Beamon, the beacon

October 18, 1968 has been a red-letter day in athletics history. That was the day when Bob Beamon soared to a stunning world record in the long jump competition of the Mexico City Games.

Bob Beamon creating the then world long jump record at the 1968 Olympics with a first round leap of 8.90 m.   -  getty images

Billy Mills pulled off the biggest upset of the Tokyo Games in 1964 by defeating favourite Ron Clarke in the 10,000m. Australian Clarke, one of the greatest distance runners the world had seen, was not prepared for the last-ditch rush of Mills, an American with Sioux lineage, with 50 metres to go. He just gave up and allowed Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi to take the silver behind Mills. The American timed an Olympic record of 28:24.4, Gammoudi was home in 28:24.8 while Clarke took the bronze in 28:25.8. Clarke, owner of 18 world records, was never destined to win a major championship even though he was one of the legends of distance running.

Peter Snell scored the 800-1500 double in Tokyo. He had surprised some of the best in the 800m in 1960 and in 1964 he wanted to go for the double. Snell had bettered the world records in the 800m (1:44.3), 880 yards (1:45.1) and the mile (3:54.4) in 1962. He was thus the favourite in Tokyo. Coached by the famous Arthur Lydiard, whose punishing hill running schedule conditioned his body to tackle the double in Tokyo, Snell ran six races in a week’s span. Boxed in the 800m final he came out and ran in the fourth lane for an Olympic record of 1:45.1 with Bill Crothers of Canada taking silver in 1:45.6. Snell had an easier time in winning the 1500m in 3:38.1 with Josef Odlozil, in whose memory an international meet is run in Prague, Czech Republic, second in 3:39.6.

Jesse Owens described Bob Hayes as the “greatest sprinter ever”. At 1.83m, 85kg, Hayes was a bulky sprinter who demolished the Tokyo field with a world record 10.0s win. The electronic timings system showed 10.04 which was rounded down to 10.0. Back-up hand-timekeepers showed 9.9 and 9.8 seconds. Hayes later anchored the US team to victory in the 4x100m relay. He left athletics to join the ranks of professional American football players and made millions of dollars during a 10-year career.

A persistent drizzle had upset many athletics events in Tokyo. The men’s high jump was one of the worst hit. Almost throughout a five-hour competition the drizzle had kept up to the discomfort of the jumpers. The main contest was between Valeriy Brumel of the USSR and John Thomas of the USA. Thomas had set four world records in 1960, the last in July that year going up to 2.22m. Brumel took over in 1961 and added six centimetres to that record up to 1963. Into the Olympics the Soviet athlete had an 8-1 record over Thomas. Brumel cleared 2.12, 2.16, 2.18 on his first attempt and failed at 2.20. Thomas also cleared 2.18 on his first attempt but on countback he was second, having cleared 2.16 on his second attempt.

1968 Mexico City

October 18, 1968 has been a red-letter day in athletics history. That was the day when Bob Beamon soared to a stunning world record in the long jump competition of the Mexico City Games. Beamon obviously reached far ahead of his time; so far ahead that it took another 23 years for the record to be broken. It looked so futile to even attempt it during the intervening period that not many talked about aiming for it.

Beamon was the favourite going into the Games since he was unbeaten that season. In the final, he reached an extra-ordinary height on his opening jump before coming down beyond the electronic measuring devices. A steel tape had to be summoned to measure the jump! It was 8.90 metres and world record! The monstrous jump reduced the competition into a no-contest so early that it was a wonder the others managed to go through the motions of completing their jumps. Even Beamon was stunned by what he had produced and collapsed on the track when it was announced that the jump measured 8.90. “Tell me I am not dreaming,” he reportedly asked someone nearby. Beamon took one more jump (8.04m) and passed the rest. American Ralph Boston (8.16m) and Soviet Union’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan (8.12m) took the minor medals.

Mexico City was expected to produce jumps over 8.50m because of the altitude factor. At 7200 feet it afforded such a huge advantage with its thin air that the sprinters and horizontal jumpers went on a record-breaking spree. On top of it, Beamon’s world record jump was aided by a wind-speed of 2.0m/second, the maximum allowable wind for ratifying a record. One expert analysed Beamon’s jump of 8.90m and came to the conclusion that under normal conditions it could be worth 8.56m.

Mike Powell bettered the world record in an electrifying long jump contest with Carl Lewis in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo with an 8.95 that stands even today.

All the men’s sprint events produced world records in Mexico City, while the 100m and 200m in the women’s section also saw world records being bettered. Mexico City Games were the first to use synthetic track and that also helped in the making of world records in sprints apart from advantage of altitude.

Americans Jim Hines (9.9s), Tommie Smith (19.8s) and Lee Evans (43.8s) were the world record setters in the 100m, 200m and 400m. Later the IAAF ratified Evans’s time as the world record at 43.86 (electronically taken time), it being the first such electronic record approved.

Viktor Saneyev’s effort of 17.39m in triple jump completed the sequence of world records in the men’s sprints and horizontal jumps.

World records were also registered in the women’s 100m (11.0s) and 200m (22.5s) by American Wyomia Tyus and Poland’s Irena Kirszenstein respectively.

Romanian Viorica Viscopoleanu with 6.82m in long jump was another athlete who cashed in on the altitude factor to set a world record.

The Mexico City Games was not just known for its string of world records. Just as Parry O’Brien had done with the shot putting technique in the 1950s, Dick Fosbury, a 21-year-old American high jumper, brought in an innovative idea. He had his back to the bar while jumping, a style that caught on slowly. Termed the ‘Fosbury flop’ or simply Fosbury or flop in later years that style remains the favourite, more than four decades later, among jumpers around the world, male or female. Fosbury cleared 2.24 for his gold in his third attempt, tried 2.29m and failed. American Dwight Stones was the man who first set a world record using the ‘flop’ at 2.30m in 1973.

Mexico City was also the place where American Al Oerter completed his fourth consecutive win in discus throw in the Olympics. The American, aged 32 in his fourth Olympics, and weighing 125 kg, beat world record holder and team-mate Jay Silvester in winning his record fourth title. At all four Olympics Oerter set Games records, 56.36m, 59.18m, 61.00m and 64.78m. He had endured a painful rib injury that required periodic application of ice packs in Tokyo while winning.

Kip Keino was the first Kenyan to show the world how good the Africans were in middle-distance and distance events. Despite having stomach cramps caused by gallstones Keino took the silver in the 5000m and then ran a remarkable race in the 1500m that defied the altitude and his poor health that had prompted the doctors to advise him rest rather than running. He beat American Jim Ryun, holder of the world record, with a time of 3:34.9, second on the all-time lists behind the American’s record of 3:33.1. That he achieved it at altitude confounded the pundits. It was estimated that Keino’s time was worth 3:32 at sea level. He would win the 3000m steeplechase gold in the next edition of the Games.

1972 Munich

Valeriy Borzov was the first European to take the sprint double in the Olympics. The 23-year-old Ukrainian representing the USSR won in the absence of the two leading American sprinters Eddie Hart and Ray Robinson who missed the 100m quarterfinals because of a scheduling mix-up. Borozov won the 100m in 10.14 and the 200m in 20.00s, the fastest auto times. Munich was the first time where automatic timings were officially listed for the Olympics in the record books.

In a Games marred by a terrorists’ attack Germany had celebrated the victory of Ulrike Meyfarth in the women’s high jump a day before the tragedy. She set an Olympic record of 1.92m which equalled the world record of Ilona Gusenbauer of Austria who went out at 1.88. Bulgarian Yordanka Blagoeva also cleared 1.88, but had done so on her first attempt to take the silver. Meyfarth cleared 1.90 on her second attempt and then sailed over 1.92 on her first before failing thrice at 1.94. At 16 years 123 days Meyfarth became the youngest winner of an individual gold medal in the Olympics. Twelve years later she won the gold again, in Los Angeles.

1976 Montreal

In 80 years no one had won the 400-800 double in the Olympics. Alberto Juantorena did it in Montreal. The big-built Cuban won the 800m in a world record 1:43.50 (subsequently ratified as 1:43.5), with India’s Sriram Singh unwittingly providing him the pace that was needed in the first lap that was gone through in 50.85s. Ivo Van Damme of Belgium was second in 1:43.86. Sriram Singh came seventh in an Asia record of 1:45.77 that still stands as the national record. Juantorena took the 400m later in 44.26s.

Finland’s Lasse Viren had continued his country’s rich tradition of distance running by winning the 5000m and 10,000m in Munich. He repeated the feat in Montreal to become the new Finnish hero. In taking the 10,000m in Munich, Viren had set a world record of 27:38.35 despite a fall. Blood doping suspicions spoilt his outstanding record as a distance runner comparable to the Finnish greats of the past.

Irena Szewinska (nee Kirszenstein) one of the greatest woman athletes of all time won her seventh Olympic medal, the gold in the 400m with a world record 49.28s. She had set a world record for the distance that season, at 49.75s and having just concentrated on one event unlike in the past, was heavily favoured to win. She would compete again in Moscow, at the age of 34, in her fifth Olympics but would bow out of the 400m at the semifinal stage. In every Olympics bar the last one she won a medal, two silvers in 1964 (200m and long jump) at the age of 18, a gold (200m) and a bronze (100m) in 1968, a bronze in 1972 (200m) and the gold in 1976 in the 400m.

Viktor Saneyev completed an unprecedented third Olympic title in triple jump with an effort of 17.29m. In doing so he beat world record holder Joao Carlos de Oliveira of Brazil who had set a mark of 17.89m in 1975. In fact the Brazilian could manage only 16.90m for third with American James Butts coming second with 17.18. Saneyev had one last attempt in Moscow but an injury prevented him doing better than second place at an impressive 17.24m behind Jaak Uudmae (17.35m)

Miklos Nemeth of Hungary shed his ‘choker’ tag with the gold and a world record in javelin. He opened with 94.58m and that ended the competition. Seppo Hovinen of Finland who had thrown 93.54 that year finished seventh with 84.26m. Silver went to another Finn Hannu Siitonen at 87.92m.

Tatyana Kazankina was another athlete who set a world record. The USSR athlete won the 800m in a world record 1:54.94 and also took the 1500m gold in 4:05.48.

1980 Moscow

Despite the US-led boycott Britain competed and its two superb middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, made the Games a most memorable one with their duels in the 800m and 1500m. Both had excellent credentials in both events. Eventually they won the “wrong” events. The fact that Coe was the world record holder in 800m with 1:42.4 in Oslo in 1979 made him the favourite in the two-lapper. Ovett had equalled Coe’s 1979 world record in 1500m at 3:32.1 just before Olympics, in Oslo. He was the favourite to win.

Things did not turn out as per expectations and forecasts. The 800m came first and Ovett pulled off an upset of sorts with a 1:43.00 win. Coe hit back in the 1500m five days later, winning it in 3:38.40. Coe’s superior finish on the final straight clinched a memorable victory over Ovett who had not lost a race over that distance in more than three years. Ovett could manage only the bronze behind GDR’s Jurgen Straub.

Miruts Yifter scored a grand distance double in Moscow. Known for his sudden change in speed, the Ethiopian was named ‘Yifter the shifter’ in those days when his age was matter of speculation. Said to be 36 at the time of the Moscow Games he clocked last laps of 54.9s for both 5000m and 10,000m to completely throw off the opposition.

Waldemar Cierpinski of GDR emulated Ethiopian Abebe Bikila in retaining his marathon title with a time of 2:11:03. He had won in Montreal in 2:09:55, an Olympic record.

World records were posted in high jump through GDR’s Gerd Wessig (2.36m) and in hammer throw by the host team’s Yuriy Sedykh (81.80m). The USSR athletes swept the medals with Sergey Litvinov taking the silver and Juri Tam the bronze. Eight years later, Litvinov came back to win the gold with 84.80m in Seoul.

1984 Los Angeles

Carl Lewis, who many rate as the greatest athlete of our times, won four gold medals in Los Angeles to equal the record that countryman Jesse Owens set in 1936. King Carl, as he was popularly called, had an aura about himself, an invincibility that came out of the self-belief that he was the best. Lewis was the busiest athlete in Los Angeles, making 13 appearances in eight days. He won the 100 easily in 9.99m, over another American Sam Grady (10.19). On August 6 Lewis had two rounds of 200m and the long jump final. He opened the long jump competition with 8.54m, fouled the next and left the pit area, passing the rest of his attempts to concentrate on the 200m. He still won with 30cm to spare from second-placed Australian Gary Honey. But the crowd booed him during the medal ceremony, obviously unhappy that he had not shown them more than two jumps.

Lewis won the 200m in 19.80, with second placed Kirk Baptiste at 19.96. Finally he anchored the US 4x100m relay team to a world record of 37.83s.

Edwin Moses, the greatest 400m hurdler the world had seen, won his second Olympic gold after having missed the Moscow edition because of the boycott. The American had won in Montreal in a world record 47.63m and at home he timed 47.75s. He had a winning streak of 89 finals before Los Angeles.

Britain’s Daley Thompson was another athlete to win a gold for the second time. He retained his decathlon title with a world record-equalling 8798 points after a pulsating battle with West German Jurgen Hingsen (8673). It became an outright world record when new scoring tables were brought in later in 1984.

Nawal El Moutawakel became only the second African woman (and the first Muslim) to win an Olympic gold medal. Of course Indian fans are very familiar with the 400m hurdles in Los Angeles since it was in this event that P. T. Usha missed the bronze by one-hundredth of a second. With most East Europeans absent because of the USSR-led boycott, this was a race that was open since the best intermediate hurdlers of that era came from the GDR. Moutawakel had a PB of 55.37s going into the Games and the Moroccan clinched the gold with an Area record of 54.61 for the event that made its Olympic debut. American Judi Brown took silver while Romanian Cristina Cojocaru leaned at the finish to deny Usha what could have been a historic medal for India. Usha’s time of 55.42s still stands as a national record, the only one that she had been able to retain from the 1980s.

Women’s marathon was introduced in the Los Angeles Games and Joan Benoit of the US won in 2:24:52 in a tough field that had Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway and Rosa Mota of Portugal. Waitz and Mota took the minor medals.

In a Games where the host nation had so many successful athletes, Valerie Brisco-Hooks scored an unprecedented double to get among the stars. She won the 200m and 400m, the first athlete to do it in the same Games. With the Eastern Bloc missing because of the boycott, there was no serious opposition to Brisco-Hooks in the 400m. Marita Koch of GDR would have been a strong favourite had she been there. As against Brisco-Hooks’s winning time of 48.83s, an Olympic record, Koch won the Eastern Bloc meet in 48.16s to show who the real boss was over one lap. The American won the 200m in 21.81s beating team-mate Florence Griffth-Joyner and Jamaican Merlene Ottey who was the favourite.

1988 Seoul

The sight of Ben Johnson, right index finger raised as he crossed the finish, will invariably come to mind when you recall the Seoul Olympics. The stunned look on Carl Lewis’s face tells it all. Johnson had just decimated the 100m field with an astounding world record of 9.79s.

Doping was known to athletics much before Johnson’s sensational downfall, but his dramatic disqualification in Seoul shook the athletics world. The moment triggered a new phase in athletics, a phase of extreme scepticism towards a sport that today is once again in the doldrums because of doping and corruption.

Three days after posting the world record in the 100m in what later came to be known as the “dirtiest race” in history, Johnson was disqualified for doping, ejected from the Games and left Seoul in humiliation and tears. The IAAF stripped the Canadian of his 1987 World Championships title and world record (9.83s) and gave that as well as the Seoul titles plus a world record of 9.92s to Lewis. Johnson was banned for life following a second doping violation in 1993. He was to test positive a third time in 1999!

Lewis was beaten by Joe DeLoach, his American team-mate in the 200m final, but retained his long jump gold, jumping 8.72m against Mike Powell’s 8.49m.

World record holder Butch Reynolds suffered an unexpected jolt in the 400m against American team-mate Steve Lewis who beat him 43.87s to 43.93s. Reynolds, holder of the world record then at 43.29s, was banned for an anti-doping rule violation later in his career.

The Seoul Games was not just famous for Ben Johnson and his shameful exit. It also saw the glamour and style of American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner and her fabulous world record in the 200m, twice at that. She timed 21.56s in the semifinals and 21.34s in the final, bettering the 21.71s record held by Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler of the GDR. Having run an amazing world record of 10.49s in the 100m in the US Olympic trials Flo Jo was the favourite to take the sprint double in Seoul and she did that with great ease and style.

Yet, after her premature death at 39 in 1998, the whispers that were floating around since the days she started clocking unbelievable times, grew louder. Though she never tested positive in her career, the world today believes that Flo Jo could not have returned all those timings without the aid of drugs. Her records stand.

This brief narration of the athletics highlights of the Seoul Games would be incomplete without mention of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The American won a rare double, the heptathlon and the long jump. Never before had anyone taken that combination and won. In winning the heptathlon gold with a world record tally of 7291 points, Joyner-Kersee bettered her own world record (7215) set during the US trials. With a fifth-round jump of 7.40m JJK beat Drechsler (7.22m) in long jump. She was crowned the “First Lady of Athletics.”