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Bob Beamon: The Event Destroyer

Nov 29, 2017
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At every Olympic Games during the modern era there have been athletes who stamp their mark on their events imperiously, silencing critics and shrugging off rivals. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics for example, Florence Griffith Joyner was such a complete athlete that she was never chalenged over the 100 or 200 metres, and the US women’s 4×100 metres relay team only had to hold their baton to win. In 1960 Herb Elliot ran the perfect 1500 metres, winning in such a style that the silver medallist from France, Michel said that “Elliot was from another planet”. And then there was Jim Thorpe, attributed the accolade by King Gustav V as the greatest athlete in the world after obliterating the decathlon world record at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Yet none of them have soared as high and as long over their competitors nor over Olympic history as Bob Beamon, gold medallist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in the long jump.

The Mexico City games, held during October 1968 were controversial both politically and environmentally. Ten days prior to the opening ceremony a massacre of students at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City gave the IOC some pause in actually staging the games, but this was quickly resolved with the 1968 games starting as planned. Then, during the 200 metres medal presentation the Olympic champion Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos bowed their heads and made the Black Power salute, immediately receiving the wrath of the Avery Brundage-led IOC as well as the USOC. All the while there was the issue of Rhodesia’s non-participation in the Olympics, as well as Czech displeasure at the Soviet suppression of the so-called “Prague Spring”.

Concerns about the high altitude also made sure that much of the sporting perfromances were buried underneath distracting headlines. In one notorious incident Australian 10,000 metre world record holder Ron Clarke almost died when he collapsed after finishing his event, won by Neftali Temu in a time nearly two minutes outside Clarke’s record. On the other hand, shorter distance track events benefited, with all men’s world records for distances equal or lower to 400 metres being lowered in Mexico City. The 1968 Summer Olympic Games had a lot of controversy to shrug off if it was going to be remembered for pure athletic brilliance. Yet Bob Beamon made sure this historical mission was fulfilled, and in a way that could arguably be considered the greatest one sporting moment at any games.

Considered to be the favourite prior to the long jump in Mexico City, Beamon was up against three outstanding challengers. Lynn Davies of Great Britain was the gold medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, whilst Ralph Boston (USA) had won silver behind Davies, then went on to hold the world record jump of 8.35 metres with Soviet long jumer Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. However one thing that Beamon possessed that none of his rivals did was explosive speed. Over 100 yards Beamon could run the distance in 9.5 seconds, and this was definitely an advantage in the rarefied air of the Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City.

Prior to the final however, Bob Beamon almost failed to qualify and have his chance for Olympic glory. Like his famous precessor Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games, Beamon was unable to set a qualifying distance until the last of his three initial jumps. Thanks to the advice of rival and mentor Ralph Boston Beamon adjusted his run up and with some ease set a qualifying mark. Set to begin the final round of jumping in fourth, Beamon was still challenged by Davies (twelfth), Ter-Ovanesyan (thirteenth) and Boston (seventeenth).

After a nervous night when he thought he destroyed all chance of an Olympic gold medal due to sexual intercourse, Friday October 18th 1968 began as a gloomy, rainy day. No one would have expected what was to follow, even Beamon wearing the number 254 on his track top, with such potentially adverse conditions. This was partially reinforced as the first three jumpers fouled their attempts. It was Beamon’s turn.

Striding down the strip towards the takeoff board, Beamon’s long powerful legs hurled him with great speed much like a 100 metre sprinter would hope to achieve. Then, landing perfectly and then launching from the takeoff board, Beamon soared through the thin Mexico City air, landed, frog jumped twice and then jogged with loose limbs from the pit. For Beamon it seemed a good jump, but his thoughts were of a distance around 27 feet 10 inches. Meanwhile Ralph Boston and Lynn Davies talked about the leap being over 28 feet, checking out the distance for themselves. The officals, struggling with the optical marker used for measuring the leap realised that the jump was too long for this instrument, and used an older steel tape to record the distance. Then, after a couple of tries the offical result was shown on the scoreboard. 8.90 metres, a full 55 centimetres beyond the previous world record.

Even at this point Beamon wasn’t sure what he had done. It took friend and competitor Ralph Boston to come up and convert the metric figure into something Bob Beamon could understand; “Bob, you jumped 29 feet.” Thereupon Beamon wondered what Boston would do or for that matter Davies from Great Britain or Ter-Ovaneysan from the USSR could achieve, but Boston capitulated. “It’s over for me, I can’t jump that far.” Ter-Ovaneysan then spoke saying that “Compared to this jump, we are as children.”, whilst Davies chimed in with “I can’t go on. What is the point? We’ll all look silly.”. Turning to Beamon the Tokyo long jump gold medallist exclaimed “you have destroyed this event.”

Yet the drama of the moment wasn’t over yet. Having soared past the old world record, past 28 feet and into the region of further than 29 feet, Beamon’s leap finally hit him and he collapsed in a cataplectic seizure after running to the crowd and his competitors with a broad smile on his face. Head buried in his hands, the new gold medallist and world record holder was helped to his feet by Boston and US team mate Charlie Mays, who suported him until the effects of the seizure passed.

The remaining jumps were inconsequential to the final result. Rain started just after Ter-Ovaneysan’s first leap, and Beamon himself only made one more leap. Boston was able to jump long enough to win the bronze, whilst unheralded East German Klaus Beer took silver 71 centimetres behind Bob Beamon’s leap. But the medal, the event and arguably the Mexico City Olympics themselves belonged to Bob Beamon. His long jump world record would hold for nearly 23 years, and in fact almost 40 years after that rainy October afternoon it still is on the books as the longest jump in Olympic history. As suggested earlier in this article, this one jump by one man at one Olympics can arguably be cited as the single most powerful and perfect moment in any Olympic event at any games.

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