Every holder of a world record enters the Olympics knowing that if he does not win, he will forever hear a refrain that runs something like, "You lost? Wait a minute. You've run or jumped better than anyone, ever. How could you lose?"
The man in these Olympics most subject to that pressure—from without or, more insidiously, from within—was Mike Powell. In 1991 Powell not only broke the most astounding record ever—Bob Beamon's long jump standard of 29'2½:", set in 1968—but also produced his 29'4½:" in the greatest mano a meno battle in field event history, defeating Carl Lewis, who also jumped his lifetime best, 29'1¼", in the World Championships in Tokyo.
In one night, with one jump, Powell had ended Lewis's decade of undefeated dominance. But because it was one night, the response of a shocked world contained a minor key, a nagging, barely audible Prove it, prove it, do it again, prove it.
So the 1992 Olympics took on an aura of blessed validation for Powell. Yet in Barcelona no peace did he find, as Lewis came back to win, and Powell finished second. So Powell came to Atlanta a great cavity of yearning, the essence of a need that only gold could satisfy. Gold was there for him. Halfway through the long jump final, Lewis led, but with a modest 27'10¾". However, Powell, who has struggled with his technique in the last two seasons, kept hitting his steps wrong, either having to chop the last two so violently that he reduced his speed, or fouling.
The curse was perhaps Lewis's distance, which seemed so attainable. If Lewis had jumped, say, 28'8", it might have slapped Powell into that cool, commanding realm he had entered in Tokyo, where the knowledge of necessity had made him deliberate and relaxed. In Atlanta, though, Powell kept pounding away at his jumps, slamming into the board, radiating effort. On his fifth jump he injured a groin muscle. It seemed over. Powell, if anything, hides his weaknesses. He would never limp to a medical attendant unless seriously hurt. But when his name came up for his sixth and last jump, there he stood on runway's end.
People called out to him from the stands not to do it. The forces of a 29-foot jump approach those needed to break bones in the soundest of jumpers. "He's crazy," said one dumbfounded witness. "Why would he do that?"
He could do no other. He ran. He jumped, and in midair, when he needed to lift his legs for landing, the muscle in his groin betrayed him, and Powell pitched forward, headfirst into the sand. He lay there. At first, you worried that he would smother, facedown in the sand. Then the attendant was with him, and you could see that he was breathing by the shaking of his sobs. The attendant didn't try to move him. She simply stroked his shoulder gently. Her gesture contained both the wish and the impossibility of consoling the inconsolable.
"I have never hurt more in my mind, in my body, in my heart," Powell would say two days later, when he was able to speak of it. "I couldn't believe it. I was Mike Powell. This wasn't me. Didn't I get another try?"
That thought, that mad thought, must have been what compelled him to lift his head from the pit and ease his body over. The sand clung to his face and made it seem that he had washed up on a distant shore, a lone survivor of some great disaster.
There was no further try. When Mike Powell arose, it was into a new life, bereft of the completion he desired. Those who saw his face know he did not go there willingly.