Mike Powell, the owner of the 25-year-old World record in long jump (8.95m), is best known for his duel with the legendary Carl Lewis at the 1991 World Championship in Tokyo. Lewis had three of the best jumps of his career and one wind-aided attempt beyond Bob Beamon’s World record of 8.90m, but still finished second to Powell.
Powell, who was in Bengaluru recently as the Brand Ambassador of TCS World 10k, interacted with a select group of journalists.
Question: Twenty-five years on… did you think your record would survive that long?
Answer: No way. I did not think it would last 20 minutes, let alone 25 years. I thought Carl was going to come and jump right after. But it shouldn’t last this long. It’s not good for the event. Records are meant to be broken.
What do you think is the reason?
I had to break it to win. It’s easier to do something when you have to. If you get into a fight with Mike Tyson, he might beat you up, but if you have to beat up Tyson to save your kids, I bet you’ll beat him up then. That is the way I tried to compete. I got a chance to watch Carl and all the other jumpers who were doing more than 8.15, 8.16. So, I learnt what they were doing.
It’s a hard record to break. The long jump has always been this way. From 1900, Peter O’Connor had the record for 21 years. Jesse Owens had the record for 25 years. Bob Beamon for 23 years and I have had it for 25 years. To me, the long jump is the hardest event to do on the track. You have to have a sprinter’s speed and then go up in the air with it and land safely. No other event is like that where you go full speed and throw your body in the air. It is very difficult to get that transition from horizontal speed to vertical lift. That, rather than speed, is the trick.
What were the factors that made you and Carl Lewis jump big?
Carl had just broken the World record in 100m. And the key to jumping long is running fast. I had to break the record to beat him! Then on top of that, I hated Carl. He was my idol at first, but after I started competing, I thought I had to demonise this guy. So, if he didn’t speak to me, I would be like ‘He didn’t speak to me.’ If he did, I would be like, ‘He said this to me.’ Whatever he did, he was my enemy. When we came to the competition, he was fired up. I was angry at everything because nobody thought I could do it.
It’s funny because we are friends now. But I really hated him. If we were in the same room, I thought we were going to fight. These guys now are all friends and nice. ‘I am trying to kill you, I am trying to eat your kids. I am not taking any prisoners’… That’s how I competed. I’m crazy, I guess. But I am proud of it though.
Lewis had three jumps better than you did. Could you have done what you did without him pushing you?
I was on a mission. The World Championship was a statement about my life. For, everybody who called me skinny, turned me down for a date, it was my moment of saying ‘Uhhh’ and ‘yeahh’. That was for Carl too.
I first believed that I could break the World record in 1983. In 1989, in our national championships, I had a foul jump. It was so close to being a fair one. It was later measured to be 8.90. I knew it was a matter of time. With Carl, I had to do it to win the competition. He set the standard. I believe that I had to be that good that night.
He was the man! He was the guy in the sport. But to me, I looked at him like another guy to beat. He happens to be one of the best ever. But if he can do it, I can do it. I remember the movie called ‘The Edge’. Anthony Hopkins I think. He says in the movie, ‘What one man can do, another can do’. That’s true. So, I don’t put anything past myself or with anybody else.
And Larry Myricks, a great jumper himself, took third...
I feel sorry. Larry was great. He could have broken the World record too, but he was always up against Carl and then me. He could have been one of the greatest jumpers ever, but nobody remembers his name.
But you lost twice to Lewis in the Olympics...
It still hurts. He beat me with his mind and I allowed him to do that. He’s a master. He knew that if he got that big jump out there early, it’s hard. It’s tough to come back at 8.60m and 8.70m. Until a couple of years ago, I was so hard on myself because I didn’t get a gold medal in the Olympics. But they still say you have a World record. It’s stupid but that’s my mentality. I feel like I could have done better.
I just had to be fair to myself. I had a great and long career. I made three Olympic Games and making the team in the United States is very difficult. I’m now proud of the way I competed and thankful for the losses which made me the person I am. I have experienced big-time highs and big-time lows and I learned to stay here (points to the middle). I’m thankful that you guys want to listen to me talk about something I did 20 years ago!
Will you swap the medal for the record?
I’ll take the World record. Carl tells me this all the time, ‘Man you got that record’. And I go, ‘Man you got nine gold medals, so give me a break. You want everything? So if you give me four of those medals and I get to choose the ones that I want, then I’ll change for that.’
Daley Thompson told me something in 1996 (Atlanta) that really saved me. After I didn’t win the medal there, I was hurt. Thompson came over and said, ‘Mike, you are not measured by the gold medals, but by the World record.’
In long jump, the World record stands above the gold. Look at Greg Rutherford. He won the gold in 2012 (8.31m) and everybody is talking about him because he jumped so short! But he has something that I don’t have. That’s what bothers me. I’m like, ‘Man you got it easy!’ I had to beat that guy (Lewis). I had to break a 20-year-old World record and beat a guy who hadn’t lost for 10 years and a guy who just finished breaking the 100m record! And when I broke the record, I didn’t even know I was going to win!
When he jumped 8.91m, he ran past me going ‘yeah’. And when I jumped the World record and he was looking at me, trying to get pumped up, I was like ‘please Mr Lewis, please let me have the record. You already won everything else. Let me have my night please.’
What makes you so competitive?
I am not afraid of anybody. I once challenged Michael (Johnson) that I would beat him in 200m. I’ll challenge (Usain) Bolt too. Listen, there is no disrespect. But I competed against Carl. And beat him at his best.
So, at the age of 52, you are planning to go for the US Olympic trials. Did anybody tell you that you were mad?
Everybody! But I am serious. You don’t forget how to jump. The qualifying mark is 8.05. I might not have done distances that have been as good as they have ever been, but they are good enough to jump 8.30. I know exactly how to do it. And with that mark that you will be in contention for a medal at any Olympics. Say I am at the trials.... There is no way three people are going to beat me in any event. No way!
I have always been a competitor. I believe in what I believe. If people are going to doubt me, I’ll be like ‘How can people doubt me? I am the master of the long jump. I am the Beethoven of the long jump’. If people still doubt me, I’ll say, ‘Watch’. I don’t say things for nothing. I am going to make that team. Because I have told my daughter that daddy is going to the Olympics. That’s my biggest motivation. Fifty is not old.
Is part of the reason because jumps that are 50cm lower than yours are now good enough to win medals?
In the Olympics in 2012, 8.12 was the bronze. The reason why I am able to talk like this is because of the state of long jump. Every other event has progressed or stayed close to the mark. Sprints, 100m, 200m, you name it. But the long jump is way back. If Jesse Owens’ mark of 8.13 (World record set in 1935) can win a medal in 2012, that is unheard of. The sport is in such a pathetic state that you can count on me! There are talented guys. But they don’t know what they are doing. I was at the World Championship last year and I was like, ‘I can get all these guys’.
What do you think about doping in athletics?
I think that athletics is not treated fairly. We are the ones who bust our stars. Other sports don’t do that. And we get blamed for it!
Should Russia be allowed to compete in Rio?
No. They have been doing that for a long time. I feel sorry for a lot of athletes but there is a system. They have to break the system, change the culture and that’s going to be tough. Whenever there was a World Championship in the Soviet country, when I was there, I was like, ‘I bet you, they are going to have five or six who win and half of them are dirty.’
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