109 – Long jump world champion 2007

In all athletics events except one, the world record from 39 years ago is well below the general standard of current leading competition, but in long jump, the opposite is true.

Long-time readers of Pannell Discussions know of my fascination with the long jump world record, particularly in the wake of Bob Beamon’s superhuman jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. See the incredible story here.

Last week at the World Athletics Championships in Osaka, there was a terrific long jump competition. Irving Saladino from Panama grabbed first place on the very last jump of the competition (which takes hours, not just the 5-10 minutes worth we see on television). I would have felt sorry for second placed Andrew Howe from Italy if he (and his mother in the stands) hadn’t gone so totally off the scale with celebrations when he snuck ahead of Saladino by one cm just before that. Howe looked much more sober after Saladino’s last jump.

For me, one of the key points of interest in watching big athletics events is to see how the world’s best long jumpers compare to the mark that Bob Beamon set in 1968. Last week, as usual, they didn’t get anywhere near it. It has been beaten once, by Mike Powell in 1991, but for the past decade or so, nobody has come close to it. In a sport where a few centimetres usually makes the difference between first and second place, Beamon’s monster leap of 8.90 metres would have won the world championship last week by 33 cm – more than a foot! In old measures, Saladino jumped less than 28 feet, but Beamon jumped more than 29 feet.

In 1968, Beamon broke the then world record by almost two feet – surely the biggest percentage improvement in an athletics record since the very early days of record keeping, and making this jump one of the greatest physical feats in human history. In Osaka last week, only two of the competitors actually exceeded the record that had stood prior to the Mexico Olympics. The rest of the competitors didn’t get within 2 feet of Beamon.

It may be some consolation to modern long jumpers to know that Beamon himself never got within two feet of the record again. It was a freakish one-off.

This story is fascinating because it is so starkly different to all the other athletics events. In other events, the world record from 1968 is far below the general standard of current leading competition, but in long jump it is exactly the opposite.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia