Beamon made sport's greatest leap
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Six seconds. That's all it took for Bob Beamon to leap into history. That's all it took for the slender 22-year-old long jumper to speed 19 strides down the runway, ascend to a height of six feet, stay up in the air like a bird and finally land an incomprehensible 29 feet, 2½ inches later. Of all Olympic records, none is as impressive as the one Beamon stunningly set Oct. 18, 1968 in Mexico City.
Records are supposed to be broken by inches, not by demolition. Not Beamon. He snapped the existing mark by almost two feet. He had jumped one foot, 10½ inches farther than his previous best.
Soviet jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan said, "Compared to this jump, we are as children." English jumper Lynn Davies, the defending Olympic champion, told Beamon, "You have destroyed this event."
Before Beamon's leap, the farthest long jump had been 27 feet, 4¾ inches, by Ter-Ovanesyan and Ralph Boston. Jesse Owens had set a record of 26-8¼ in 1935 that had held up for 25 years. But from 1960 to 1967, the record was broken or tied eight times by Boston or Ter-Ovanesyan -- yet it had climbed just 8½ inches. In one jump, Beamon stretched the record by an incredible one foot, 9¾ inches. It was a record Beamon would keep for almost 23 years, until Mike Powell hit 29-4½ on Aug. 30, 1991 at Tokyo.
Beamon was born Aug. 29, 1946 in Jamaica, N.Y. When he was an infant, his mother died from tuberculosis. Her death left a void he found difficult replacing. He says his craving for attention to replace a lost mother's love first made him a troublemaker and clown in school. Then he turned to sports.
"My high school (in Jamaica) was a jungle," he said. "You had to be constantly alert -- ready to fight or run. If you joined one of the gangs, you might escape harm but you also might be in trouble the rest of your life. If you stayed decent, you stood a good chance of being clobbered every day. So I went hot and heavy for basketball -- and I feel it saved me from being cut up. Basketball is big stuff in New York. If you're good in it, everybody respects you. Nobody would want to ruin your shooting eye or your shooting arm."
Beamon was even better in track, and his prep coach convinced him to stick with it. Beamon went to North Carolina A&T to be near his ailing grandmother. He wasn't thrilled by life there, and after his grandmother died he transferred to Texas-El Paso, a growing track power. He worked on his speed and perfecting a technique in which the jumper does not so much jump as walk in the air.
While Beamon had an outstanding season in 1968, he almost didn't qualify for the finals at the Olympics. He fouled on his first two qualifying jumps. Before his last try, Boston told him to relax and to take off a foot before he reached the board if he had to, but to be sure not to foul. Beamon followed the advice and qualified.
The night before the finals, Beamon had been concerned, his mind going over his personal problems. He had lost his scholarship at Texas El-Paso for participating, with other blacks, in a boycott of a meet against Brigham Young, a Mormon school whose racial policies disturbed them. He also wasn't getting along with his wife.
"Everything was wrong," he said. "So I went into town and had a shot of tequila. Man, did I feel loose. I got a good sleep."
On his record jump, Beamon got terrific speed on his approach, stretched out his last step to the board, and got his feet together when he landed. When he came to earth, his momentum propelled him forward out of the pit. "I eased up on my last step before I hit the board, and that makes the difference when I jump well," Beamon said. "My mind was blank during the jump. After so much jumping, jumping becomes automatic. I was as surprised as anybody at the distance."
While Beamon received mostly accolades, there also were detractors. The critics harped on the conditions -- a following wind of 2.0 meters per second (the maximum allowable velocity for a record), a lightning fast runway and, most important, the thin air of Mexico City. Beamon's defenders point out that the other competitors, which included the world record co-holders, had the same factors going for them and they didn't jump close to Beamon.
Still, the criticism bothered the sensitive Beamon. "Some people said I made a lucky jump in the Olympics," he said. "After a while, that kind of talk gets into your mind."
When he was on the podium receiving his gold medal, Beamon remembers thinking, "Where do I go from here?" Fear of the void seized him.
Beamon never again came close to matching his record jump. He barely competed between 1970 and '72, saying he had a consistent leg injury. He went back to college, at Adelphi, and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1972. The next year, he joined the new professional track tour and consistently jumped 25 and 26 feet, respectable for most, but not for the world record holder. He faded from the sport.
Currently, Beamon is enshrined in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame.