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Jim Murray

A Leap That Is Measured by the Years

April 30, 1985|Jim Murray

On Oct. 18, 1968, the single most remarkable feat in the annals of track and field, maybe in all sport, was performed on the long jump runway of the Estadio Olympico in Mexico City.

Bob Beamon not only won the gold medal, he jumped right through the Olympic and world records, breaking one by a foot and a half and the other by nearly two feet. No one had even jumped 28 feet before, and it would be a dozen years before anyone would.

Yet, Beamon had not only broken the 28-foot barrier, but the 29 in one, so to say, fell swoop.

His jump measured 29 feet 2 1/2 inches, and it was estimated by some that he probably had broken the high jump record, too, on his way to the mark. It was also reliably reported that only two kangaroos had ever gone higher or farther in one bound.

It was considered the most astounding leap ever made by anyone not wearing a block S and a cape. A book was written about it, entitled "The Perfect Jump."

Officials almost couldn't believe their tape measures. You're supposed to break world records in increments of inches and millimeters, not feet. It was considered at the time about the equivalent of running the 100 meters in 9.6 or so, or running the 1,500 in 3:25. Like winning a marathon by half an hour.

But one person--there's one in every crowd--was not all that impressed with it. This was the artist himself, Robert Beamon. "That was not a perfect jump, really," he says now. "There were lots of faults with it. I made a terrible mistake. I sat down. It cost me inches."

The world couldn't be more shocked if Rembrandt started to criticize one of his paintings--"Too much red in it!"--if Hemingway wanted to rewrite "Death In The Afternoon" and take the bullfight scenes out of it, or if Beethoven found his "Eroica" too noisy.

Beamon is the only one today who would find fault with his extraordinary mark. "I had an unorthodox type of jump and I could have landed falling forward," he says.

But, at the time it was set, the whole world was ready to put an asterisk after it. It was, after all, set in the rarefied air of the city of Mexico, altitude 7,350 feet, and it was popularly regarded in the category of Albuquerque home runs. Prevailing opinion was, Beamon had taken advantage of existing currents and absence of heavy molecules of oxygen and his record was a triumph of soaring rather than jumping.

Except that, in subsequent track meets in Mexico City and Colorado and other aeries of the world, no one has ever even jumped 28 feet.

Track and field has no standard for altitude-aided marks but the facts of the matter are, none of the other jumpers in those historic Games made even 27 feet. Most of the jumpers were three feet behind Beamon. You would think that if atmospheric conditions were that critical, they would have aided all equally and produced a rash of 29-feet-or-near-it jumps. Instead, almost nobody else in the field even equaled the existing Olympic record, never mind the world.

It was, therefore, not till the years passed that the stunning proportions of the record began to sink in, that the public realized that Beamon had simply drawn up all the forces within himself and the conditions and stuck a world record out there farther than anyone in recorded history had ever done before.

For Beamon, though, there were no ticker-tape parades, keys-to-the-city-type of adulation. It was believed that, like the California condor, he owed his soaring excellence to the mountain heights in which they were accomplished.

Beamon's progress was hardly a hero's odyssey. Here was a kid who grew up in the mean streets of New York, only a judge's gavel away from a life in a cell. "I was into negativity, destructive things, till I realized how boring and repetitious they were," he said. Beamon had been saved by his ability to bound farther and higher than anything without spots or a pouch had ever done before. He leaped more than into a record book. He leaped out of one of the dead ends of life.

Since that jump, Bob progressed through a stint with a savings-and-loan firm, then athletic contracts with the government in Mexico and a department store chain in Spain. "I got to see the other side of sports," he said. "I got a lesson in what life was like in the Third World, and not from a tourist bus window. Some people are devastated by what they see. Others just learn.

"I could assimilate what I saw on two levels--the intellectual and the natural. I had studied Freud--and I had studied the streets."

From the perfect jump, Beamon had landed in the imperfect world. A trip to the Superstars competition in Florida evolved into his present job, supervisor in the park and recreation department in Miami.

Beamon's record, unlike most track marks, has grown more formidable, rather than diminished, through the years.

Much more a man for all seasons than the man who sat down too soon at Mexico 17 years ago, Beamon is in town to work--for ABC Television--the Pepsi Invitational meet at UCLA May 18. He is here because, on that day, the most dangerous assault yet on his record is to be launched. The great Carl Lewis needs to tack about five inches onto his personal best to drag Beamon's best finally out of the record books.

Can he do it? Beamon is philosophical. "Inches can become yards when the mind gets into it," he points out.

Lewis has to remember one other thing. He has to remember to remain standing until all measurements have been made and he has left the pit. If Beamon had done that in Mexico, Lewis might really have yards to go May 18.

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