You’ll know him from the jump, at least those of a certain vintage will – the earth-shattering, mind-boggling, 8.90-metre quantum leap forward in human performance that carried Bob Beamon to Olympic gold in 1968.
That jump added a whopping 55cm to the world record at the time, the Olympic record he set still untouched 54 years later. Its sheer absurdity only heightened by comparing it to winning distances from the last three Games, set by the best of the current generation in an era of super-spikes and hyper-responsive track surfaces: 8.31m, 8.38m, 8.41m.
Yet Beamon jumped 8.90m in 1968, a mark that left officials scrambling to find a physical tape to measure it, given the electronic system they were using wasn’t designed to measure that far, and with good reason: no one ever thought it was possible.
Sitting in the sun in Eugene, Oregon, last month, passing time between sessions at the World Athletics Championships, Beamon was content to cover the same ground he’s walked thousands of times before.
The first question I put to the 75-year-old: doesn’t he get sick of being asked about it?
“It’s good to talk about it,” he says. “However, you have to be good at the description, how you describe the environment of the people you competed against, and how people look at track and field in 1968 compared to now.”
So, did it feel different? Not really.
“I thought it was a pretty decent jump,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be that long. When I heard the distance, I was extremely happy about this extraordinary experience of jumping not (just) 28 feet, but 29 feet.”
That jump has and always will define Beamon, the athlete, a story even those with a passing interest in athletics history will know well. But less well covered is the story of Beamon, the activist, an athlete who was kicked off his college team at the age of 21 for standing up to racism and who quietly, almost anonymously, carried out his own demonstration on the Olympic medal rostrum in Mexico City – one that garnered far less attention than his US teammates John Carlos and Tommie Smith and their Black Power salute.
In April of 1968, six months before those Games, Beamon and eight of his teammates at the University of Texas at El Paso had boycotted a meeting against Brigham Young University, a Mormon school, given the Mormon church at the time barred black people from certain rites and did not ordain men of black African descent.
That boycott led to Beamon and his teammates losing their scholarships and it had been a major source of stress for Beamon heading into the Olympics. The night before his final, Beamon ventured “into town and had a shot of tequila” to calm his nerves and try to get a good night’s sleep.
He did, and the rest was history.
Two days after Smith and Carlos shook up the world with their Black Power salute on the medal rostrum, Beamon stepped up to receive his long jump gold medal and decided to make a stand of his own. He rolled up his pants to his calves, revealing black socks he wore in support of his two teammates, then raised his right arm with a fist following the national anthem.
Given Smith and Carlos had been kicked out of the Olympic village for their protest, returning home to a vitriolic reaction, and given what Beamon had dealt with earlier that year, I asked him if he was fearful of the repercussions of that gesture. “I don’t think it was ever intimidating,” he says. “If it was, I don’t think we’d have continued to fight strong about change. Everybody had a way of making their point and by them doing what they did, (it created) lots of bad feelings here in the United States but also worldwide.
“Change can be very painful, but, as of today, people understand more about human rights. I’m very happy to say their thoughts, their consciousness, their awareness, has caught up with them in the right way.”
Two days after I spoke to Beamon, Smith and Carlos sat in a room beneath the stands at Hayward Field in Oregon, taking questions about that protest, with Smith asking the current generation of athletes a pertinent question: “What can you do to create that avenue of equality?
“We have to stand up for what we believe in,” he added. “So the younger generation will understand and have a purpose.”
Later that night, 200m world champion Noah Lyles – a black US sprinter, who at last year’s Olympic Trials had worn a black glove and raised his fist before the 100m final – explained that Carlos, who holidays in the same spot as Lyles, had once given him some memorable advice: “A shy man will never eat, he’ll just starve to death.
“After that, I said, ‘I’m going to risk it all,’” said Lyles, who clocked 19.31 to win 200m gold in Oregon. “I’ll go out there and speak my truth about Black Lives Matter.”
When Beamon looks at the past several years in the US, from Colin Kaepernick’s taking-a-knee protest in 2016 to the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, he thinks back to 1968 and sees history repeating itself.
“Everything has come full circle – 360,” he says. “We’re right back where we were 50 years ago.”
What does he think of his country today? “We’re finding our way,” he says. “It can be very painful. We’ve seen some ugly things, but we’ve seen some very good things. Every so often, our country or the world takes a change in how we think, what we think, how we will end up.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on and we have to acknowledge that change is very important. One of the good things about us here is we are always changing. We’re going to come out of it. We’re going to look good.”
I ask Beamon what he’s most proud of in life.
“That I’m sitting here talking with you, that we can talk about this in a calm and peaceful way,” he says. “I’m very blessed I can say that I’m healthy, that I’m still alive, that I’m enjoying (life).”
These days, Beamon lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and he keeps himself occupied by sitting on various boards and doing talks that range from corporate functions to schools.
He grew up in Jamaica, a disadvantaged area in New York, and his mother died from tuberculosis when he was an infant – that void in his life led him to crave attention when he was in school, where he became known as a class clown.
What does he say to students these days?
“I’d be saying, ‘stay in school and be cool,’” he laughs. “I go through some of my experiences – bad, good, whatever – and I try to deliver it in a way people take something from it and use it at some time in their lives. The conversations can be motivational or about how important it is to enjoy life.”
How does Beamon enjoy life these days? Music is a huge passion. He’s currently learning to play the saxophone while he’s been gathering vinyl records since the ’50s and has thousands in his collection. “I’ve got a big story I could tell through music,” he says.
That’s made clear shortly after our interview, when Beamon, with time to kill before he heads to the stadium for the evening session, plants a Bluetooth speaker on the table and asks: “You ever heard James Brown with Pavarotti?”
I have not.
“Oh, you’re in for a treat,” he says, opening YouTube on his phone and searching for their duet of ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ from 2002. For five minutes, Beamon blasts it out from a Bluetooth speaker, bopping his head and tapping his foot, not just listening but feeling each beat.
“It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t work, but it does,” I say when it ends.
“Yep,” he nods, smiling, pleased at having introduced someone new to the performance of two all-time greats.
Beamon, himself an all-time great, has always kept athletics close to his heart, and he laughs as he explains he’s “a little slow now, coming out the blocks”.
How did it feel being back at the sport’s top level? “I don’t think I really ever left,” he says. “I’m always some way involved with track and field, whether I’m doing a promotion or a motivational speech to children or watching a track meet. I’m still here.”
And while he’s still here, smiling and bopping his head to the beat, I ask him one final question. How would he like to be remembered?
“It’s hard,” he says, thinking for several moments, the silence finally broken when he finds his answer – which has nothing to do with that immortal leap and everything to do with his actions away from the runway.
“You know, not part of the problem, but part of the solution,” he says. “That right there – the end result: trying to get to the solution.”