Out of this world — Bob Beamon and the long leap into the 21st century

Out of this world — Bob Beamon and the long leap into the 21st century
Bob Beamon almost jumped beyond the pit in his record-breaking long jump at the 1968 Olympics. (Photo: Rich Clarkson / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

At the 1968 Olympics, the American long jumper shattered the existing record by more than 50cm.

This article is part of Daily Maverick’s Greatest Olympic Moments series.

The 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City’s thin, high-altitude air was a dream for sprinters and jumpers. But even by the standards of a track and field competition that delivered multiple world records, long jumper Bob Beamon’s incredible feat was otherworldly.

In a matter of a few days, the men’s 100m, 200m and 400m world records were shattered by American athletes in Mexico City.

Jim Hines set a new mark of 9.95 seconds for the 100m, Tommie Smith destroyed the 20-second barrier in the 200m, lowering the world record to 19.83 seconds, and Lee Evans shattered the one-lap record, running 43.86 seconds.

The high jump world record (2.24m) also fell to the inventor of the Fosbury flop, Dick Fosbury, while the triple jump record was increased to an impressive 17.39m by Russian Viktor Saneyev.

Brutal regime

While the athletic feats were a treat for sports lovers everywhere, the 1968 Games were marred by controversy because of Mexico’s brutal ruling regime.

Just 10 days before the opening ceremony, government forces massacred more than 250 students and wounded at least 1,000 more as they protested against the regime in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City.

There were calls for the Games to be called off, or at the very least postponed, but the International Olympic Committee dismissed the incident.

The committee claimed that Mexico’s internal strife was not “directed at the Olympic Games” and therefore the event would proceed as scheduled.

The world was at a time of deep political upheaval, with the Vietnam War dominating discourse in the US as well as the rise of the civil rights movement in that country.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pioneering high jumper and inventor of the Fosbury Flop dies

Sport and politics will always mix despite many believing they shouldn’t, and Mexico City was ripe for demonstrations in and around the Olympics.

Smith and 200m bronze medallist John Carlos famously raised the black power salute on the podium following their successes. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman showed solidarity for the two Americans by sporting a badge supporting Smith and Carlos’s Olympic Project for Human Rights.

These were massive events that added to the 1968 Olympics being viewed as vitally important in the following years, but it was the feats of the athletes – and Beamon in particular – that are best remembered.

Rare air

When it was announced that the Games would be held at 2,240m above sea level, there was genuine concern about how the thin air would affect the long distance and endurance athletes.

As it turned out, no athletes died in the conditions, but there were numerous incidents of endurance athletes receiving oxygen and being revived by members of the large medical contingent on hand.

In the explosive events, though, the conditions were ideal to create history. And on the overcast afternoon of 18 October, Beamon leapt “into the 21st century”, as writers described it.

Coming into the Games, the talk about the long jump was whether any man could go beyond the 28-foot barrier (8.53m). At that stage, the world record stood at 8.35m, or 27 ft 41⁄2 inches, as the measurements went back then.

The record mark was jointly held by American Ralph Boston and Russia’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, who were both in the field for the long jump final that day. The defending Olympic champion from 1964, Lynn “The Leap” Davies, was also present.

Beamon struggled to qualify for the final despite stellar form leading into the Olympics. He had won 22 of the 23 events he entered that season and jumped a wind-assisted 8.39m. That was the longest anyone had jumped, but because of the wind reading, it was ineligible as a world record.

Man to beat

Despite Beamon’s problems in qualifying, to which he only advanced with his final jump after help with his run-up from Boston, the 1960 Olympic champion, everyone knew he was the man to beat.

Boston warned opponents: “Don’t get him [Beamon] mad, or he’s likely to jump clean out of the pit.” What prophetic words they were.

At 3.45pm, Beamon was the fourth man on the runway after the first three competitors had all registered failures.

The tall and languid Beamon, who had endured a troubled childhood in the slums of New York City and turned to athletics while in reform school, was the picture of calm at his mark.

He skipped and ambled on the athletics track for more than 30 seconds before beginning his run-up with a slight, and crucially legal, breeze behind him.

At top speed he was an impressive sprinter. He hit the board – perfectly – with his right foot and seemed to rise high enough to leap clean out of the stadium.

There were audible gasps from the crowd and officials looked stunned when Beamon landed at the very edge of the long jump pit. It was so far that he was out of range of the newly acquired electronic measuring device. After a short discussion between officials, they pulled out an old-fashioned tape measure and after an age the electronic board revealed the distance – 8.90m (29 ft 2 1⁄2 inches). He had not only cleared the 28-foot barrier, but the 29-foot barrier too.

Beamon’s recollection: “My first reaction when I heard this distance was that maybe the high altitude had gone to my head and that I was dreaming. I thought maybe I could go over 28 feet, but to go over 29 feet was just mind-blowing.”

It was the shortest competition in history in the sense that it was all over with that jump. Rain started to teem down and Beamon took one further jump, registering 8.06m before running for cover and forfeiting the rest of his attempts.

For the record, East German Klaus Beer took the silver and Boston the bronze, both more than 70cm behind Beamon.

Although scribes at the time described it as jumping into the 21st century, and many believed the record would stand for 50 years, it “only” lasted 23.

Mike Powell’s 8.95m leap at the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991 broke the record. Earlier in that same competition, Carl Lewis recorded a leap of 8.91m, but the wind was illegal, so it never stood as a record.

Beamon’s jump, made almost 56 years ago, is still the second-longest legal leap in long jump history. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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