Olympic records in jump events – Of Beamonesque leaps and defying gravity

Bob Beamon and Yelena Isinbayeva have mesmerised the world with their feats in field events that include disciplines like long jump, pole vault, high jump and triple jump. 

6 min By Utathya Nag
American athlete Bob Beamon breaks the Long Jump record at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, 20th October 1968.
(Picture by Getty Images)

Olympic jump events – high jump, long jump, triple jump and pole vault – have been constant fixtures in the competition’s athletics programme.

All four events, in some form, existed in the ancient Olympics. With the modern Summer Games rolling out in 1896, all the jump events have continued to be integral parts of the global showpiece. Tokyo 2020 also featured all four.

It’s easy to see why. The jump events, after all, make for the most enticing imagery in sports.

Snapshots of ace jumpers - be it Carl Lewis in long jump or Yelena Isinbayeva in the pole vault - in full flight during their events have gone down in history as some of the most iconic photographs in sports history.

Jump events, though, are more than just elegant. They are as fiercely contested as any and have produced some of the most memorable competitive moments at the Games over the years.

Some of these have been etched into the record books.

Here are the Olympic records in the high jump, long jump, triple jump and pole vault.

High jump Olympic records

Men’s high jump

Charles Austin (USA) – 2.39m at 1996 Atlanta Olympics (July 28, 1996)

Heading into his debut Olympics at Barcelona 1992, USA’s Charles Austin was the reigning high jump world champion and the favourite to win gold. However, a bad knee forced the US track and field Hall of Famer to settle for a disappointing eighth place.

Four years later, Austin travelled to Atlanta with nothing but the gold on his mind. He fulfilled his ambition with an Olympic record-breaking 2.39m jump. He beat the previous best (2.38m) set by Soviet Union’s Hennadiy Avdyeyenko at Seoul 1988.

Women’s high jump

Yelena Slesarenko (Russia) – 2.06m at 2004 Athens Olympics (August 28, 2004)

Russia’s Yelena Slesarenko registered her personal-best jump of 2.06m to win the women’s high jump gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. With it, she also dispossessed Bulgarian icon Stefka Kostadinova of the Olympic record in the event.

Stefka Kostadinova, the women’s high jump world record (2.09m) holder since 1987, had covered 2.05m at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Long jump Olympic records

Men’s long jump

Bob Beamon (USA) – 8.90m at 1968 Mexico City Olympics (October 18, 1968)

Bob Beamon’s 8.90m leap en route to the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City is the oldest standing athletics Olympic record.

In fact, Beamon’s monster jump inspired a new English word Beamonesque – a sports jargon that means a remarkable or astonishing athletic feat.

Heading into the 1968 Olympics, his maiden appearance at the Summer Games, Bob Beamon had won 22 of the 23 events he had competed in that year. He was the obvious favourite.

However, Beamon found himself in danger of crashing out in the qualifying rounds after fouling his first two attempts. In his third and do-or-die jump in the qualifying round, he emulated what the legendary Jesse Owens had done in a similar situation at the 1936 Olympics.

Beamon took off a few inches short of the take-off line to avoid a foul. It sacrificed a little distance, but his jump still measured 8.19m – enough for him to qualify for the finals.

Beamon’s US teammate Ralph Boston, meanwhile, had bettered his own Olympic record (8.12m at 1960 Rome Olympics) with an 8.27m jump in the qualifying rounds.

In the finals, though, something astonishing happened. ‘You destroyed the event’ was how Great Britain’s Lynn Davies – the bronze medallist that year and the gold medallist from the previous Olympics – explained to Beamon what he had done.

He not only obliterated the Olympic long jump record but also smashed the erstwhile world record of 8.35m held jointly by Ralph Boston and Soviet Union’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan at the time.

Beamon, unfamiliar with the metric system, initially failed to comprehend that he had smashed the world record by almost two feet.

After Boston, who lost two major records that day, broke it down to his teammate, Beamon suffered a brief cataplexy attack – a condition where a person loses control of their muscles temporarily due to extreme emotional cues – and collapsed.

Beamon’s ‘perfect jump’ stood as the world record for 23 years until Mike Powell broke it at the 1991 world championships. However, no one has been able to better it on the Olympic stage till date.

Women’s long jump

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA) – 7.40m at 1988 Seoul Olympics (September 29, 1988)

The 1988 Seoul Olympics witnessed three of the greatest women’s long jumpers of all time go head-to-head.

Even today, Soviet Union’s Galina Chistyakova, USA’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Germany’s Heike Drechsler possess the five best jumps in women’s long jump history. Chistyakova holds the 7.52m world record, Joyner-Kersee has two 7.49m jumps while Drechsler has two 7.48m jumps to her name.

In a battle of the three titans at Seoul, Jackie Joyner-Kersee clinched gold with a best jump of 7.40m, Drechsler bagged silver with 7.22m and Chistyakova settled for bronze with 7.11m.

All three distances were better than the previous Olympic record – 7.06m by Soviet Union’s Tatyana Kolpakova at Moscow 1980.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, incidentally, also holds the Olympic and world record in Heptathlon (7291 points at the 1988 Seoul Olympics).

Pole vault Olympic records

Men’s pole vault

Thiago Braz (Brazil) - 6.03m at 2016 Rio Olympics (August 15, 2016)

Winning a gold medal on home soil is always special and Brazil’s Thiago Braz made his men’s pole vault gold medal at Rio 2016 even more special with an Olympic record.

He broke France’s Renaud Lavillenie’s previous record of 5.97m set at London 2012. Lavillenie incidentally settled for silver behind Braz with a 5.98m high jump.

Sweden’s Armand Duplantis, the current men’s pole vault world record holder, fell just 0.01m short of equalling Braz’s Olympic record at Tokyo 2020. Duplantis won gold at Tokyo with a 6.02m jump.

Women’s pole vault

Yelena Isinbayeva (Russia) – 5.05m at 2008 Beijing Olympics (August 18, 2008)

Arguably the greatest women’s pole vaulter of all time, Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva won her first Olympic gold at the 2004 Athens game with a 4.91m jump – both the Olympic and world record at the time.

She leapt 5.05m high at Beijing 2008 to improve upon both records. Isinbayeva bettered her own world record to 5.06m at the 2009 IAAF Golden League in Zurich, Switzerland, but the Olympic record from Beijing still stands.

Triple jump Olympic records

Men’s triple jump

Kenny Harrison (USA) – 18.09m at 1996 Atlanta Olympics (July 27, 1996)

Heading into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, USA’s Mike Conley Sr. held the men’s triple jump Olympic record (17.63m at Barcelona 1992).

The record changed hands at Atlanta after Kenny Harrison – another US athlete - jumped 17.99m in the first round of the finals. In his fourth jump, Harrison extended the record and added 0.10m to the distance.

Women’s triple jump

Yulimar Rojas Rodriguez (Venezuela) - 15.67m at 2020 Tokyo Olympics (August 1, 2021)

Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas Rodriguez clinched the women’s triple jump gold medal at Tokyo 2020 as well as the Olympic record in the event with a 15.67m jump with her final attempt during the final.

The attempt also stands as the current women’s triple jump world record.

The previous Olympic record in the event was 15.39m set by Cameroon’s Francoise Mbango Etone, a two-time Olympic women’s triple jump champion, at Beijing 2008.

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