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Original Issue


Bob Beamon knew that his jump was superb, probably a new record. But 29 feet? He fell to his knees. Here is an anatomy of that famous leap

At 3:46 p.m. on Oct. 18 in the Olympic Stadium at Mexico City a track steward called the fourth competitor, No. 254, Beamon U.S.A., to take his first try in the long jump. Although the sky promised rain at any moment, when Robert Beamon went to his mark the conditions were ideal, the runway fast. Because he had fouled his first two tries in the qualifying round the day before, Beamon was fearful of doing so again. As he stood at his mark he lowered his head and lifted it twice. He closed his eyes slowly and opened them, thinking only one thing: don't foul. In his first loping steps on the runway he felt slow, but as he gathered speed his doubts diminished. He hit the takeoff board with a good, full stride and went into the air. Remembering the instant now, Beamon, a laconic man, says simply, "It felt like a regular jump."

Because the finals of the men's 400-meter dash were about to get under way, some of the 40,000 spectators in the stadium were diverted and did not see Beamon's historic effort. Among those who did there were a few experts who realized, while Beamon was still in the air, that the jump was a whopper. Jesse Owens, the 1936 gold medalist of eternal fame, was serving in Mexico City as a radio commentator. Following Beamon through binoculars from the stands opposite, Owens declared, "His body went up five and a half to six feet in the air, and with his speed, that will do it."

Long jumper Lynn Davies of Great Britain, who took first at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and Ralph Boston of the U.S., who won in Rome four years before that, were seated on a bench near the start of the runway, both waiting to make their first try for a second gold medal. "We could see very little of the actual jump, being too far behind it," Davies recalls. "Even so, it looked impressive. He seemed to be such a hell of a long time in the air."

"That's 28 feet," Boston said.

"No, it can't be," Davies replied, lying out loud to bolster his own spirits.

"That's more than 28 feet," Boston insisted.

Although the jump seemed only "regular" to Beamon while he was in flight, when he hit the dirt he knew he had jumped very far. Judging by the shouts of the crowd and the momentum that sent him frog-hopping out the far end of the pit, he was quite sure he had exceeded the world record of 27'4¾", held by Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan.

In Mexico the long jump was measured with an optical device that slid along a rail parallel to the landing pit. To try to line up Beamon's mark in the dirt, a judge moved the optical sight out and out, and still farther out until, just past 28 feet, the sight fell off the far end of the rail. "Fantastic. Fantastic," the judge said to Beamon. "We will have to measure it with a tape."

When the tape-measured result, 8.90 meters, flashed on the scoreboard, Ter-Ovanesyan said in despair to Davies, "Compared to that jump, the rest of us are children." American track buffs in the stands immediately began converting the metric result into feet and inches—and they had a terrible time. After multiplying the metric result by 39.37 and dividing by 12, and then remultiplying and redividing and cross-checking to get a logical answer, they kept coming up with 29 feet and something—impossible. Beamon first got the spectacular truth from Boston, a veteran of many campaigns in metric countries. "You really put it all together," Boston told him. "You went about 29 feet 2 inches."

In the elation of the next 10 minutes, Beamon is not sure just what he did or when. At some point before he had fully collected his wits, he recalls kneeling on the track, overwhelmed by his good fortune. Either before or after collapsing, he remembers being beckoned to by spectators wanting his autograph. Before he reached them, some of the autograph seekers—including a good number of jubilant Mexican ladies—had come out of the stands onto the turf. "I don't remember signing an autograph," Beamon relates. "It seems all they really wanted was to kiss me—some of them for the second and third time."

Although part of the stadium crowd never saw the jump, by midnight around 40 million Americans back home had seen it, at normal speed and in slow motion, on ABC television. Track and field devotees—the statistical buffs in particular—are still savoring the moment, ruminating on it. It is without a doubt the tastiest single morsel of trackery that ever came their way—a tidbit so rich that it is difficult to digest. In this day, when a fractional improvement in any event is hard to come by, Beamon had pushed the long-jump record out from 27'4¾" to 29'2½"—nearly two feet. In the past 50 years the world's best jumpers collectively had not advanced the mark much farther than Beamon did with one long jump. Beamon, in effect, had taken off into thin air in the year 1968 and landed somewhere in the next century.

Although it is no solace to other jumpers now faced with the futility of trying to overtake him, Bob Beamon admits that when he "put it all together," he did so at just the right time and under ideal conditions.

Track coaches are hereby warned not to let their jumping protégés read farther into this article. At this point we are going to try to tarnish Beamon's shining moment by explaining some of it away in terms of drag, frontal area, terrestrial variations and acceleration curves. Any youngster who takes off down a runway with a head full of such junk probably will never make it past 21 feet.

Before the 1968 Games many experts—athletes, coaches and allied noodlers—were aware that while endurance men would suffer at the 7,349-foot altitude of Mexico City, the men of explosive effort—the sprinters, weight throwers and jumpers—would likely profit on two counts. For one thing, because the earth is an asymmetrical mass with an irregular surface, the gravitational pull exerted on any object, be it a man or the weight he throws, varies from place to place. Mexico City is, so to speak, a light area, giving the athlete an advantage of about one-tenth of 1% over what he might expect, say, in Los Angeles. Such a gravitational advantage is only of feathery significance in a 29-foot jump.

For certain, the thin air of Mexico City did help long jumpers and triple jumpers and all sprinters except sprint swimmers. (In Mexico the sprint swimmers competed in fresh water as dense as it is anywhere, and luckily so. If the water, like the air, had been thinner in Mexico City, all the swimmers would have sunk.) How much advantage did the land sprinters and jumpers enjoy in Mexico City? There's the knotty problem. In this screaming age of technology, a good deal is known about the resistance that fluid mediums of various densities offer to nose cones, foils, hulls and other shapes traveling through them. Although there has never been much need for knowing the effect of air density on a runner flailing his arms and legs while poking along about 25 mph, here and there some work has been done. From these meager pickings and an inference or two derived from the performance of other competitors at Mexico City, it is possible to get a rough idea of how much benefit Beamon gained from the thin air. (The author of this piece recognizes that, despite the valuable outside help he has received, the proposition remains a tacky one, open to assault from all sides. The author promises that any nitpicker who writes in finding fault either with the suppositions used or conclusions reached will receive, in return, a box of dead spiders.)

Just before Beamon jumped, a weather station in the Olympic Stadium recorded a temperature of 23.5° C, a humidity of 42% and a barometric pressure of 577.8 mm. From this data the density of the air can be calculated to be about 24% less than on a typical track and field day at sea level. Since the gravity factor of the area is known and Beamon's weight at the time is known (160 pounds), and since the approximate frontal area of a Beamon-sized human is known (8 square feet), and since the drag coefficient of a moving man is known (about 1.0), a physicist can reasonably approximate what effect the thinner air had on Beamon's performance while he was in flight. Presuming his trajectory and horizontal speed at takeoff both to be identical to what he would ordinarily achieve at sea level, Dr. Peter Wegener, professor of applied science at Yale, grossly figures that the effect of lower air density while Beamon was in flight could account for five or 10 cm. of his total jump—or about three inches, to take the mean figure.

Logically, the distance any jumper can travel through the air depends very much on the speed he has attained when he takes off the board. Before a physicist could even roughly calculate the speed advantage Beamon might have had at the board in Mexico City, he would need some data that is not available, notably a fairly accurate idea of Beamon's rate of acceleration on the runway. There has been an acceleration study made of sprinters, but since a jumper does not bolt right out of blocks like a sprinter, the acceleration curve is undoubtedly different—and probably differs considerably from one jumper to another. It is known that world-class jumpers do not reach—indeed, cannot reach—maximum speed in a normal approach of 130 to 140 feet, such as Beamon uses. By running farther a jumper can reach a peak speed, but then, on reaching the board, he must suddenly change the action of his legs to get lift, and since there is internal drag in the tendon and muscle of every man—but, oh Lord, let's not get into that. Let us just say that over the years jumpers have gotten their best distance when they hit the board traveling about 95% of maximum. Since Beamon is capable of 9.5 seconds for 100 yards, when he hits the board at sea level he is going about 24 mph, and with the same effort in Mexico City's thin air he is going, at most, 1% faster.

Where, other than right out of a hat, does this theoretical increase of 1% come from? It is based on what other athletes did at Mexico City. In the long jump there were three other athletes in Beamon's class—Boston, Ter-Ovanesyan and Davies—but their performances prove almost nothing one way or the other. As if Beamon's first spectacular jump was not enough of a dampener for his three important rivals, before any of them took a jump the heavens opened and the rains came. Competing on a rainless day, five men bettered the world triple-jump record at Mexico City. The thin air for certain helped the triple jumpers, but the record they pursued was relatively easier to knock over. In off years not that many competitors exert pressure on the triple-jump mark, which makes it susceptible in times of intense competition like the Olympics. Although world dash records are rarely broken in Olympic Games, at Mexico City the winners of the 400-meter hurdles, the 400-meter dash and the 200-meter dash all ran faster than any man has run at sea level. Taking the winning times in all individual dashes and relays into consideration, and giving no credit for improvement either to the performers themselves or to the track, a 1% increase in speed, at the very most, can be attributed to the thinner air. Assuming all other factors equal, Dr. Wegener concludes that a 1% increase in speed could account at most for 20 cm. of Beamon's distance—about 7 7/8 inches. Thus, even beyond all the benefits gained from the location, Beamon still somehow hung it out there a good foot past the old mark.

The most satisfactory explanation of Beamon's astonishing long jump lies in an analysis of the event itself. Compared to other track and field events, the long jump is an anomaly. Veterans such as Ralph Boston concede that, in terms of technique and training effort, it is the simplest of the common events popular since the turn of this century. Since natural ability counts for a lot and technique for relatively less, there has always been an abundance of long jumpers but, curiously, a dearth of outstanding ones.

The event seems to defy progress. There has been less record-breaking in the long jump than in any other common event, and such improvements as have been made have come erratically. In 1901 an Irishman named Peter O'Connor jumped 24'11¾", and although he advanced the record by only four inches, his mark lasted for 20 years until an American, Edwin Gourdin, jumped three and a quarter inches farther. For the next 14 years the record inched forward, until on a glorious, record-smashing day in 1935 Jesse Owens jumped 26'8¼". Although Owens had pushed the record out only six inches, it was enough to last for 25 years.

Usually when one performer breaks a world record in a track or field event, other men, hitherto held back seemingly by a mental barrier, begin exceeding the former mark. Bannister's four-minute mile is the most publicized example. In 1935, when Owens set his long-jump mark, the high-jump record stood at 6'9½". In the 33 years since, more than 500 high jumpers have exceeded that height—at last count more than 50 men had gone higher than seven feet. Not so in the long jump. In the same 33 years only nine men have jumped past Owens' old 1935 mark.

Although Beamon's jump is by far the most spectacular of any age, the explosiveness of it is not unique. Here and there other jumpers before Beamon have suddenly cut loose with a big one that exceeded everyone's expectations. On the afternoon of May 25, 1963 Phil Shin-nick of the University of Washington failed to qualify for the finals of the Big Six Conference Championships in Berkeley, Calif., coming nowhere near his best jump of 25'5", made only a week before. That evening Shinnick competed in the California Relays at Modesto. After fouling one good jump, on his second try he flew out 27'4"—1'11" beyond his best and a quarter inch past the world record then held by Ter-Ovanesyan. A following wind that exceeded the permissible limit might have nullified Shinnick's record, but no one will ever know for sure. When Boston, a certified 27-footer, took his jumps in the same competition, an official was tending the wind gauge, but he had not been tending it when Shinnick, heretofore a journeyman jumper, suddenly came up with his startling leap. The record therefore could not be accepted.

Beamon's long jump in Mexico City can be best described by the English track and field authority, Frederick Webster. "I was standing close to the pit," Webster relates, "when he thus exceeded by nearly two feet any performance he had done before, and I have never in my life seen a long jumper rise so high or get such an amazing 'lift.' His body was back from the hips when he started his 'hitch kick,' and he whipped his trunk up from the waist like lightning...." The notable thing about Webster's account is that he wrote it more than 40 years ago to describe a jump that was, in some respects, even more surprising than Beamon's. At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, a Georgetown University graduate named Robert Le Gendre suddenly "put one all together," going nearly two feet past his best to set a new world record of 25'5¾". It was a most unusual feat, considering that Le Gendre was not even competing in the Olympic long-jump event. The 1924 U.S. Olympic team was only slightly smaller than the aggregation of Yanks who had gone to France in 1917 on more serious business. Although six long jumpers—four competitors and two spares—were taken to Paris, Le Gendre was not one of them. He was a competent all-rounder, and he had been taken along to compete in the track and field pentathlon, then an Olympic event. It was while earning a bronze medal in the pentathlon that Le Gendre got off his one great long jump.

After weighing Beamon's jump as best it can be weighed, Dr. Wegener comments, "The most truthful thing to say about the jump is that it was an excellent performance by a superb athlete." Ralph Boston concludes, "He honestly put it out there where it will probably stay for a long long time."

Of course, somewhere, on some remote and unexpected day, someone will jump farther than Beamon. Perhaps the new record-breaker will be a lonely yak herder competing in a local meet in the thin chill air of Tibet. Perhaps he will be a UCLA exchange student from Tierra del Fuego who does the impossible by soaring through the dense supersmog of 21st-century Los Angeles. Perhaps he will be an unsung Arab named Omar Komar, who never knew he had talent until his coach put him in a wind tunnel and found that he had a coefficient of drag advantage of 10 to the minus third power. When some record-breaking hero finally does it—around the year 2020 A.D.—he will probably get only faint applause. By then the public will be much more interested in all the unearthly record-smashing that comes out of the first Moon Olympics held under ideal conditions in the dry Sea of Tranquillity.




ARTIST'S RE-CREATION of the jump Shows the various physical forces that were at work as the athlete hurtled himself through the air.