In a single 6 second period in 1968, Bob Beamon completely rewrote the record books in track and field.
His gold medal-winning long jump at the Mexico City Olympics not only set a world’s record, but it added a new word to the English dictionary.
Find out how Bob Beamon changed not only sports history but the English language on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Bob Beamon was a very good athlete, but I don’t know if you could call him a great athlete. Take away the singular thing which happened to him in 1968, and he probably would be remembered as much as Ralph Boston. If you don’t know who Ralph Boston is, that sort of proves my point.
Going into the Olympics, Beamon was on a hot streak. He was the odds on favorite to win the long jump, having won 22 of 23 meets that year. He also had a personal best of 8.33 meters or 27 feet, 4 inches.
These distances I’m going to be discussing are really important to the story, so I’ll be giving them in both meters and feet.
While he was having success on the track, Beamon was having issues in his personal life. He had lost his scholarship to the University of Texas El Paso when he and other athletes boycotted a track meet at BYU because of their racial policies. He also wasn’t getting along with his wife.
Once the Olympic competition had started, he had difficulties in the preliminaries. Each competitor was given three jumps, and the longest jump of the three would count towards making the finals.
Beamon had fouled on his first two jumps.
On his third and final attempt, Beamon landed his foot well before the foul line just to be safe and wound up with a jump of 8.19 meters or 26 feet and 10.4 inches. The jump put him in second place going into the finals, and it was his all-time person jump as well.
The world and Olympic record at the time were both held by the aforementioned Ralph Boston. The World Record was 8.35 meters, or 27 feet and 4.7 inches. The Olympic Record was 8.12 meters, or 26 feet and 7.7 inches.
Both Beamon and Boston had surpassed the Olympic record in the prelims, so either man setting a world record in the finals was very possible.
It is here the story doesn’t follow the plot you’d expect from a movie. There was no dramatic last jump. This was not a close competition.
In the finals, all 16 competitors were given the opportunity at 6 jumps. The best jump is all that mattered.
The jump for which this entire episode is based took place on Beamon’s very first jump in the finals.
Beamon reached an incredibly high speed and jumped getting an incredible amount of height.
He knew immediately it was a very good jump. He thought it might have been good enough for the world’s record. He thought it might have gotten 8.4 meters or 27 and a half feet.
As soon as he landed there was a problem. The 1968 Olympics was the first Olympics to use an electrical sensor to measure jumps. Beamon had landed past the electrical measuring device. They didn’t think anyone could possibly jump that far.
Officials took 20 minutes to measure the jump because they had to get a tape measure to measure it manually.
When they announced the distance, Beamon at first didn’t know what had happened, because he was used to feet and inches, not meters.
The announced length of the jump was 8.9 meters. His teammate Ralph Boston told him this distance in a way he could understand: 29 feet ?2 1?2 inches.
Bob Beamon had demolished the world’s record.
When he was given the news, his body collapsed due to being put in a state of cataplexy. His emotions were so great, he literally collapsed.
It is hard to express just how great his jump was. Most world records in track and field are usually set by the smallest of margins. The improvement in time or distance is usually only a fraction of a percent greater. To break a record by more than one percent is extremely rare.
Usain Bolt’s dramatic world record in the 100m of 9.58 seconds only improved on the world’s record by 1.1%.
In the history of the long jump, world records were advanced on average by only 5 centimeters.
Bob Beamon broke the world’s record by 55 centimeters, or by almost 2 feet. It was a full 6.59% improvement in the world record, the greatest single increase in a world’s record in the entire history of track and field.
The average world record improvement today is one half of one-tenth of one percent.
Not only was Beamon the first person in history to jump 27 and a half feet, but he was also the first person to jump 28 feet and 29 feet, and he did it all in a single jump.
The jump itself was perfect. From a technical point of view, his execution was flawless. It can and has been used to teach long jumping technique. His vertical height was incredible. It was estimated he got over 6 feet, or 2 meters into the air.
The jump also had the conditions going in its favor. The maximum tailwind allowed for a record is 2 meters/per second, and Beamon’s tailwind was exactly 2 meters per second. Any less and he wouldn’t have jumped as far, any more and the record wouldn’t have counted.
Mexico City is also very high altitude, which means slightly less air resistance, which allows you to jump slightly farther.
Moreover, soon after the jump was measured and announced, it started to rain.
All of the stars aligned
His competitors immediately heaped him with praise. Defending Olympic champion Lynn Davies of Great Britain told Beamon, “You have destroyed this event”. Former Soviet world record holder Igor Ter-Ovanesyan said, “Compared to this jump, we are as children.”
Beamon attempted a second jump in the finals but came nowhere close to his first jump. In fact, at no point in his career would he ever come close to jumping this far again. Not only would he never jump 29 feet again, but he also would never jump 28 or even 27.
The legacy of that single jump has lived on for over 50 years.
Sports Illustrated said it was one of the 5 greatest athletic performances of the 20th century.
It still stands as the Olympic Record in the long jump, and it is by far the oldest standing Olympic record, with the next closest having been set in 1988.
Beamon’s record was broken by Mike Powell in 1991 at the Tokyo World Championships. He jumped 8.95 meters or 29 feet 4 ¼ inches. That record was set on an unusually fast track, which would no longer be allowed under current international rules, and wind conditions which might have been suspect. That single jump in 1991 is the only legal jump longer than Bob Beamon’s in 52 years.
Most significantly, that jump entered the word Beamonesque to enter our vocabulary. The definition of it is “a feat so dramatically superior to previous feats that it overwhelms the imagination.”