mad thought, must have been what compelled
him to lift his head from the pit and ease his body over. The
sand clung to his face and made it seem that he had washed up on
a distant shore, a lone survivor of some great disaster.
There was no further try. When Mike Powell arose, it was into a
new life, bereft of the completion he desired. Those who saw his
face know he did not go there willingly.