One of the things that makes the Olympics so great is that you never know when some athlete is going to explode with an amazing, outstanding, unbelievable and history-making performance.
Just such a thing occurred at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. It was one of the most memorable Olympiads in recent memory. A number of notable events marked the XIX Games.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black Power salute while accepting their medals; Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump by employing his newly invented technique the 'Fosbury flop'; doping tests were used for the first time (a Swedish pentathlete was disqualified for competing drunk!); and for the first time, the closing ceremonies were televised worldwide IN COLOR!
But overshadowing all these instances in both magnitude and longevity was a long jump performed by American athlete Bob Beamon. Beamon leapt an astounding 29 ft. 2 ½ in. to shatter the previous world record by nearly two feet. Two FEET.
When track and field records fall, they are usually broken incrementally, maybe by a few inches or fractions of an inch, or tenths or hundredths of a second. For example, Jesse Owens world long jump record of 26' 8 1/4", set in 1935, had stood for a quarter of a century until 1960. At that time, an American, Ralph Boston, and a Soviet, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, took turns setting new records for 7 years.
However, in all that time, 1960-1967, the record distance only increased 8 ½ inches. The average increase in the world long jump record since 1901 had been 2 ½ inches, and the largest single increase had been 6 inches.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Beamon didn't just break the record, he obliterated it. His fellow competitors were awed by his achievement. Ter-Ovanesyan said, "Compared to this jump, we are children."
Lynn Davies was the reigning Olympic champion. Following Beamon's effort, the Englishman Davies told him, "You have destroyed this event." Beamon's leap was one for the ages. In sports jargon, the word "Beamonesque" came into use to describe spectacular feats.
It still stands as the Olympic record, and stood as the world record until 1991 when Mike Powell went 29-4½ at a meet in Tokyo.
For Beamon, the road to Olympic glory began in the gang-riddled South Jamaica section of Queens, New York. To keep himself out of trouble, he got heavily involved in basketball and, later, track. He earned a track scholarship to collegiate track and field powerhouse the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP.)
He got suspended from UTEP for a political stance-refusing to compete against Brigham Young University, saying BYU employed racist policies. This left Beamon without a coach. He fell under the unofficial tutelage of noted long-jumper Ralph Boston, who began to groom him toward competing on the international stage.
Page 2 of 2 - At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Bob Beamon was ready to soar into the record books. However, he almost didn't make it. He scratched the toe-board on his first two jumps. Needing to make the finals on his last preliminary attempt, at the suggestion of Ralph Boston, he moved his mark back and jumped just to qualify.
Making the finals, Beamon set the record on his first final jump. He nearly achieved escape velocity, and came close to leaping out of the pit. He jumped so far that he outdistanced the electronic device set up to measure the event.
Adding to the drama, his effort had to be measured manually. When the announcer called out "8.9 meters", Beamon-unfamiliar with metric measurements-did not react.
However, when teammate, coach and mentor Ralph Boston explained to him that he had broken the record by almost two feet, Beamon went into a brief cataleptic seizure triggered by the emotional shock. He had to be helped up by his fellow competitors.
And so, Bob Beamon's name went into the Olympic and world record books for one of the most incredible individual performances in sports history. His feat is ranked as the #2 Most Stunning Olympic Moment in History by some authorities.
How did he do it? How did a good, though not previously considered great, long jumper pull off one of the greatest triumphs in sports history?
Some analysts point to the Mexico City altitude as a factor (less air resistance). And it is true that there were numerous records set in the 1968 sprinting and jumping events. Others mention that Beamon was the beneficiary of the maximum tailwind allowable for records.
I, however, prefer to think that Bob Beamon simply captured lightning in a bottle. He never again got within smelling distance of his record-setting jump. A leg injury kept him from competing much for several years.
He eventually joined a professional track and field tour, jumping 25-26 feet most of the time. Farther than you and I could ever dream about jumping, but still not close to his own stellar mark.
To me, the story of Bob Beamon is inspirational, because it suggests that it is possible for any athlete to capture lightning in a bottle-get lucky, if you prefer.
If Bob Beamon could jump out of his gourd on one jump in one event at one Olympics, to me that suggests that a hack golfer might indeed someday achieve his dream of a hole-in-one.
Or maybe somehow a light-hitting rec-league softball player might inexplicably smash a grand slam home run to give his team a win.
Bob Beamon's leap into history should give the rest of us hope that we, too, may someday pull off something amazing.