“It was an incredible surprise. As a matter of fact we never thought the record would pass 27ft 10 or 8.4m, but I like surprises.”
1968, one of the most significant years in the 20th century: the height of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated; the Black Power movement during the Olympic Games. A historical moment in sport, an iconic symbol where athletes used the sporting sphere as a platform for a political message.
The result? An expulsion from the US national team, and a lifetime ban from the International Olympics Committee (IOC), for both Tommie Smith and John Carlos after their gold and bronze medal in the 200-metre event. This was the punishment for the pair’s message they gave when they received their medals on the podium.
In a decision which split opinion at the time, Smith and Carlos’ fellow American athlete, Bob Beamon, showed defiance in the face of adversity. And, how Beamon had the stage to deliver such a message of support is perhaps one of the greatest Olympic triumphs.
Beamon was a long jumper, one of four favourites to take the gold medal in the 1968 Mexico games. With a tricky path to the final, the occasion almost got the better of Beamon:
“I was all nerves. I went out and had a few shots of tequila [the night before the final] – a little something to settle myself in.”
Bob Beamon, speaking to the Guardian
The world record length jump stood at 8.33 metres – equivalent to 27 foot 4 inches – the thought of 28 foot was a distant dream at the time; an unimaginable reach unless supported by a gust of wind which would only make the jump illegal.
It was Beamon’s turn to jump in the final; the whole jump lasted all of 10 seconds, the wait to see his length all of 20 minutes. With the wait finally over following deliberation from the judges, Beamon’s score was clocked; 8.90m (29 foot 2 ⅜ inches).
A world record by 55cm, the unimaginable became a reality. The pushing of the limits the athlete found put him in a different league to the rest of the field. Defending champion, Lynn Davies, frustration at not being able to compete was evident immediately after the jump was recorded:
“What’s the point? He’s destroyed the event.”
Defending Olympic champion, Lynn Davies
In what became a world-record that stood for 23 years, and still an Olympic record to date; the leap of the century was the perfect response to the Black Power movement that was wrongly frowned upon.
The message from Beamon when receiving his gold medal on the podium was to pull his black socks up as high possible, as a message of support to his American colleagues, Smith and Carlos.
An amazing moment in history, The Man Who Could Fly’s Olympic record is unlikely to be broken any time soon.