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Beamon jumps into record book

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1999


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As with most events in track and field, the long jump is measured -- and records are broken -- by fractions of an inch, by centimeters, which is what made Bob Beamon's feat (and, yes, feet) at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics that much more remarkable.

Beamon was, in effect, the No. 2 long-jumper on the U.S. team. Ralph Boston had won gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics and silver at the 1964 Games at Tokyo, and set or tied the world record five times. The record of 27 feet, 43/4 inches was Boston's when the 1968 Summer Games started.

Beamon had won 22 of 23 meets he had entered that year, but he was prone to fouling and was considered inconsistent. Furthermore, he had been suspended that June by the Texas-El Paso track team for protesting Brigham Young's Mormon racial policies by refusing to compete against BYU. That left him without a coach.

Boston, who had become Beamon's unofficial coach, and Soviet competitor Igor Ter-Ovanesyan were the favorites in Mexico City.

Beamon and Boston were Olympic adversaries, but they were friends and teammates, too.

On Oct. 18, Beamon fouled on his first two qualifying attempts. One more and he would be eliminated.

Boston had a suggestion, something similar to what had happened at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when Jesse Owens had fouled in his first two qualifying attempts and Germany's Luz Long had told him how to avoid another foul.

"Ralph Boston did the same for me," Beamon said later. "He told me, "Bob, you won't foul if you take off a foot behind the foul line. You can't miss.' Basically, that's what Luz Long told Jesse (the German placed a towel at the spot for Owens to use as a takeoff marker), and I took Ralph's advice. I qualified."

With his opening jump in the final, Beamon effectively ended the competition for the gold medal. The 6-foot-3, 160-pound New Yorker sprinted down the runway and launched himself into Mexico City's thin air. When he came down, he was nearly out of the long-jump pit.

"I knew I made a great jump. ... I knew it was more than 27-43/4, which was the world record," Beamon said.

He ran around excitedly, then fell to his knees, buried his face in his hands and, overcome by the moment, wept.

"I heard some of the guys saying things like 8.9 meters ... or something," he said. "Outside the United States, everything is in meters, so I wasn't sure how far I had jumped.

"Then Ralph Boston came over and said, "Bob, I think it's over 29 feet,' which was almost 2 feet farther than the world record."

From 1961-65, Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan had traded the world record back and forth, raising it from 27-1/2 to 27-2 to 27-31/2 to 27-43/4. Four and one-quarter inches in nearly five years.

"I said to Ralph, "What happened to 28 feet?' " Beamon said.

After what seemed like an eternity, the public-address announcer made it official:

"Bob Beamon's leap, 8.90 meters -- 29 feet, 21/2 inches."

In one leap he had raised the record by 213/4 inches.

"Compared to this jump, we are as children," Ter-Ovanesyan said afterward. And an angry English jumper Lynn Davies said to Beamon, "You have destroyed this event!"

The record would become track and field's oldest, standing for 23 years until Mike Powell leaped 2 inches farther at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.

"I've always been a very realistic person," Beamon said the day Powell eclipsed his mark. "I knew the day I set it that eventually someone would come along and surpass it. ... I knew it was inevitable. Now that it has finally happened, I don't feel any different. I don't feel as though something's been taken away from me or that people will think any less of me.

"And don't forget," Beamon said with a hint of humor, "I still hold the Olympic record."

-- Information from Times files and 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History by Bud Greenspan (General Publishing Group) was used in this report.

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