Injury jeopardizes top long jump rivalry


BARCELONA, Spain -- It is supposed to be the confrontation of the 1992 Summer Olympics.

The men's long jump.

World record holder Mike Powell vs. two-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis.

But for Powell, today's qualifying round could be a leap of faith.

Yesterday, Powell missed a news conference and sent his agent with regrets and a message:

He's injured. Nothing serious. Just tightness in his lower back and right hamstring.

But in a sport that requires split-second timing and optimal physical condition, even the slightest twinge can separate a pretender from a contender.

The same injury that sidelined Powell for a month after the Modesto Relays in April didn't prevent him from winning the U.S. trials in New Orleans in June.

"It's probably not as bad as New Orleans," said Powell's agent, Brad Hunt. "But the timing is worse. The clock is ticking at a lot faster pace."

Today, the Olympics will begin its sprint to Sunday's closing ceremonies as track and field takes center stage again after a day of rest.

The featured events include the men's and women's 400 meters. Quincy Watts, who jogged the last five steps to an Olympic record during Monday's qualifying, is the favorite for the men's gold, but he still must defeat reigning Olympic champion Steve Lewis.

Rochelle Stevens, a 1988 Morgan State graduate who lives in Memphis, Tenn., is among the leading contenders for a women's 400 medal.

World record holder Sergei Bubka makes his debut in this morning's pole vault qualifying.

The decathlon also begins this morning with Dave Johnson of the United States, Michael Smith of Canada and Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia poised to square off in the 10-event discipline to determine "the world's greatest athlete."

Yet overshadowing all is Powell vs. Lewis.

Ever since he won the 1991 world championship gold in Tokyo, broke Bob Beamon's 23-year-old world record and snapped Lewis' 65-meet win streak with a jump of 29-4 1/2 , Powell has been exuding confidence.

He talks of clearing the 31-foot barrier, and of having to set another world record to win the Barcelona gold. Despite his injury problems, Powell had wind-aided jumps of 29-2 1/2 in Modesto and 29-6 in Setriere, Italy.

Powell felt the hamstring tighten after a workout Monday evening. When he awoke yesterday, both the hamstring and lower back were extremely tight, Hunt said.

The team of doctors, trainers and coaches that surrounds Powell went into action. Powell received electric current therapy and also worked out in a pool, jogging through the water.

"It's the hamstring that is giving him problems," Hunt said.

The original injury occurred during a pickup basketball game when Powell fell awkwardly. He jumped at the Modesto Relays, but later was diagnosed with compressed vertebra in his lower back, which caused his hips to move out of alignment.

He practiced only five days before the trials yet still managed to beat Lewis with a jump of 28-3 1/2 .

Powell's plan for tonight is to jump once, make the automatic qualifying mark of 26-5, and rest for tomorrow's final.

If Powell isn't ready to withstand the pain and the pressure, standing in the background, waiting to emerge, is Lewis.

Originally scheduled to simply compete in the long jump, Lewis again is prepared to become a major Olympic player. Mark Witherspoon's ruptured Achilles' tendon has opened the way for Lewis to run in the men's 400-meter relay.

"It is a little different, this time," Lewis said. "But waiting is a little easier than I thought it would be."

Tonight, the wait ends and the duel begins.

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