Sense of Something Special Happening Charged the Air
I wasn’t at Mexico City’s Olympics in 1968, when Bob Beamon set a world record in the long jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches that lasted for 23 years until Friday night, when Mike Powell, who seemed only marginally more suited for immortality than the previously unheralded Beamon, shattered it.
But from everything I’ve read and heard, it seems as if the weather conditions were almost the same. There were thunderclouds, ready at any moment to drench the 60,000 or so spectators in the National Stadium; the air was so thick with humidity that a javelin could barely pierce it and the wind seemed to be gusting from every direction at once.
There was no lightning, but there was electricity in the air. Perhaps because of the similarity to the conditions at Mexico City, there was anticipation of an approaching phenomenon that had nothing to do with Typhoon No. 14, which slammed into Tokyo in the early morning hours Saturday.
Like almost everyone else, I assumed the atmosphere was being stirred for Carl Lewis. He, after all, has been lurking around Beamon’s record for a decade. And in qualifying Thursday, it appeared that he might have finally snatched it until the red flag was raised, indicating a foul.
That was a tease. The record would still be there for him a day later when it counted--in the final. I wonder if Lewis ever gave it a moment’s thought that someone other than him might break the record. Powell certainly did, confessing that he had fantasized about it since he became a long jumper seven years ago as a freshman at UC Irvine.
And it was Powell, not Lewis, who soared with the eagles.
“I don’t want to say anything, but . . . ,” said Times colleague Mike Kennedy, the sort of track fan who goes to these major meets on vacation, as he looked across the field at the mark Powell had made in the pit.
“But what?” I asked.
“But I think he’s got it,” he said.
What Powell had was a jump of 29 feet 4 1/2 inches, two inches beyond Beamon’s record and almost a foot farther than his previous best of 28-5.
Who would have thought it?
His coach, Randy Huntington, for one.
“I was at the German beer house in Seoul in 1988 when I met Bob Beamon,” Huntington said as he stood at the back of the room during a news conference for the long jump medalists. “I told him, ‘I’m the guy who coaches the guy who’s going to break your record.’ ”
What was Beamon’s response?
“He looked at me like I’d had one too many,” Huntington said. “He thought I was hallucinating.”
Powell, 27, was born in Philadelphia and moved to West Covina with his family when he was 11. He played basketball and high jumped at Edgewood High, and his jumping talent earned him a place on Irvine’s track team in 1981.
Three years later, having become a long jumper in the interim, the closest he could get to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles was as a driver for a Swedish radio network that was covering the Games. He transferred to UCLA for his final year of eligibility, but he believed his career was stalled until 1987, when the world record-holder in the triple jump, Willie Banks, introduced him to Huntington.
A former assistant coach at Oregon and Cal, Huntington liked what he saw.
“I told him that he had the world record in him,” he said. “If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have said it. I’d never try to fool an athlete. We had a three- to five-year program for the world record, and this is the fourth year.”
Powell qualified for the U.S. team at Seoul in 1988 by finishing third in the trials, no small accomplishment considering he had undergone an emergency appendectomy only six weeks before, and he brought home a silver medal.
After the Olympics, Huntington went to work as a research consultant and training specialist for a company in Fresno that manufactures pneumatic weights for body building and rehabilitation. Among his clients in the last year have been Wayne Gretzky and Michael Chang. Huntington speaks regularly by telephone to Powell, who trains at Mt. San Antonio College.
As he talked to reporters, Huntington wore an identity badge that belonged to a coach from American Samoa. He had to borrow it to get into the section near the long jump pit, where most of the other coaches were sitting. Lewis’ coach, Tom Tellez, had a badge because he is the U.S. men’s coach here.
During the competition, Tellez sent notes to an intermediary on the field, who passed them to Lewis. It is questionable whether that is legal, and, when asked about it by reporters, Lewis became defensive.
“In fairness to Carl, we’re all up there sending signals to our athletes like third base coaches,” Huntington said.
But Huntington, 37, tried to de-emphasize his role as coach. He said maturity has been as much a factor in Powell’s progress as anything his coach has done.
“When I first worked with him, all he did was watch MTV,” he said. “Now, he watches the Financial News Network. He’s matured so much. He’s a man now.”
He no doubt will have a need for financial news. Besides the $55,000 bonus his world record earned him from his sponsor, his price will go up on the lucrative European circuit. And there might not be a huge endorsement market for him in the United States, but Japan is fertile ground for track and field athletes.
There also are certain perks that will accompany his new status as the man who broke Beamon’s record.
“It’s been very difficult to compete against Carl,” Huntington said. “When he went to Europe, he’d fly for two hours on the Concorde and stay in the finest hotels. Mike would fly all day and stay wherever he was told to stay. It was two different worlds.”
For at least one night, they were in the same world, and Lewis, despite his greatest performance, three jumps over 29 feet, ended up on the bottom of it. Typhoon No. 14 was still in its approach pattern, but Lewis, like virtually everyone who witnessed Powell’s record, already had been blown away.