Bob Thomas set the national record for long jump on January 20, 1968, with a leap of 8.05m at Okara Park. The record still stands today, 50 years on. Northern Advocate sports editor Andrew Johnsen delves into the record jump and why the mark hasn't been surpassed.

In a time where athletics records drop like flies around the world, one field record in New Zealand has stood the test of time.

Kawakawa's Bob Thomas set the New Zealand long jump record of 8.05m at Okara Park 50 years ago and it has rarely been threatened.

Thomas died in 2016 aged 76 so did not see his record pass the 50-year barrier.

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On January 20, 1968, Thomas battled against arch-rival Dave Norris in what has been dubbed the "Gunfight in the Okara corral" by the late Peter Heidenstrom, a world-renowned authority on athletics.

Norris set the early tone with a couple of successful jumps at 7.74m and 7.76m, both improving the national mark. However, something quite special was just around the corner – and Thomas felt it.

"I'll always remember it. I fouled the first attempt because I was half an inch over the board, but the Northland officials measured it anyway and it was exactly 26ft 3in, or 8 metres, which was a big jump," he told the Northern Advocate.

"I knew right from the start of my run-up that this was going to be the big one. It's just a sense I had. I really wanted it badly.

"I hit the board right and I knew it was a good one.

"Okara Park was my home ground and you lift your performance on your home ground. I was really psyched up for that one competition. I relied a lot on what they call adrenalin. I call it nervous energy and I was full of it that day."

Thomas had passed the 8m mark again, but this time it was a legal jump. The judges marked it at 8.05m, sparking celebrations around Okara Park.

No one - including Thomas - could have imagined how long that distance would remain at the top.

Fifty years on, Thomas remains the only New Zealander to clear the 8m mark. The closest recorded attempt was in 1998, when Aaron Langdon recorded a wind-assisted jump of 7.99m.

When talking to the Northern Advocate on the 47th anniversary of setting the record, Thomas expressed surprise the mark hadn't been hauled in.

"It shouldn't have lasted all this time with the all-weather tracks they have now," he said.

Calling all long-jumpers

So why hasn't the record fallen like so many others have in the past 50 years? With developments in equipment, recovery, research and nutrition, it would be fair to say there are more than enough tools readily available for others to make their mark.

Northland athletics stalwart Ian Babe had an extended career as an athlete and a concentrated high-performance athletics coach. He also holds the longest-running Northland athletics record, setting the top time in the 3000m steeplechase in 1996.

Babe said the combination of top-class coaching and a special athlete hasn't come around in long jump since Thomas.

"There may not have been dedicated and top coaching available over the last 50 years. Another factor is there probably hasn't been a talent like Bob in horizontal jumps," he said.

"Coaching is critical and then you have to have the attitude of wanting to be the best. Once you've got that athlete-coach collusion, where the coach knows how to put things together and a special athlete that wants to go to the top, you'll get that.

"We've had a handful of national class coaches in the past 50 years that have taken athletes to the top level but right now we have a real paucity."

While Thomas did work with a specialist coach, former national athletic champion Frank Sharpley, a lot of progress was made while he worked in the three-storeyed Moerewa Affco.

"I used to do a lot of training up and down the steps. I worked on the top floor so I used that to my advantage," Thomas said.

Babe said Thomas' talent was apparent but he also worked hard at his craft.

"Bob was special. You don't get special very often," he said.

"He had a huge natural ability. He had a lot of spring but Frank Sharpley really helped. Bob went to Papakura for coaching. Frank was one of the best back then and realised Bob had some ability.

"He did a lot of bounding and one-legged hopping at the Affco. He did the type of bounding that we know now is the best type of bounding, focusing on explosiveness."

Olympic Games omission

Despite breaking the national record by such a mark on that summer Saturday in 1968, Thomas remarkably was not selected to head to that year's Olympic Games in Mexico City.

He was two months shy of his 29th birthday when he set the record, which may have played a part in his overlooking, but his omission wasn't the only controversial selection decision.

"The athletics selectors nominated both Dave Norris and myself for the team but the Olympic selectors rejected us both," he said.

"There wasn't much fuss at the time though because the big controversy of the time was [marathon runner] Jeff Julian being left out."

"It was a real big kick in the guts for me but by the time the team went away my disappointment had subsided a bit."

His long jumping career ended the following year after regaining the national title he lost to Norris in Olympic year.

"Once I missed out on Mexico I didn't train through the winter, like I usually did. I coasted through and competed at nationals and won the long jump title. It was time to go," he said.

Thomas was inducted as a Northland Legend of Sport in December. The mark he set as a 28-year-old shows no signs of being surpassed any time soon.

The longest jump in 2017 was 7.43m, a personal best from Auckland's Hamish Gill. That's 62cm away from Thomas' effort.

It's appropriate that 50 years is the golden anniversary of weddings as Thomas' marriage with the landing pit that day gained him a gold medal - a gold medal that would have been won at any national long jump meeting since 1968.