Beamon boosted the long jump record by 6.59%. To rip that big a chunk from the 400 record, Evans would have had to blaze something like a 41.20. So his 43.86, far from being called an unbeatable limit, was thought to be simply the latest step in a continuing progression.
Yet only now is the human race closing in on these marks. Oddly, Beamon's has been in the most danger. Carl Lewis began landing out beyond 28'6" in 1982, and his best now is 28'10¼". He had six jumps over 28'3" at the Mt. SAC Relays in April. Then, last month, at a meet in Tsakh-kadzor, Soviet Armenia, the U.S.S.R.'s 22-year-old Robert Emmiyan became the second to go over 29 feet, with 29'1".
Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez, professes no surprise. "The thing about the long jump is that it's always possible," he says. "Based on the speed and strength of guys today, you can calculate a 30-foot jump. The key is perfect timing, which can happen just once, or be perfected, as Carl is doing." Tellez and Lewis tend to see Emmiyan, who was beaten by the U.S.'s Larry Myricks for the world indoor title, as a basic 27'6" jumper who got insanely lucky. "But at altitude [where Emmiyan was], with a given jump, the sky is the limit," says Tellez.
Lewis himself has given evidence of this. In the 1982 National Sports Festival in Indianapolis he had a jump ruled foul by an official who said that Lewis's toe had "broken the plane" of the foul line, even though his shoe left no mark in the damning clay. There is no such rule. If there had been, Beamon's record jump probably would have been a foul. By rights, Lewis's jump should have been accepted, at the very least measured, but he didn't demand a measurement under protest, and the sand was raked. A competitor, Jason Grimes, noted the point Lewis had reached. It was at least 30 feet from the takeoff board.
Meanwhile, no one has come within yards of Evans's time. Not Olympic champions Alberto Juantorena (44.26 in 1976), Viktor Markin (44.60 in 1980) or Alonzo Babers (44.27 in 1984). But last month Ohio State junior Harry (Butch) Reynolds tore through a surprising 44.10 at an invitational meet in Columbus. Five weeks later in Baton Rouge he won the NCAA meet in 44.13, for the two fastest nonaltitude times ever.
Ah, altitude; there's the rub. As the mind turns to the question of why Beamon's and Evans's marks were so enduringly good, it pounces gratefully upon that one variable. Air at Mexico City's 7,349-foot elevation is but 76% of its density at sea level. It presents less resistance to a runner's or a jumper's passage, although for a long sprinter, less air is a mixed blessing.
"During a race you felt strangely light," recalls Evans. "Your feet were quick off the ground, like there were little sparks under them. But your lungs burned, and you took a lot longer to recover. The first time I ran at altitude, Riggy got me so bad I was just trying to stay in my lane."
Riggy, an intimate of quarter-milers, is rigor mortis. He may hand you a refrigerator or a grand piano on the last turn. Quarter-milers labor their final yards while bearing the weight of a variety of animals: bears, hippos, elephants.
Of Mexico City's altitude, science's best guess is that it gives a raw speed advantage of something less than 1%. "Sports physiologists say about .3 of a second in the 400," says Evans. "I'd agree that's about it." Thus, Reynolds's 44.10 would convert to a record at altitude. "But if he'd been in there, I'd have zapped him," asserts Evans joyfully. "I always ran with the competition."
"Did he ever," says Tommie Smith, the 200-meter champion, now a phys-ed instructor at Santa Monica College, who asserts, with other members of the 1968 team, that there was more to the Mexico City records than altitude, much more. "There was the quality of the men who set them," Smith continues. "Lee was a 9.4 sprinter, with an eight-foot, two-inch stride and the anaerobic capacity of a half-miler. And limitlessly tough."