Who is the greatest long-jumper of all time? Brittney Reese is sure she knows.
“I am. Point blank,” she said after winning silver in her fourth and last Olympics.
She didn’t sound animated or arrogant, simply matter-of-fact. “I’ve got 11 medals, individual medals at that. No long jumper has done that, male or female. My Twitter handle says it all – ‘Da LJ Beast’. It just sucks that, you know, if I was on the track side of the sport I would be the Usain Bolt of long jump. But just being in the field event side just doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.”
The American was briefly at the epicentre of the athletics world in Tokyo as gold in the women’s long jump came down to the final attempt: hers.
One last time working the crowd, marking her start position, rolling her shoulders, flexing her fingers and giving herself a pep talk. One concluding walk, skip, then charge down the runway. One more stride on to the take-off board and soaring arc into the sand.
But Reese could not match the mark of 7m set moments earlier by Malaika Mihambo of Germany, ending second with a best of 6.97m. Ese Brume of Nigeria also jumped 6.97m, earning bronze on the tiebreaker because Reese’s second-longest effort was superior.
Then came the record-shattering men’s 400m hurdles final. With the spotlight stolen again, the self-styled Usain Bolt of running fast and leaping far headed to a shadowy hallway under the stands to reflect on a 13-year chapter that did not close until the very last action of an Olympic final.
That is a noisy way to go out, no matter that the atmosphere was so hushed that Mihambo’s shriek of joy when Reese only mustered 6.84 could be heard from the other side of the stadium.
“I’m used to beating people on the sixth jump and I got beat on the sixth jump so it’s kind of funny to end my career that way,” Reese said.
That unparalleled medal haul: gold at London 2012, silver in Rio (behind the American Tianna Bartoletta) and now Tokyo, seven world titles (four outdoor, three indoor) and a runners-up spot at the 2018 world indoor championships. Oh, and she is a thirteen-time national champion.
With that resume it is surprising her accomplishments have not garnered more attention, even in a nation as crammed with outstanding athletes as the US. For all her longevity and excellence, Reese is far less well known than other American long-jump greats such as Mike Powell, Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and her inspiration, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who set the Olympic record with 7.40m in 1988.
She has made her peace with that. “I was not placed here for the attention, I was placed here to inspire, and I hope I did that during my career,” she said.
Reese, who grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, turns 35 next month and was the oldest competitor in the final. Mihambo, the world champion, is 27, Brume 25, while Jazmin Sawyers of Team GB, who finished eighth, is 27.
As a high-schooler dreaming of the WNBA, Reese discovered long jumping on a hot and humid day when an athletics coach in need of recruits offered a bottle of Coca-Cola to whichever player on the basketball team could make the longest leap. “Once I had this goal in mind, nothing was going to stop me,” she recalled. She jumped nearly five metres and won the Coke.
Disillusioned with her basketball teammates after several were dropped for smoking weed on the eve of a tournament, she decided to focus on a solo sport. Her personal best of 7.31m, set at the US Olympic trials in 2016, is the joint-ninth longest women’s distance of all time, some way behind the 7.52m achieved by Galina Chistyakova of the Soviet Union in 1988.
In retirement she plans to devote more time to her adopted son, who is starting to get into sport. “The younger athletes are coming up, and I’ve done all I can. It’s just time to move on,” she said. “To finish my career with a silver, I really can’t complain.”
Her aspiring American heir is Tara Davis, a vivacious 22-year-old who came sixth and walked into the arena wearing a cowboy hat (she did, after all, attend the University of Texas). “If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?” she said, though she could not contain her sadness at missing the medals. “It sucks, but put some fuel in my fire and I will be back and I will win gold,” she said.
“She was crying,” Reese said. “I went to her and told her she’s the future.”