The world record holder needed to go further than 8.67 metres if he was to better Carl Lewis in the long jump, and for fully three minutes before setting off he knelt on the track, hands together in supplication. For Powell it was now or not at all.
Rising, he orchestrated the clapping with circling arms, then, gathering momentum with powerful strides, thrust himself along the runway. Swerving slightly left as he hit the take-off board, Powell was then airborne, and when he landed a cheer went up; standing a few yards away, Lewis held his breath. Gold or silver?
Powell raised one finger, and then brought his hands together. For both of them it must have seemed like an age until the measure showed on the electric scoreboard, and when it did, Lewis danced away in delight. By just three centimetres he was the Olympic champion for the third successive time, his first jump of 8.67m proving unassailable.
The great protagonists embraced, the last trace of animosity set aside in an expression of mutual respect. In Tokyo last year they engaged in the greatest long jump duel in history, a competition of soaring intensity that ended with Powell going beyond the mark Bob Beamon set at altitude at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, the prize Lewis had been chasing for years.
It was impossible to imagine that their endeavours in the Estadio Olimpico would be of such epic proportions. From his first attempt Powell looked out of sorts. Dazzlingly turned out in a tracksuit of red, white and blue tiger stripes and orange clogs until it was time to compete, the impression was that he barely noticed the other competitors. Once, when warming up, Powell and Lewis passed within a foot of each other. They did not exchange a word or a glance.
Lewis, turned out conservatively in dark blue training slacks and white T-shirt, looking relaxed after a qualifying jump of 8.68m 24 hours earlier, the longest anywhere in the world this year.
Maybe Powell sensed it was not going to be his night when Lewis immediately put in a good jump, smiling as 8.67 flashed in yellow numerals against his name. The pressure was on Powell. His first jump was only 7.95 and for a while he was in third place behind Joe Greene, another American who eventually took the bronze medal.
If anything captured the difference between them it was when Lewis, on the track, the next to jump, interrupted his preparation to observe the playing of his country's anthem for Kevin Young's success in the 400 metres hurdles. Powell, lost in concentration, probably did not hear it. He jumped back into the silver medal position, but on the night Lewis had too much for him, the greatest athlete of the age taking his seventh Olympic gold medal.
In Tokyo, the disappointment showing like a scar, he had refused to share a press conference with Powell. This time he sat happily alongside him. 'Of all my medals this is definitely the toughest,' he said. 'There were headwinds and crosswinds which is why you saw a lot of people in trouble with their steps (two of Lewis's five jumps drew a red flag). Atlanta? I'm taking it one step at a time. I've still got a relay to run here.'
A bleak experience had left its mark on Powell. 'I felt 8.67 was a jump I could surpass in the final round but I just didn't have the usual pop. I kept thinking 'Here I am at the Olympics and I'm not excited'. From the crowd's response I knew that I'd put in a good last jump - but didn't feel that it was a great one. Carl is the best ever.'
Lewis forecasts that there will be some great tussles between them. 'This is only the beginning,' he said. From the look on Powell's face he felt it was more like the end.
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