The magic leap

In one jump Beamon had added 21 and three-quarter inches.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

While the sporting world still marvels at the ASTONISHING FEAT of Bob Beamon, who turns 60 later this month, in the long jump event of the 1968 Olympic Games, the athlete himself still reckons his most notable achievement was the seemingly simple matter of "pulling through" his childhood, writes GULU EZEKIEL.

Bob Beamon's record-shattering long jump mark at the 1968 Mexico Olympics is widely considered the greatest athletics feat of all time. But considering the shocking privations of his childhood, it is a wonder he survived even infancy. Beamon's 60th birthday falls on August 29. And while the sporting world still marvels at his astonishing feat, the athlete himself still reckons his most notable achievement was the seemingly simple matter of "pulling through" his childhood.

Beamon was disowned and abandoned by his father, and his mother died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis — a month before Bob's first birthday. Shunted from home to home, the youngster witnessed violence and death close hand, leaving him emotionally scarred for life. He mixed with gangs from his youth, and it is a miracle he survived to achieve such fame.

Bob's first training came at a reform school for violent youth. Slim and long-legged, he was a natural runner and jumper. In 1962, he saw an advertisement for the Junior Olympics in his hometown in New York. Borrowing a pair of shoes, he entered and won the long jump gold with a leap of 24ft 1in at the age of 16. His athletics career had taken off in style. "That gold medal proved to me that I might come through with something worthwhile in my life," Beamon would comment years later. Finally, the troubled teenager had found a healthy outlet for his rage. It also provided him with an escape route from a life of poverty, crime and squalor. The Olympics were staged in a year full of political turbulence and violence around the world. In the United States, Black Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King had been killed six months before the Olympics. His murder inflamed passions and a boycott of Mexico by Black American sportspersons had been seriously mooted.

But in Mexico City, Beamon stayed away from all this turmoil, cocooned in his own world, determined to take home the gold. Indeed, he started as the favourite. At 22, Beamon was the youngest of the top contenders. His main rivals would be the American Ralph Boston (winner in 1960), the joint world record holder with Soviet Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, and the Briton Lynn Davies, winner in 1964.

The world record then stood at 27 feet and four-and-three-quarter inches. Beamon had won 22 out of his 23 events that year, losing only once indoors and experts felt he was capable of breaking the record. The high altitude of Mexico City also lent itself to a record. Would Beamon be the first to breach the 28ft barrier?

Certainly Boston was aware of his friend and rival's potential. After being beaten by Beamon at the American Olympic trials, the veteran had trained and guided the young gun, helping him with his mental approach and watching as he developed into a world-class triple jumper and high jumper as well. But Beamon could also be erratic and had the habit of often fouling his jumps. In fact, he almost failed to qualify for the final and did so only on his third and final try after timely advice from his friend, informal coach and rival.

The day of the final, October 18, was gloomy with occasional rain. There were 17 finalists with Beamon being the fourth to start. The first three fouled. Then it was Beamon's turn. His rival-cum-coach Boston called out, "Come on, make it a good one." And boy, was it good!

For 20 seconds Beamon stood at the top of the runway, deep in thought and telling himself over and over again, "Don't foul, don't foul." Then he raced down the runway, hit the take-off board perfectly and sailed through the air effortlessly. He hit the sand so hard that he bounced up and landed outside the pit.

Instantly Boston knew it was special. He turned to Davies and said, "That's over 28 feet." Davies was stunned. "With his first jump? No, it can't be." The optical measuring device used to check the distance fell off the railing! An official muttered awe-struck, "fantastic, fantastic." An old-fashioned steel tape was called for. Then the distance was flashed on the electronic scoreboard: 8.90 metres. Beamon knew it was a record, but was unfamiliar with the metric system and had to check with Boston, who held both the Olympic and world records. Even as they embraced his compatriot told him, "Bob, you jumped 29 feet." The rest of the field was stunned. Ter-Ovanesyan said to Davies, "Compared to this jump, we are as children."

Davies, the defending champion, was crushed. "I can't go on. What is the point? We'll all look silly," he told Boston. Then in despair he turned to Beamon and said, "You have destroyed this event." By now the jump had been officially converted to 29 feet two-and-a-half inches and now the feat finally began to sink in.

In the previous 33 inches the record had progressed by eight-and-a-half inches. In one jump Beamon had added 21 and three-quarter inches. The 28-foot barrier had been by-passed. In fact the first 28-foot jump would not be recorded till the 1980 Olympics. Overcome with the enormity of it all, Beamon collapsed in tears. In fact, he was suffering a cataplectic seizure as his muscles gave way under the emotion of it all. He was helped to his feet by Boston and Charlie Mays, another fellow-athlete, who supported him until he recovered from his dizziness.

Not only had he destroyed the event, the record nearly destroyed Beamon. Every time he competed the crowds expected another huge jump. But subsequently he could never even reach 27 feet. He left athletics bitter and crushed. The record had become like a millstone round his neck and he wandered from job to job and from marriage to marriage. But in recent years he has turned the corner and today he is a happily married man.

On August 30, 1991, at the Tokyo World Championship, the record was finally broken. Fellow-American Mike Powell leapt to 8.95 metres (29 feet, four-and-a-half-inches). Watching back home on TV in New York, Beamon commented poignantly, "There goes another old friend." But his mark remains the oldest Olympic record still standing.