BARCELONA, Spain -- Not even a leap of faith could beat Carl Lewis last night.
Perhaps the greatest Olympian of them all placed a mark in the sand, dared a world-record holder to soar farther, and won the seventh gold medal of his career.
It all happened in the 1992 Summer Olympics long jump final, in a stadium dense with humidity and charged with the sense that this was the last great battle of a man's athletic life.
Lewis vs. Mike Powell.
It began with Lewis sprinting into a swirling headwind and hitch-kicking his way to a mark of 28 feet, 5 1/2 inches.
And it ended in prayer.
Five times, Powell took aim at the standard, and five times he fell short.
Before the sixth and final attempt, with twilight descending, with the crowd poised for one last man-made flight, Powell dropped to his knees and elbows in the runway, placed his head in his hands, and began to pray.
Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. Then thirty.
And as Powell rose the crowd began to rhythmically clap. Sixty-three thousand pairs of hands making a noise to push Powell in front. The jumper with the spidery legs and shaven head that glistened under the lights, first walked, and finally sprinted down the runway, taking off in a burst of camera flashes andlanding with a spray of sand.
It was a good jump. So good that Powell again began to pray, holding his clenched hands to his head, and then his chin, waiting for the scoreboard to flash the number that would lead to either gold or silver.
The board showed 8.64 meters, or 28-4 1/4 .
Lewis had won.
"This is definitely the toughest medal," Lewis said. "Each one of them has gotten tougher."
He won four golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Won two more at the 1988 Summer Games of Seoul, South Korea. But he was younger then. A favorite then.
Now 31, coming off a U.S. trials when a virus nearly grounded him, there were whispers that this would be Lewis' last hurrah.
He was out of the Olympic 100 meters. Out of the 200. Reduced to being a spare sprinter on a 400-relay team.
Instead, Lewis turned the Olympics into yet another personal showcase, became the first man to win the long jump three successive times, and led the Americans to a 1-2-3 medal sweep.
Powell took his second straight long jump silver. Joe Greene received the bronze with a jump of 27-4 1/2 .
"The battle goes on," Lewis said.
He may be right. Suddenly, these are his Games. Mark Witherspoon went down with an Achilles' injury in the 100, and Lewis found a spot as the anchor on the U.S. relay.
If he wins a gold in tomorrow's relay final, that will make eight, all-time. In track and field, only Ray Ewry, an American who won 10 golds at the turn of the century, and Finland's Paavo Nurmi, who won nine golds, have more.
"I've been given a lot of great gifts," Lewis said.
His greatest, though, is the one rarely appreciated: his ability to simply win under great stress.
It was Powell who broke Lewis' 65-meet winning streak and surpassed Bob Beamon's 23-year-old world record with a jump of 29-4 1/2 in the 1991 world championship final in Tokyo.
And it was Powell who was the greatest threat to Lewis' bid for a third long jump gold. But Powell may have lost the medal in a pickup basketball game in March, when he twisted his back and set in motion a chain of events that led to a misaligned vertebra and a sore right hamstring.
"I just didn't have it," Powell said. "Normally, I'm very excitable. But I was very flat. I started getting it going, but I just didn't get warmed up until the end."
Powell tried everything to reach Lewis' mark. He meditated. Talked to himself. Finally, he just prayed.
"I was bewildered," he said. "I was at the Olympics, and I wasn't excited."
But Lewis was. Oh, he wouldn't admit it. But you could tell as he waited to make his first jump, his right leg twitching, his eyes fixed on the runway.
Lewis put out that mark of 28-5 1/2 , and even he couldn't go farther.
"I didn't think the jump would hold up," Lewis said. "I felt it would be a gauge. The last one, it was out of my hands. I felt it was in his [Powell's] hands."
So did Powell. As he touched down a sixth time, a smile lit across his face.
"I heard the response of the crowd," he said. "I knew it was a good jump. But it wasn't a great one."
Defeat did not diminish Powell. Instead, all he could do was stand back, and admire perhaps the greatest Olympian of them all.
"Carl is the best ever," Powell said. "He has been on top for so long. When I was in high school, I saw him jump 28 feet. He has been my motivator to get to the top. We see Carl and think about him every day. When Carl finally retires, hopefully it will be my chance to carry on the flame."
L And yet, Lewis still stands in his way, still holds a flame.
"This isn't the end of anything," he said. "This is only the beginning."