RIO de JANEIRO – This is the year. This is the Olympics when someone pulls off the jump. At every Olympics we see a small step forward in human achievement. That is the very essence of the Olympics, right? Citius, Altius, Fortius – faster, higher, stronger. And all that.
Every Olympics, we see records broken, maneuvers invented, minds blown. We see Simone Biles do things on a gymnastics mat that have never been done before. We see Usain Bolt run faster than the mind had ever imagined. We see Katie Ledecky leave behind the world. And have you watched volleyball? These people are doing athletic things you rarely see outside of National Geographic videos about cheetahs.
So, seriously, why can’t we as a human species jump like we used to?
Here’s the headline: Every single world jumping record, every one, is at least 20 years old. The most famous of the records, Mike Powell’s 8.95-meter long jump (roughly 29 feet, 4 inches) will turn 25 at the end of this month. The women’s long jump record is even older. The triple jump records were both set in 1995. The high jump records were set before that.
But it isn’t just that these records still stand – they have gone virtually unchallenged. The No. 1 men’s long jump in 2016 doesn’t come within a foot of Powell’s record. Athletes are just not jumping as far. People in track and field struggle to explain the lull. The most compelling theory is that jumping sports no longer draw as many of the superior athletes of track. The long jump, for instance, has a long history of having superstar athletes – Jesse Owens, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Carl Lewis, Marion Jones among others – who excelled at many different things. The theory goes that in this new age of specialization, the greatest athletes are running sprints and skipping the jumps.
Well, anyway, two Americans are focused on finally breaking through on the jumps. This is the the year. This is the Olympics.
First there’s triple jumper Christian Taylor, one of my favorite people at these Games. Taylor is a funny, thoughtful and committed athlete –and there’s a quirky twist to his story. Taylor won Olympic gold in the triple jump in London. And then, for health reasons and also because he sensed an opportunity, he decided to switch the leg that he jumps with. He had always taken off on his left leg. Now, he would jump off his right.
It was a bold, bold move. I asked him if this was a bit like a left-handed hitter winning a batting title and then becoming a right-handed hitter. He said it was more like a left-handed pitcher winning the Cy Young Award and then throwing right-handed. That would be harder. It basically took him a year to get to the point where he even felt like he could jump on the world stage, and it took even longer before he actually felt comfortable jumping.
“Were there times you thought, ‘This isn’t going to work?’” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “About 500 times every day.”
But once he got the left switch made, he saw his hopes realized: He started jumping longer. The world record of 18.29 meters (60 feet) was set in 1995 by Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards, who said it was such a perfect jump, he didn’t even feel the ground beneath him. Off his left leg, Taylor had never even broken 18 meters. But he did that Qatar in 2015 (though he did it AFTER his great rival, Cuba’s Pedro Pablo Pichardo had broken 18 meters – it still stings Taylor that he didn’t get to 18 meters first).
Then came last year’s world championships and what was billed as a great duel between Taylor and Pichardo. The duel, though, never materialized. Taylor jumped 18.21 meters (just eight stinkin’ centimeters shy of the record) and breezed to the world title. Eight centimeters. Break a pencil in half – yeah, that’s how close he was to breaking the record.
So, he has no shyness about this: He has come to the Olympics to win gold and to finally get that record.
“The reason I’m here today is because I believe I can do it,” he says. “That’s what drives me every day. For sure, a medal would be great, but selfishly, I can say, if I don’t come out with a world record, that’s on me.”
Then there’s the story of women’s long jumper Brittany Reese. USA Track and Field is clearly trying to get her more notice – they featured her prominently in their pre-Olympic news conference. And it’s true that in so many ways she has been overlooked. Between 2009 and 2013, she won literally every international long jump competition (including the London Olympics). She was just about the surest thing in track and field. Then she got hurt after the 2013 World Championships and had to fight her way to back into form.
She is now trying to become the first woman to repeat as Olympic champion.
Even in her dominance, however, she never really came close to Galina Chistyakova’s 1988 record of 7.52 meters (24 feet, 8 inches). Reese’s longest legal jump of 7.25 meters is about a foot short of that. But she too believes that this is her time. She feels healthy. She feels like her form is primed. And she says that she has had some very long fouls, including one at the Olympic Trials that she and her coach measured as a staggering 7.61 meters (just about 25 feet).
“Me and my coach we came up with this thing called three in one,” Reese says. “That is: Win the Olympics; break the Olympic record; break the world record. So that’s kind of something that I’m gunning for.”
Well, it’s time for mankind to end this jumping drought, that’s for sure. At that point we as human beings can move on to more important things like throwing the discus. Both those records are almost 30 years old.