Indianapolis — Bob Beamon's 29 ft. 2 1/2-inch long jump was once thought to be the most untouchable record in track and field. Carl Lewis, though, is fast closing in on Beamon's mark and now considers 30 feet within reach.
To prove the point, he practically sailed out of the pit here at the National Sports Festival with a jump of 28-9. That was 5 1/2 inches longer than Lewis had ever gone, the best ever on United States soil, and the second best in history.
Lewis, of course, arrived in Indianapolis with credentials in impeccable order. Several months ago, in fact, he had visited the same city to pick up the Sullivan Award as the country's finest amateur athlete.
In winning the nationwide voting for this annual honor, Lewis beat out an impressive array of contenders including wrestling champion Chris Campbell, sprinter Evelyn Ashford, figure skater Scott Hamilton, swimmer Mary T. Meagher, and diver Greg Louganis. Perhaps even more significantly, his selection ended a much-criticized drought of more than two decades since the last previous black recipient, Wilma Rudolph in 1961.
Lewis was a very popular choice for the award, and indeed, when you look at his record for 1981 it is difficult to see how the voters could have picked anyone else. The 21-year-old native of Willingboro, N.J. has not only established himself as the world's No. 1 long jumper, but is among the top sprinters - a true double threat in the mold of the late Jesse Owens, with whom he is frequently compared.
Representing the University of Houston last year, Lewis became the first person ever to win both a track and a field event at the NCAA indoor championships and the first since Owens to score such a double in the NCAA outdoor championships, then achieved a similar sweep in The Athletics Congress national championships. His best time in the 100 meters (10 seconds flat) is the best ever without the aid of high altitude; equals the third fastest in history anywhere; and is only 500th of a second slower than the world record set by Jim Hines at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
In view of all this, one can hardly help thinking of Owens, whom Lewis met once when he competed in a Jesse Owens youth meet as a 10-year-old. But Carl is his own man, as he indicated at the Sullivan Award ceremonies when asked his reaction to all the talk comparing him to the 1936 Olympic hero.
''It makes me feel good,'' he said, ''but I want to be remembered as the first Carl Lewis.''
As for a 30-foot long jump, well, that's not just a pipe dream. On his fourth of six jumps here, the 6 ft. 2 in. 180-pounder believes he soared 30 feet. But the board judge ruled he fouled, so his footprints were raked from the sand and the jump disallowed.
It was a very close call, so close that Lewis protested, only the second time he ever remembers questioning a foul. ''I didn't break the plasticene (the putty-like surface at the front of a takeoff board),'' he said. ''It was a judgment call on the official's part.''
Maybe it was all for the best. Maybe the drama should build a while, much as it did three decades ago as the world's milers crept up on the four-minute barrier finally broken by Roger Bannister.
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, after all, might be the made-to-order showcase for a new world record and possibly even the unthinkable 30-foot jump. Millions would be watching an event often overlooked. And if Carl had his druthers, he would break Beamon's record in the United States at or near sea level.
In the US because he is an American who would prefer to share such a moment with his ''home people,'' and at a relatively low altitude so the record would need no qualifiers.
Beamon's mark, unfortunately, has always carried an asterisk much the way Roger Maris's 61-homer year does in baseball because the season had been lengthened since Babe Ruth's day. The long jump record was set at the 7,400 -foot altitude of Mexico City, which many people still feel accounts for the leap's freakish nature (it was almost two feet farther than anyone had jumped before, then for a decade or more no other jumper came anywhere near his figure). To be sure, there are those who argue convincingly that Beamon's jump should not have any stigma attached to it, because the lessened air resistance and gravitational pull at high altitudes could only improve performance insignificantly if at all. But Lewis would just as soon set any new records clear and free.
Carl would be the first to tell you that nobody picks a date on which to break a record. On the other hand, he knows he's on the verge of a breakthrough, and he half expected it here.
Very early in the year Lewis picked this meet as the one in which he would really reach for the stars. ''No question, I came in here looking for the world record,'' he said. ''It's hard to get a facility like this, and this was my chance to do it. The competition was good and the atmosphere was right. I did very well, but I'm still disappointed in a way.''
Though many world class athletes are off in Europe this time of year, Carl had no problems in deciding to compete here. His mother, Evelyn, and father, Bill, served as co-head coaches of the women's East track team. Normally they coach at rival high schools in Willingboro, then join forces in the summer in directing that city's track club. Also in Indianapolis to make the festival a real family affair was Carl's 18-year-old sister, Carol, a long jumper for her parent's squad and the holder of the American junior record in that event.
The only family members missing were Carl's older brothers Cleve, a former top draft choice of pro soccer's New York Cosmos and now a financial analyst, and Mack, who is working toward a geology degree in Houston, where all the Lewis children live.
Though admittedly a homebody who has never enjoyed overseas travel, Carl will spend part of next month in Europe. He believes it is important to compete there in order to maintain his No. 1 world ranking in both the long jump and 100 meters, as well as to meet the top international athletes.
Here at the Sports Festival, a multi-sport event organized by the US Olympic Committee, he bypassed the 100 meters, yet ran for the South's 4 x 100 meter relay team that came within an eyelash of the world record. It was the quartet's first time running together, and the group had only 40 minutes to practice.
When asked if Lewis & Co. (Stanley Floyd, Calvin Smith, and Mike Miller) would be getting back together again, Carl replied, ''Are they going to run it tomorrow?''
The response, which brought a laugh from a large gathering of reporters, is typical of the natural rapport he enjoys with the press. He can be elusive, but once corralled, he's an engaging, articulate interviewee, a genuinely happy and easy-going person who doesn't take his athletic participation too seriously.
Carl is perhaps most serious when he discusses his strained relationship with the University of Houston. He still considers the Cougars' Tom Tellez his coach, but will not be running for the college any more. He talks of being disenchanted by what he says the athletic department came to expect of him in polishing the school image, both on and off the track. Actually, this past spring he wasn't even scholastically eligible to compete, having flunked a history course. A radio and TV major with a respectable grade average, he claims his final examination paper was lost.
His new independence, he believes, has given him time to make an important change in his long jump approach run. He now starts even farther from the takeoff board - almost 170 ft. away instead of the more typical 140 - so as to achieve maximum speed.
In taking charge of his career, he also has avoided overtaxing his abilities. ''Last year I was in 38 meets and competed in both the long jump and the 100 meters in most of them,'' he pointed out. ''This year I've competed in both events only twice, and won't enter more than 26 meets.''
Having grown tired of running the 100 this year (''I've run it umpteen times and long jumped just four times''), Carl is looking forward to getting back to what he really considers his event, the long jump.
''I keep doing both,'' he explained, ''because I feel I have the talent to be the best in both. But I consider the 100 my second event although a very close second. The long jump is a little less intense. You have six jumps, and even with three bad ones you have time to come back and win. But in the sprint, you don't have time to settle into the event.''
Based on his latest effort, it seems just a matter of time before he settles into something else - the title of the world's longest jumping human.