Olympics: Bob Beamon’s leap of faith

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There are so many astounding individual performances at an Olympics that it will be difficult to single out one defining moment.

Some stars, however, become synonymous with a particular edition such as Jesse Owens (1936), Mark Spitz (1972), Nadia Comeneci (1976), Carl Lewis (1984), Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt (both in 2008). Multiple gold medals are the common thread that unites all the above-mentioned Olympians.

It is infinitely tougher for a winner of a single gold medal to make an Olympics his own. Bob Beamon of the US did that with a Leap of the Century in the rarefied air of Mexico at the 1968 Games. The long jump at the Olympics would never be the same again after Beamon’s incredible feat. All the future champions would be weighed on the scale of that magisterial achievement.

It took 32 years for the world record in the long jump to be rewritten before the 1968 Olympics. Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of Ukraine broke Jesse Owens’ mark of 8.13 metres, set in 1935, by clearing 8.35m in 1967. Beamon obliterated the Ukrainian’s benchmark with his 8.90m, a distance that existed only in the realms of a long jumper’s fantasy. Never before had a record been bettered by 55cm in the event. When Mike Powell upstaged Beamon in 1991 he was able to do so only by .05 cm. Beating Powell by more than half a metre requires a Herculean effort.

When photographer Tony Duff froze Beamon in full flight at Mexico he wouldn’t have realised that he was capturing history. The iconic image vividly brings out Beamon’s disbelief at his leap into the unknown. For once, the storm hit before the calm as it was the American’s first jump in the final.
Beamon’s leap also beat the optical measuring device.

So the officials had to rely on a manual tape to measure history. More than 15 minutes were needed for an official announcement. Beamon knew he had done something extraordinary but he wasn’t prepared for 8.90m. As someone not used to metric measurement, the American asked his teammate to translate the distance into imperial system. Beamon collapsed in a heap of joy upon hearing that it was 29 feet 21/2 inches.

In a matter of seconds, he had raised the bar beyond the reach of anyone. Barring Powell, no one has ever come close to the revered mark. No wonder then, 8.90m is the longest surviving Olympic record in athletics. Beamon’s effort was certainly freakish, aided as it was by the thin air of Mexico. The American never jumped beyond 8.22m again in his career.

Mexico was a dream for athletes involved in explosive events — in other words anaerobic events requiring less oxygen. Some pundits even went to the extent of demanding that the records set at Mexico be annulled, as they claimed the city’s high altitude — more than 2,200 metres above sea level — offered natural doping in sprint, jump, throw and weightlifting events.

Air resistance and gravitational pull are lower in places located in high altitude. Air or no air, Beamon wouldn’t care about the physics of his achievement because the jump secured him a place in the pantheon of greatest Olympic champions.

LONG JUMP WINNERS SINCE 1968

2008: Irving Saladino (Pan) 8.34m
2004: Dwight Phillips (US) 8.59m
2000: Ivan Pedroso (Cub) 8.55m
1996: Carl Lewis (US) 8.50m
1992: Carl Lewis (US) 8.67m
1988: Carl Lewis (US) 8.72m
1984: Carl Lewis (US) 8.54m
1980: Lutz Dombrowski (GDR) 8.54m
1976: Arnie Robinson (US) 8.35m
1972: Randy Williams (US) 8.24m
1968: Bob Beamon (US) 8.90m

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