Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the women’s jumps
Not many child prodigies will go on to have a successful senior career. Of the ones who do, very few will continue competing well into their thirties. And an even smaller number of those former young stars will still be winning global titles at the age of 35.
But Heike Drechsler is one such exception. Without doubt, the German athlete is the greatest female long jumper of all-time and her career is astonishing for its longevity as well as brilliance.
An outstanding young talent, Drechsler (née Daute) set world age-bests at the ages of 15 (6.64m), 16 (6.91m), 17 (6.98m), 18 (7.14m) and 19 (7.40m). At 16 years old, she also showed a glimpse of her all-round prowess by setting a world junior heptathlon record of 5891.
In 1983, already an established talent at age 18, she became the youngest ever field event winner at the World Championships, taking the long jump gold with a wind-assisted 7.27m.
She would have been heavily favoured to follow that world gold with the same colour medal at the next year’s Olympics, had it not been for the Eastern Bloc boycott. Still a teenager, by the end of the year her personal best was 7.40m, just three centimetres shy of the world record, and half a metre farther than the winning leap from the Los Angeles Olympics.
Drechsler continued her rapid rise in 1985 by setting her first world record, leaping 7.44m. The following year the 21-year-old set two long jump world records, both at 7.45m, and rediscovered her sprinting talent by equalling team-mate Marita Koch’s 200m world record of 21.71 twice, the second occasion being when winning gold at the European Championships.
1987 started well for Drechsler, winning the European indoor long jump title as well as world indoor golds in the long jump and 200m, the latter with a world indoor record of 22.27. But in the years leading up to Drechsler’s world long jump title defence, a new rival had emerged on the other side of the Atlantic. USA’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee had been making waves in both the heptathlon and long jump, becoming the first woman to break 7000 points in the multi-event discipline and establishing herself as a regular seven-metre jumper.
Now an established sprinter, Drechsler went to the Rome World Championships in 1987 in pursuit of two gold medals, in the 100m and the long jump. But she came away with silver in the 100m and bronze in her speciality event, as Joyner-Kersee – who had equalled Drechsler’s 7.45m world record just weeks before the championships – won both the long jump and heptathlon.
Drechsler upped the ante in 1988 when she finally made her Olympic debut and set out to win three gold medals. Although she came away from the Seoul Games with three medals – 100m bronze, 200m bronze and long jump silver – none of them were the colour medal that Drechsler was after.
Drechsler took a break in 1989 during which time she gave birth to her son, but she swiftly returned in 1990 and successfully defended her long jump title with a leap of 7.30m. Then at the 1991 World Championships, Drechsler renewed her rivalry with Joyner-Kersee, but the American once again gained the edge, winning by three centimetres with 7.32m.
As Drechsler headed in to the 1992 season, her 1983 world long jump title remained her only global outdoor gold. She had picked up six further world and Olympic medals since then, but none were gold. The Barcelona Olympics was her chance to cement her dominance of the event, and she didn’t let the opportunity pass by.
Earlier that year Drechsler had equalled her 7.48m lifetime best. In her final competition before Barcelona, Drechsler recorded the farthest ever jump in the history of the event, flying out to 7.63m in the altitude of Sestriere. It was 11cm better than the world record, but with a tailwind of 2.1m/s – marginally over the allowable limit – it could not stand for official record purposes.
But that near miss proved to be the perfect motivation ahead of the Barcelona Games, and in a close long jump final Drechsler won Olympic gold with 7.14m.
In 1993 Drechsler regained the world long jump and followed it up with another European gold in 1994. At the end of that season she returned to her multi-event roots and turned her hand to the heptathlon, proving an instant hit with a world-leading 6741.
Drechsler was met with mixed fortunes in the mid-to-late Nineties. She was out of the medals at the 1995 and 1997 World Championships, while injury prevented her from competing at the Atlanta Olympics. It looked as though the athletics world had seen the best of Drechsler.
She rebounded in 1998 with her fourth successive European title, jumping 7.16m, but was struck by injury again in 1999.
Drechsler got back in shape in 2000, but by this time USA’s Marion Jones had become one of the biggest stars of the sport and in Sydney she was on a ‘drive for five’ gold medals – including the long jump.
Drechsler, the oldest competitor in the long jump final by four years, found herself in trouble after two rounds, sitting in eighth place with 6.48m. But she then nailed a good jump in the third round to break the sand at 6.99m – her best jump of the year and good enough to win gold.
Just a few months short of her 36th birthday, Drechsler had won her second Olympic title. Her 6.99m was also a world age-35 best, underlining the outstanding longevity of an athlete who was setting world age bests as a 15-year-old.
In terms of numbers, Drechsler absolutely dominates the long jump like no other athlete ever has done in any other track and field event. Of the top 500 jumps of all time, Drechsler owns almost half of them (248). She has broken seven metres in 154 competitions, and including ancillary and wind-assisted marks she has more than 400 seven-metre jumps!
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
As a teenager the Romanian finished fifth at the 1956 Olympics, but she went on to dominate the high jump like no other. Between 1957 and 1966, Balas won 150 consecutive competitions – including Olympic gold in 1960 and 1964 – and she broke the world record 14 times, raising it from 1.75m to 1.91m.
Competing in front of a home crowd at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the German high jumper won a surprise gold with a world record of 1.92m, despite being just 16 years old at the time. Soon after her career took a downward turn, but she made a sensational comeback in the Eighties to break the world record in 1982 and 1983, before winning the 1984 Olympic title.
After silvers at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships, the triple jumper from Cameroon was the bridesmaid of the event. But she struck gold in 2004, winning with an Olympic record of 15.30m. After a few down years, she recaptured her best ever form to win another gold in 2008, again improving on the Olympic record with 15.39m.
The Russian has set numerous world records in the pole vault and was the outstanding favourite to win Olympic gold in 2004. She duly delivered, setting a world record to boot, and replicated the feat four years later in Beijing with another gold and world record.
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