Doc Wordinger lives and works in central Manchester. He has a fondness for golf, poker, fine literature, art, and film.
Bob Beamon and a Freak Happening in Mexico City
When Bob Beamon hopped out of the sand following his opening leap in the long jump finals of the 1968 Olympic Games, thunderclouds were brewing overhead. If any gold medal ambitions still lingered in the numb bodies of Beamon’s fellow competitors, they were soon washed away in the torrential rain.
Somewhere between Beamon commencing his run-up, and the storm breaking on Mexico City, a human anomaly had occurred. It was a freakish deviation from reality, and it killed the hopes of a generation of long jumpers. It was also sporting perfection. Beamon had jumped so far that even the measuring device was paralysed by awe.
"From the Bottom of the Garden to the Front of Our House"
I first heard the story of Bob Beamon’s spectacular leap from my father when I was about six years old. “How far would I have to jump to break the world record?” I’d asked with the intention of attempting it that very morning. On hearing my father’s reply, that a man named Bob Beamon had once leapt 29 feet, I asked him to estimate the distance for me. “You’d have to take off from the bottom of the garden,” he replied, “and not land until you reached the front of our house.”
Whether intentional or not, it was a grotesque exaggeration, perhaps owing to the Beamon aura that had ballooned to mythical status over the preceding two decades. Years later, I calculated that even a triple-jumper would struggle to traverse the space between the bottom of the garden and the front of our house. But as a six-year-old child, I was mesmerised by my father’s story and Beamon became one of my first superheroes. Other kids had Superman or Spiderman. I had Beamon.
Bob Beamon and the Streets of New York
Born in Queens, New York, in 1946, Bob Beamon endured an impoverished and grim childhood. His mother died from tuberculosis before his first birthday and according to various reports, Beamon was raised by both his drunken, abusive father and later, his grandmother. Naturally, the violent chaos of Beamon’s world ushered him into one of the many gangs that roamed the streets of Queens. Inching towards a life of crime, he reached a nadir when he was expelled from school and arrested after a classroom fight resulted in a teacher being floored. He avoided a lengthy jail sentence thanks to the leniency of a court judge and his grandmother’s promise to keep him under stringent supervision.
Sports Saved Him
Beamon turned to sports, excelling at basketball and athletics. Encouraged by his high school coach, he concentrated on long jump, triple jump and sprinting, breaking numerous junior records including the national high school triple jump record in 1965. Impressed by his achievements, the University of Texas at El Paso offered him an athletics scholarship and it was during this time that he qualified for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
The Political Olympics
With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, 1968 was a defining year for the American civil rights movement. African-American athletes discussed boycotting the Games as a form of protest and although they never enacted the threat, racial tension manifested itself in the sporting arena through other avenues. The Black Power Salute was to become one of the most enduring and iconic images in human history.
Beamon himself was heavily active in using sport to highlight the racial divide in America. Only months before he was due to depart for Mexico City, he boycotted a track and field meet against Brigham Young University, claiming that Brigham was a racist institution. His actions were met with disapproval from the University of Texas who suspended him, terminating Beamon’s alliance with his coach. Nevertheless, he went to the Olympics as the slight gold meal favourite. The competition began precariously for Beamon who fouled in his first two qualifying jumps. Playing it safe on the final attempt, he made the qualifying distance and went through to the final where he would immortalise his name and astound sports fans across the world.
One Giant Leap for Man
Bob Beamon was the embodiment of athleticism as he stood motionless at the end of the runway, meditating on his opening jump in the Olympic final. Tall, lean, handsome and donned in the American team colours of black and white; he gradually rocked himself into motion, exploding down the track in elongated strides, finding optimal velocity and easing slightly into the take-off board. He hung in the air like a theatrical performer gliding above the stage on transparent ropes, before landing with such force and precision that he remained on his feet, propelled forward in a series of hops which carried him out of the sandpit. Beamon knew it was a great jump, but he didn’t yet realise the full enormity of the leap.
The Results Stunned Everyone
The first sign that something crazy had occurred came when the optical measuring device refused to register the length. It simply hadn’t been designed to cope with such distances. The take-off area was soon flooded with Olympic officials, huddling around the board with a tape measure which was now the only way of extracting a measurement. Beamon suffered a seizure when the distance was finally announced, dropping to his knees and covering his face with his hands. He was helped back to his feet by his team meets. The long jump world record had been obliterated by a staggering 55cm (21.75 inches). Like the infamous Rumble in the Jungle boxing match six years later, the heavens opened over Mexico City soon after Beamon’s historic leap. It mattered not. The contest was over. Everyone else was competing for the silver medal.
Progression of Men's Long Jump World Record
“You’ve Destroyed This Event.”
For non-athletics fans, it is difficult to bring perspective to Beamon’s feat. Since records began in 1901, no long jumper had surpassed the previous best by more than 15cm. Within the space of six seconds, Beamon had added 55cm to the world record. In doing so, he became the first athlete to eclipse not only 28ft, but 29ft as well. In contrast, the longest jump of the next ten years was 8.45m and it wasn’t until the emergence of Carl Lewis, Mike Powell, Robert Emmiyan and Larry Myricks in the 1980s that Beamon’s record finally became a realistic, if somewhat ambitious, target.
The End of Beamon's Reign as World Record Holder
The golden age of long jump came in the 1980s and early 1990s. This resurgence climaxed on a super-slick track in Tokyo at the 1991 World Championships. Spurred on by a fierce rivalry with Carl Lewis, Mike Powell leapt 8.95m and ended Beamon’s 23-year reign as world record holder. It is the only time that Beamon’s mark has been beaten and to this day, Beamon still holds the Olympic long jump record—the oldest record on the books. Another lull in the event followed Lewis and Powell’s clash in Tokyo. Of the current top twenty jumps of all time, only two were achieved after 1996. If you calculate the mean date of those top twenty jumps, you’ll come up with autumn 1985.
You’ve destroyed this event.
— Lynn Davies to Bob Beamon
My Attempt to Be Like Beamon
As a child, I sat transfixed by the television as Powell and Lewis threatened to overtake Beamon. I remember the sheer delight and surge of emotion when Powell finally got there, but the thrill was tainted by a sadness that Beamon was no longer king. Hoping to emulate their achievements, I organised long jump contests among my friends but the lack of a sandpit resulted in timid efforts and grass-stained clothing.
In my early teens, now adamant that Beamon’s leap was beyond my capabilities, I switched to triple jump and achieved moderate success. I qualified for the regional school trials with feverish hopes of entering the national stage. Alas, it was a jump too far and I promptly announced my retirement to what I imagined was a packed press tent but was actually a heedless teammate, indifferent to my words following his own failings in the 100m.
Five years later, I returned for a final shot. Now 18, this was my last chance to join Beamon in the record books. Having persuaded a friend to locate a tape measure, we drove to the nearest school sport’s field and began warming up. The long jump pit was a forlorn and uninviting sight with weeds sprouting up through the grubby, brown sand. Unperturbed, I launched myself down the runway and into the pit. We measured the distance at a rather unappealing five metres. My friend then pointed out that I’d taken off almost one metre behind the board, so theoretically my jump was closer to six metres. “That’s only three metres short of Beamon territory,” I declared. “I’m having another go."
The second effort was a disaster. As I approached the board, it was clear that my timing was out. Slowing down to a jog, I stepped off the track but inadvertently upended myself in the wet grass. It was all over. I’d come within three metres of Beamon and that was good enough for me. Feeling an almost cathartic sense of relief, I trudged back to the car and we drove home. I never again set foot in a long jump pit.
Bob Beamon continued competing until 1972 without getting remotely close to the mark set in his finest moment. He now lives in Chicago and has found further success as an athletics coach, motivational speaker, artist and business man along with devoting countless hours to charity work benefiting young people.
Beamon’s jump took place at an altitude of 2240m, which is almost twice the altitude of anywhere in the United Kingdom. At this kind of elevation, the air is less resistant and is conducive to fast times and lengthy jumps. He was also assisted by the maximum legal trailing wind—two metres per second. The naysayers and sceptics cite these factors as overly instrumental in Beamon’s dizzying jump.
Although the altitude and wind assistance undoubtedly gave Beamon a few extra centimetres, his record was the apogee of years of training and self-belief. Beamon reached the very peak of his long jump career on that afternoon in the Estadio Olimpico. It was a rare example of an athlete’s body and mind reaching perfect harmony in pursuit of a common goal.
Even the weather sensed that something mind-blowing was about to happen and gifted Beamon with enough wind to maximise his potential without rendering it illegal. And that’s exactly what it was—a reaching of potential.
Very few athletes can look back on their careers with the satisfying certainty that they once found their absolute limit. Bob Beamon can.
Willy Bils on January 23, 2020:
As a strength athlete, I've hit the "sweet spot in time" four or five times in 15 years of drug-free competition. Sometimes it came unexpectedly. Sometimes it was the result of months of hard training and planning. Sometimes it came in warmups, but wasn't repeated in the subsequent competition minutes later. I often wonder what results I might have had with good coaching and better training facilities and methods I only learned long after my active competitive days were over. One takes what he gets.
Troy Cummings on April 25, 2019:
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on April 11, 2012:
I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it bdegiulio. This was one of the first articles I wrote after joining Hubpages and it is a topic I've wanted to write about for a long time. Thanks for your kind words.
Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on April 11, 2012:
Doc, this is wonderful. I was a kid in 1968 and remember very well watching Bob Beamon's record setting long jump at the Mexico City Olympics. Brings back great memories. You are an excellent writer. Please publish more. Voted up.
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on October 26, 2011:
Sun-Girl from Nigeria on May 31, 2011:
Useful and well shared article.