Records are meant to be broken, sure, but few, if any, have shattered an all-time mark the way Bob Beamon did in the 1968 Olympic Games — setting a world long jump standard by nearly two feet in what some consider to be the greatest individual performance in track and field history.
Beamon entered the competition in Mexico City as the favorite to win gold, but nearly didn’t reach the final after overstepping the line and fouling in his first two qualifying attempts. On his third and final try, Beamon recorded a jump of 8.19 meters, putting him in second place and — most importantly — into the medal round.
When Beamon took the track for the final round the following day, he did so with no expectation that he was about to set an unthinkable record, but after 19 strides and one soaring leap led officials to bring out a manual measuring tape because Beamon had jumped farther than their optical equipment could measure, he began to think something was afoot.
“I felt extraordinarily confident that it would win a gold medal,” Beamon said. “In terms of the distance, I just wanted to jump to be whatever it took to win.”
“You could see that swagger as he jogged out of the pit,” added Beamon’s teammate Ralph Boston, who held the long jump record heading into the 1968 Games. “He knew that he had hit something special.”
When judges finally settled on a distance, Beamon was credited with a jump of 8.9 meters (29 feet 2½ inches), making him a world record holder as the first to ever surpass 29 feet — not to mention 28 feet as well.
“I had no idea (it was that far),” Beamon said. “I actually really didn’t know until Ralph told me what the distance was, because we were working in meters, not in feet, and translating meters to feet was not my forte.”
After setting the record, Beamon attempted one more final round jump, landing at a more human 8.04 meters, but, knowing the medal and the record were already his, he passed on his final four attempts.
Some of Beamon’s detractors still point out that the wind conditions were perfect for Beamon’s record jump, arguing that the record leap was tainted as a result. His army of supporters were quick to argue that the rest of the field participated under the same conditions, and not one of the other athletes cleared 27 feet in the finals.
Beamon’s record would also stand the test of time, further validating the original jump, and remained his until 1991, when Mike Powell set a new bar of 8.95 meters at the 1991 world championships, a mark that still stands today.
“I see (Powell) maybe once a year at a function. and when we see each other, I really want to put on boxing gloves and fight,” Beamon joked. “It’s always great to see him and I thought that he had a brilliant performance.”
Added Boston, whose record of 8.35 meters stood for three years before Beamon’s jump: “That is quite impressive, in an event like that, where the extension of the record was only, at best, an inch, two inches, fractions of an inch — to break it by almost two feet, that’s unheard of.”
Though the world record is no longer his, Beamon still holds the Olympic mark — the gold medal jump at the 2012 games in London was nearly two feet short of Beamon’s record — and though that record, too, may one day fall, his name will forever be associated with the 1968 leap that proved, once and for all, that men truly can fly.
“Sometimes you can’t even explain it,” Beamon said. “It was just a brilliant performance, but technically, I’d say my performance was around a seven or an eight. I’ll take it, though — I was satisfied.”
(February is Black History Month and FOXSports.com will feature athletes who made significant contributions on and off the field in their lives.)