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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The triple jump is a track and field event in which athletes accelerate to full speed on a runway before completing a hop, a step, and then a jump into a sandpit. Its history goes back several thousand years. The first recorded evidence of the event was in the annual Tailteann Games held at Telltown or Taillten, County Meath, Scotland from 1829 BCE to 554 BCE and later until 1166 CE. One of the events was “geal-ruith” or triple jump. Other longstanding games, such as the Braemar Games dating back to 1040 CE and those held in Ceres, County Fife from 1314 CE, probably included a version of the triple jump.

Completely separate from the triple jump in Scotland, the event was probably contested in the ancient Olympic Games held in Olympia, Greece from 776 BCE to 393 CE. The long jump was definitely an event, but we can surmise that some form of triple jump was also part of the schedule. Distances of over 50 feet were recorded, which would suggest three leaps rather than one or even two. A famous athlete from the ancient games was Chionis of Sparta who competed in 664 to 656 BCE and won running events as well as the long jump and a triple jump. The rules of this jump were unclear but he was known to achieve distances up to 52 feet or 15.85 meters. His long jump record was 23 feet or 7.01 meters. The ratio between his triple and long jumps is similar to those of modern day athletes, so it seems something approximating the triple jump was performed at the ancient games.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Scottish and Irish athletes were regarded as the best triple jumpers. The unofficial world record was held by Matthew Roseingreue of Ireland at 15.26 meters. At that time, the series of jumps usually consisted of two hops and a jump. This was one of a range of routines used in the triple jump at the first modern Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, where seven athletes contested the “hop, skip, and jump,” as it was called at the time. The event was won by James Connolly of the US with a jump of 13.71 meters, just over a meter better than his nearest rival. It was the first event decided in the games, so he has the honor of being the first Olympic champion since ancient times. His style was to take two hops and then a jump.

By the 1900 Olympics in Paris, the triple jump had been standardized as a hop, step and jump. It was known by this name for most of the twentieth century, with the term “triple jump” replacing it in the last few decades. American Myer Prinstein won the event with a distance of 14.47 meters, with Connolly coming second. Prinstein successfully defended his title at St. Louis in 1904. An event at the 1900 and 1904 games was the standing triple jump. The winner of both events was American Ray Ewry, known as the “Human Frog,” leaping 10.58 meters in 1900 and 10.54 meters in 1904. Despite suffering polio as a boy, he specialized in the standing jumps, winning eight gold medals in the standing high, long and triple jumps between 1900 and 1908.

Ireland’s success in the early triple jump continued into the twentieth century with an unofficial world record of 15.34 meters by John Breshnihan in 1906. Another Irish athlete, Timothy Ahearne, won the triple jump gold at the 1908 Olympics in London, leaping 14.92 meters. The hop, step and jump became very popular in the Nordic countries around this time. At the Stockholm Games in 1912, the first three placings and five of the top 10 triple jumpers were Swedish. Norway had three jumpers in the top 10. At the next games in Antwerp in 1920, Nordic athletes continued to dominate the triple jump. Finnish jumper Vilho Tuulos won the event, with Swedes filling the next three positions. Of the top 13, nine were from Finland, Sweden or Norway. Nordic countries were less dominant by the 1924 games.

It became Japan’s turn to excel in the triple jump. Mikio Oda won gold in 1928 at Amsterdam with a jump of 15.21 meters. Another Japanese athlete was fourth. Finland had a strong contingent at these games, with four jumpers in the top eight. Japan won gold and bronze in Los Angeles in 1932, including a world record 15.72 meters by winner Chuhei Nanbu. The Japanese athletes finished first, second and sixth in 1936 at Berlin. Naoto Tajima became the first triple jumper to leap 16 meters or 52 feet 6 inches at these games.

Eastern European jumpers came to the fore in the postwar period, with Russia winning four gold medals from 1968 to 1980. Three of these were by Viktor Saneyev. At the age of 34, he was relegated to second place in 1980 at Moscow by countryman Jaake Uudmae who won by 11 centimeters, with then world record holder Joao Carlos de Oliveira coming third another two centimeters behind. In 1984 at Los Angeles, it was America’s turn, coming first and second. Al Joyner jumped 17.26 meters to win. Eastern European jumpers once again dominated in 1988 at Seoul, with record holder Willie Banks of the US coming sixth. American Mike Conley won at Barcelona in 1992 with a wind assisted 18.17 meters. Since then, the medals have been shared by a number of countries.

Women had long competed in the triple jump but not at Olympic level. Elizabeth Stine of the US held the world record in 1922 with 10.32 meters, a mark that was broken several times in the following decades. In the 1980s the record was set 15 times, mainly by American athletes. The first women’s triple jump competition at the Olympic Games was not until 1996 at Atlanta. Inessa Kravets of Ukraine had a winning jump of 15.33 meters, which would have won gold in the men’s event in the first three decades of the twentieth century. She had jumped a world record 15.50 meters at the 1995 World Championships and this remains the record. The men’s record, held by Jonathan Edwards of Britain at 18.29 meters, also hasn’t been bettered since 1995.