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Six seconds. That’s all it took for Bob Beamon to leap into history.
The South Jamaica long jumper took 19 strides, sailed — or should we say walked — 6 feet in thin air and landed into immortality. His jump, at 29 feet 2 1/2 inches at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, was considered by Sports Illustrated as one of the five greatest moments in 20th century sports history. Although the record was broken in 1991, today, more than 40 years later, it remains the second-oldest Olympic record.
Among the elite competitors, records are usually broken by fragments of a second or fractions of an inch. Not Beamon. His jump was 1 foot 10 1/2 inches farther than his previous best, becoming the first person to reach 28 feet and 29 feet.
Beamon was born Aug. 29, 1946. His mother died at 25 from tuberculosis when Beamon was 8 months old and he was raised by his grandmother, who sheltered him from an abusive father.
Later in life, he spoke with a reporter about his difficult youth. Craving for attention to replace a lost mother’s love made him a troublemaker. He was a clown in school before finding the one thing that he could believe in: sports.
“My high school [in Jamaica] was a jungle,” he said. “You had to be constantly alert — ready to fight or run. If you joined one of the gangs, you might escape harm, but you also might be in trouble the rest of your life. If you stayed decent, you stood a good chance of being clobbered every day. So I went hot and heavy for basketball — and I feel it saved me from being cut up. Basketball is big stuff in New York. If you’re good in it, everybody respects you. Nobody would want to ruin your shooting eye or your shooting arm.”
Beamon was even better in track. Larry Ellis, a renowned track coach, discovered him and began to train Beamon for serious competition. Beamon later became part of the All-American track and field team and in 1965 was declared second in the long jump in the United States. He received a track and field scholarship to college.
Although Beamon had an outstanding season in 1968, he almost did not qualify for the finals at the Olympics before his coach told him to relax. He qualified on his third and last attempt. He later said that the night before “everything was wrong. So I went into town and had a shot of tequila. Man, did I feel loose. I got a good sleep.”
On his record jump at the Olympics, Beamon landed so far down the sand pit that the optical device which had been installed to measure the distances missed his jump. Officials measured the jump manually, which added to the jump’s legend.
Beamon said, “My mind was blank during the jump.”
When he was on the podium receiving his gold medal, Beamon remembered thinking, “Where do I go from here?”
Fear of the void seized him.
Shortly after Beamon’s jump, a rainstorm blew through, making it more difficult for his competitors. In addition to Beamon’s record, a number of world records were broken in events at the 1968 Olympic Games. Detractors claimed the thin air of Mexico City, as well as a trailing wind at 2 meters a second, the maximum allowed, assisted him. Beamon never again came close to matching his record jump. He faded from the sport.
But these things did not really matter. His deed became immortal. Sports journalist Dick Schaap wrote a book about the leap, called “The Perfect Jump.” In track and field jargon, a new adjective — Beamonesque — came into use to describe spectacular feats. He is in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and was one of the first inductees into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
A writer once said, “Some sports moments simply defy all reasonable comprehension — Mickey Mantle blasting a 565-foot home run, Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths and Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes. But the feat that may top them all came on Oct. 18, 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.”
Notable quote: “Whatever you do, don’t do it halfway.”
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©2011 Community Newspaper Group
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