Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the men’s jumps
Even if Carl Lewis had been solely a long jumper, he would still lay claim to being one of the greatest ever track and field Olympians. But his additional achievements in the 100m, 200m and relay make him not only the greatest athletics Olympian of all time, but the greatest ever athlete of the modern era, period.
With 10 Olympic medals – nine of them gold – and eight gold medals from the World Championships, it is a justifiable claim.
As a young college athlete in 1980, aged just 19, Lewis qualified for the US Olympic team in both the long jump and the 100m, but the US boycott of those Games meant that he was denied a chance of a potential medal in Moscow.
Lewis’s most significant breakthrough came in 1981, when – still a teenager – he jumped a wind-assisted 8.73m and a wind-legal 8.62m at the US Championships to set a world age-19 best. It was also the best jump ever at sea-level, with Bob Beamon’s altitude-assisted world record of 8.90m being the only better jump in history at that time.
Lewis also reduced his 100m PB to 10.00 – the third-fastest performance ever at the time, and he ended the year ranked No.1 in both events. A new star had emerged.
People quickly drew comparisons to Jesse Owens, and Lewis underlined those parallels at the inaugural World Championships in 1983, winning gold medals in the 100m (10.07), long jump (8.55m) and 4x100m relay (37.86), the latter being the first world record of Lewis’s career.
In a bid to match Owens’ feat of four gold medals at one Olympics, Lewis decided in 1984 that he would go for all four titles at the Los Angeles Games.
Lewis began his Olympic quest in fine form, winning the 100m title in 9.99. Aware of his packed schedule, Lewis then played it safe in the long jump final by just taking two attempts, his first-round leap of 8.54m being easily enough to wrap up the gold.
He won his third gold medal in the 200m with an Olympic record of 19.80. He rounded off his historic week on a high, anchoring the USA to victory in the 4x100m with a world record of 37.83.
The next two years saw the emergence of a man who would go beyond being simply a rival to Lewis; he became his nemesis. Canada’s Ben Johnson won the bronze medal behind Lewis at the 1984 Games, but he returned stronger the following year and notched up a defeat over Lewis. By 1986, Johnson was the world’s No.1 sprinter.
Lewis regained his top form in 1987, but in the 100m at least it was not good enough to defeat Johnson at the World Championships. Lewis’s performance of 9.93 at that event tied the previous world record, but Johnson had finished more than a metre ahead with a world record of 9.83. Lewis rebounded with gold medals in the long jump (8.67m) and 4x100m (37.90), and he was determined to gain revenge on Johnson at the following year’s Olympics.
As had happened in Rome the year before, Johnson finished ahead of Lewis in the 1988 Olympic 100m final, clocking a world record 9.79 to Lewis’s 9.92. But in what became one of the most infamous sporting moments in history, Johnson tested positive days later and Lewis was handed the gold medal. Lewis was also retroactively awarded the 100m gold medal from the 1987 World Championships.
Before all of that transpired, however, Lewis had the long jump final to concentrate on. He opened proceedings with 8.41m before producing four more jumps in excess of 8.50m, his best of the day being 8.72m – despite taking off way behind the board – and it was easily enough to win gold.
Lewis was unable to match his four golds from the previous Games and had to settle for silver in the 200m while the US 4x100m team was disqualified in the rounds. But in the aftermath of the Johnson scandal, Lewis’s 100m time of 9.92 was declared to be the official world record.
Despite losing his No.1 world ranking in the sprints in the years that followed Seoul, Lewis maintained his unbeaten streak in the long jump. US team-mate Leroy Burrell broke Lewis’s 100m world record in June 1991 with 9.90, but it did not last long.
Lewis was at his all-time peak in 1991 and regained his 100m world record when winning the world title that year in 9.86. He also hit top form in the long jump and set a lifetime best of 8.87m at the World Championships, but in one of the greatest athletics duels of all-time, he lost out on the gold – and the world record – to fellow American Mike Powell, who won with 8.95m. It was Lewis’s first defeat in the long jump since February 1981, ending an incredible 65-meet winning streak that spanned more than ten years.
In a rematch of the previous year’s World Championships final, Lewis exacted his revenge over Powell at the 1992 Olympics. He piled on the pressure in the first round with 8.67m and the tactic worked. Powell responded in the final two rounds with 8.53m and 8.64m, but it was not enough to stop Lewis winning his seventh Olympic gold medal. Lewis was not quite done there and added another gold to his collection in the 4x100m, setting a world record of 37.40 to boot with an incredible anchor leg.
At the 1993 World Championships, Lewis finished fourth in the 100m and third in the 200m in 19.99, which was to be the final championship medal he would win on the track.
In contrast to the previous two seasons, Lewis was in relatively good form for the Atlanta Olympics, unlike rivals Powell and Ivan Pedroso. Lewis – who had only finished third at the US Trials – summoned all of his competitive spirit in the Olympic final to fly out to 8.50m in the third round. It was 21cm better than anyone else that day and equalled the world age-35 best – an outstanding accomplishment for an athlete who had also set a world age-best as a 19-year-old.
It was a fitting end to his championship career and Lewis retired in 1997. He has been named “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated magazine, and “World Athlete of the Century” by the IAAF.
No other man has successfully defended an Olympic 100m or long jump title. Discus thrower Al Oerter is the only other person aside from Lewis to win four successive Olympic gold medals in one athletics event, while Lewis’s tally of nine track and field Olympic gold medals has only been matched by Paavo Nurmi.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
The Soviet athlete succeeded Polish triple jump star Jozef Schmidt as Olympic champion in 1968, setting a world record of 17.39m. He went on to win Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976. Aged 34 and dogged with injury, Saneyev won Olympic silver in 1980 with a last-round leap of 17.24m.
A prodigious talent as a teenager, Sotomayor was forced to miss the 1984 and 1988 Olympics through the Cuban boycott. He finally made his Olympic debut in 1992 and did not disappoint, winning gold. Improved his own world record to 2.45m in 1993 and won Olympic silver in 2000.
The British triple jumper was a relatively late developer, but made up for it at the 1995 World Championships by winning gold with a world record of 18.29m. Despite jumping 17.88m at the 1996 Olympics, Edwards was beaten by USA’s Kenny Harrison. But four years later, at the age of 34, Edwards finally won gold at the Sydney Games.
The Ukrainian pole vaulter was better known for his world records and world titles than he was for his Olympic exploits, but amid his four Olympic appearances, he managed to come away with gold. The world record-holder missed the 1984 Games through the Soviet boycott, but struck gold in Seoul four years later. In 1992 he blundered in the final and failed to register a height, while in Atlanta he was hit by an Achilles injury. He competed at the 2000 Games but at age 37 was past his best and never seriously challenged.
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