Wednesday, 11 April 2012

J is for... Jumping

“Who can jump the furthest?” To the untrained eye it can appear one of athletics' simplest questions; after all, how hard can it be to run and jump as far as you can? However the long jump is a surprisingly technical event, with the top competitors possessing a high degree of skill, on top of an impressive amount of speed, strength and agility.

In competition, long jumpers usually have 3 attempts to achieve their furthest leap, with the best competitors at this stage receiving an additional 3 jumps. Male long jumpers can leap almost as far as 9 metres, although any jump in excess of 8.50 m will win most competitions. Whilst female long jumpers can get out to distances approaching 7.50 m, with any jump exceeding 7 metres considered world class.

The technical aspect of a long jump

A Japanese athlete showing good form in the air
The long jump consists of 4 stages:

The approach – in which the athlete gradually accelerates to a maximum velocity over about 20 strides

The last two strides – in which the athlete prepares their body for takeoff, whilst aiming to preserve as much speed as possible

The takeoff – in which the athlete attempts to create a vertical impulse through their centre of gravity, whilst maintaining balance and control

Action in the air and landing – in which the athlete attempts to combat the forward rotation experienced from take-off, before landing in the most efficient manner possible

The long jumper must ensure their run up is carefully measured, to make sure they don’t have to shorten their strides to takeoff from the correct position (keep in mind that the last stride is naturally shorter anyway). The distance they jump is measured from the front of the board they’re supposed to jump behind, so it’s important that they get as close to the front as possible, without overstepping their mark. The landing of the jump is also crucial, with jumpers ideally landing with enough forward momentum so that their body follows their feet into the sand, without making their jump shorter by entering the sand at a lesser distance than their feet. 

Bob Beamon’s leap for the ages

In 1960 Ralph Boston broke Jesse Owens’ 21-year old long jump world record by setting a new mark of 8.20 metres. That record was gradually improved upon over the next 7 years, with the world record standing at 8.35 metres before the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Going into the Games Bob Beamon was the form jumper in the world, having won 22 of his previous 23 meets. However, whilst he had actually exceeded the world record with a jump of 8.39 metres (ineligible for the record books due to high wind), no-one could have predicted what would happen next.

Beamon almost didn’t qualify for the final of the event, overstepping the mark on his first two jumps, before he conservatively re-measured his run-up to ensure his progress. With Beamon set to jump fourth, the first three jumpers in the final all faulted. The stage was set and Beamon duly delivered, jumping further than any man had ever before; further than most people at the time thought was even possible! Whilst the slight tailwind and the high altitude were in his favour, Beamon had also leapt beautifully, finally fulfilling the enormous potential all of his competitors knew he held.

Bob Beamon soaring through the air
Before the tournament there had been talk of whether Bob Beamon might be the first jumper to surpass the magical mark of 28 feet, with the old record standing at just below 27 ½ feet. It was clear that he had passed the old record with this jump, but no-one was sure of the distance for a while, with the new measuring device being too short to measure the distance. When the distance of 8.90 metres finally appeared on the scoreboard Beamon, only used to non-metric distances, wasn’t sure what it meant. When he was told that he’d not only passed 28 feet, but also 29 feet, he was overcome with emotion, barely able to comprehend his achievement.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Beamon’s great leap was that it could’ve been even better. He grounded his bottom before the mark his feet made in the sand, and his momentum upon landing was such that he leapt forward on completion. However his remarkable record still stood for another 23 years, until a famous night of jumping in Tokyo…

Carl Lewis & Mike Powell do battle

Carl Lewis - unbeaten in the long jump for almost a decade
Carl Lewis was the golden boy of American athletics, dominating both the sprint events and the long jump for much of the 80s and into the early 90s. Heading into the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo he was considered almost unbeatable in the long jump, having won his past 81 competitions and claiming two Olympic gold medals and two world championships along the way. Mike Powell was expected to be Lewis’ closest competitors, but having lost his previous 15 meetings with Lewis, and with the lesser-known American’s personal best of 8.66 m some 13 cm short of Lewis’ best, he would have to do something special to cause an upset.

Lewis, full of confidence from his recent 100 m gold medal and world record, got off to a good start by jumping 8.68 m with his first effort, whilst Powell’s best effort in the early rounds was 8.54 m on his second jump. Lewis then increased his mark with his third jump, with a wind-assisted effort pushing him to within 7 cm of Beamon’s famous mark as he recorded a 8.83 jump. Powell now knew he would have to push himself to a new level to challenge Lewis, and in the fourth round he almost landed the perfect jump, soaring close to 9 metres. He raised his arms triumphantly, before the official raised the red flag to indicate a foul jump. Powell screamed in anguish, before he was shown the tiny mark in the plasticine which showed how he’d marginally overstepped his mark.

Lewis had been intently watching Powell’s last effort, and sensed that despite his foul this competition wasn’t yet over. Lewis set off down the track for his fourth round jump, hitting the board perfectly and climbing high into the night sky. Despite being momentarily disappointed when the wind gauge showed a level of +2.9 m/s level (making his jump illegal in terms of record books), he celebrated when the scoreboard showed he’d passed Beamon’s mark by 1 cm, recording a new world’s best of 8.91 m.

Mike Powell celebrates his new record
Powell wasn’t beaten yet though, and as he lined up for his fifth jump you could see him uttering words to himself under his breath. He had a steely focus in his eyes as he started his run-up, gaining impressive momentum as he hit the board and soared through the air. Powell immediately celebrated, but wasn’t sure if he’d done enough to beat Lewis’ jump. The wind gauge showed that the jump was legal at +0.3 m/s, several seconds before the distance appeared for the world to see: 9.95 m! Powell teared down the track in celebration, whilst Lewis looked sternly on, composing himself for his next jump. Despite two impressive jumps of 8.87 m and 8.84 m in the final two rounds, Lewis was a beaten man for the first time in almost a decade. He’d recorded the most remarkable set of jumps ever seen – passing 8.80 m on four occasions – but his opponent had made the jump of his life to set a new world record and beat him.

Even though I was only 8 at the time, I still vividly remember this epic duel between two great athletes in Tokyo. Whilst there’s always something fascinating about watching one great athlete excel – as Beamon did in 1968 – there’s something extra special about watching two fierce competitors pushing each other to new levels. I hope that we’ll get to experience some similarly captivating moments at this year’s Olympic Games...

1 comment:

  1. great post. you should have words with some of our science & maths authors about how they can actually make the science of sport interesting :)

    really enjoying your a-z posts evan.