• Rewind to 1968

One giant leap for man

Alex Dimond February 9, 2012
Bob Beamon redefined what we thought was humanly possible © Getty Images

In July 1969, upon becoming the first man to walk on the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong uttered one of the most famous phrases in human history: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

A year earlier, there was one giant leap by a man - by another American, Bob Beamon, as he made a leap the likes of which mankind had previously never considered possible. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the man blessed with lightning speed and a breath-taking spring flew into the record books with a long jump of 8.90m - 55cm further than the previous best.

For younger readers, it was a paradigm-shifting display of athleticism in the same vein as Usain Bolt's barely-believable 100m effort at the 2008 Olympics. His competitors were left demoralised, those watching from the stands were left amazed.

Beamon's jump was incredible, but perhaps the fact he got to the stage in the first place was equally amazing. A trouble-maker as a youngster in New York (one who struggled to come to terms with the loss of his mother to tuberculosis when he was one); Beamon led a volatile life that was only channelled in a positive direction when he took to pursuing his innate athletic prowess at the increasingly well-regarded Texas-El Paso university.

He won a Junior Olympic gold medal in 1962 ("That gold medal was as important to me as the one in Mexico City," he later wrote in his autobiography. "It proved to me that I might come through with something worthwhile in my life".) and would gradually become regarded as the most gifted if erratic jumper on the senior circuit - culminating in a '68 season that saw him win 22 of 23 events prior to the Olympics.

Not that he was guaranteed to go to the Games, however - as African-American athletes contemplated boycotting the event over civil rights (a powderkeg issue in the States, one that would culminate in Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos' infamous 'Black Power Salute').

"We, the African-Americans, were talking about boycotting the Olympic Games. So it was very political," Beamon recently recalled. "Of course we had the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then, of course, Bobby Kennedy. It was a tremendous amount of pressure that was mounting up, and then in Mexico City, hundreds of students were shot down in the middle of the streets. And that was kept quiet. It was just a very political time."

Nevertheless, black athletes eventually did decide to go to the Games, where Beamon was immediately installed as one of Team USA's main hopes for gold. His inconsistency counted against him, however, something that played into the hands of the defending champion, Great Britain's Lynn Davies.

"My win four years earlier had been a big surprise because I was an outsider, but, going into Mexico, the world record was 8.35m and I had jumped 8.24m in that summer, which ranked me in the top three in the world," Davies, respected for his temperament, said. "So there were four of us capable of winning: Beamon, myself, Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan.

"We thought 28 feet was the next barrier, which was something like 8.54m. We knew Beamon was capable of that but we never thought he had the technique and the consistency to strike the take-off board with accuracy."

That assessment looked spot-on during qualifying for the final, as Beamon over-stepped the board on his first two attempts. With just one opportunity left to get the clean jump he had to have to progress, the 22-year-old had the wherewithal to take the advice of compatriot, mentor and past champion Boston - who told him to start his run-up from much further back to ensure he was comfortably behind the board.

That he did, and so he made it into the final.

"It was either make it or break it. If I don't make it, then I've gotta go home. I wasn't willing to go home," Beamon later mused.

Despite avoiding that potential disaster, Beamon remained very nervous. A protest against the admission rules of a rival university had seen him lose his scholarship at Texas-El Paso, while he was having a certain amount of difficulties in his personal life. Wisely or otherwise, on the eve of the final Beamon decided a few shots of tequila at a downtown bar were the best way to clear his head.

Considering what would happen next, it can only be said that the 'unorthodox' method worked like a charm. Beamon was drawn to jump fourth in the final, and when it came to his turn he exuded a sort of Zen-like calm. His sprint to the board was that of a man who was easily capable of running 100 yards in 9.5 seconds, while his connection with the board - in contrast to qualifying - was executed with a sweet precision he was barely even aware of.

"I could not feel my legs under me, I was floating," he remembered. "I eased up on my last step before I hit the board, and that makes the difference when I jump well. My mind was blank during the jump. After so much jumping, jumping becomes automatic."

Beamon is flanked by Klaus Beer (silver) and Ralph Boston (bronze) on the podium © Getty Images

The result, however, was anything but. Davies and his rivals may have considered him capable of breaking 28 feet - instead, in his first jump they had seen him clear 29. "What's the point [in continuing]?" Davies said at the time. "He's destroyed the event."

It looked like the effort had destroyed the man too, as Beamon collapsed on the track - in what was later ascribed as a cataplectic seizure - after belatedly being informed of the length of his jump (with the pit measured only up to 28 feet, marshals had to bring out a steel tape-measure to be sure of his distance).

In the aftermath, critics were keen to point to the altitude and supporting wind (right on the legal limits) as a key cause behind Beamon's dramatics. They certainly helped: "It was a very unfair Olympic Games in many ways because, being at 8,000 feet, it was a rarefied atmosphere," Davies, who ultimately finished a lowly ninth, noted. "For the explosive events we knew there would be world records because there was less air pressure and resistance. Many records were exceeded because it was at altitude."

Yet no other athlete came close to matching Beamon in the same conditions, offering some opposition to that theory. It may have been a perfect storm of circumstances, but it was one only the elastic American was able to take advantage of.

"I'm always dreaming about it," Beamon said of the jump. "There's not a day that I don't feel good about it."

Nevertheless, Beamon remembers being ridden with difficult thoughts as he collected his gold medal on the podium - "Where do I go from here?" being chief among them.

It almost didn't matter, though - much like Armstrong would a year later, he'd already achieved immortality.

What happened next?
Beamon never approached his record leap ever again - although neither did any other athlete for over 20 years, when Mike Powell edged it by five centimetres at the 1991 World Championships in Toyko.

His impressive leap and childhood background in basketball saw Beamon drafted by the NBA's Phoenix Suns a year after his record-setting heroics, but he never made it as a star of that sport. He continued with athletics, but persistent injury complaints (perhaps somehow a result of the constant weight of expectations after what he had already achieved) prevented him competing on a regular basis as he soon faded from the sport. He now works as an athletic director at a Chicago university.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk