Many do forget, however, that Beamon almost didn’t get the chance to make that jump. First, there was serious talk of an African-American boycott of the Mexico City Games. Then, after the boycott didn’t occur, Beamon fouled on his first two qualification jumps. One more foul would’ve eliminated him from competition. He then played it safe, leaped well before the takeoff board, and qualified for the final. On his first jump of the finals Beamon soared 29-feet, 2.5 inches (8.9 meters), bettering the previous world record by 21 inches. Mike Powell set a new world record of 29-4.5 (8.95 meters) in 1993, but on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Games, Beamon still owned the Olympic record.
I spoke with Beamon at a track and field event in Detroit shortly before the 2008 Olympics.
On the benefits of track and field participation for young athletes.
Beamon: “The experience is what is so important. You learn so many things about yourself, but also about other people. So it’s a personal thing but it’s also social. You get so many little perks as you slip through that young age there. It’s kind of like a hook, the sport is the hook, but it teaches you motivation, it teaches you dedication, it teaches you that, if you have some goals, there are some things that you must do in order to reach them. There’s no shortcuts to success. So those are some of the little things that you get on the side. You don’t necessarily have to be first place, second place or third place. It’s about participating, that’s what you get. It’s very educational.”
His favorite pre-Olympic track and field memories.
“Just the idea of having that vision of wanting to get to the next level. I went to high school, college and then to the Olympics. So it’s vision, and it’s reaching those goals, making sure that you hit every one of them. And so I did. I was very successful at that. Had I not done that I still would’ve been, probably, a doctor or a lawyer. Or run for president.”
His memories of 1968.
“The entire year was just an incredible year. It went from sadness to joy. That year, ‛68, was just a very trying year. ... But yes I do remember some incredible events that happened, but most importantly I do remember so vividly my jump in 1968. It was the icing on the cake.”
On still being able to visualize his winning jump.
“Absolutely. I’m always dreaming about it. There’s not a day that I don’t feel good about it.”
On 1968 being a difficult year.
“We, the African-Americans, were talking about boycotting the Olympic Games. So it was very political. Of course we had the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then, of course, Bobby Kennedy. It was a tremendous amount of pressure that was mounting up, and then in Mexico City, hundreds of students were shot down in the middle of the streets. And that was kept quiet. It was just a very political time.”
His last qualifying jump at Mexico City, after fouling twice.
“It was either make it or break it. If I don’t make it, then I’ve gotta go home. I wasn’t willing to go home.”
On whether he purposely played it safe on his final qualifying jump.
“Yes. Thanks to my teammate Ralph Boston. He told me to make some minor adjustments, and so I did.”
Whether he was generally strongest on his initial jump.
“I was ready for six jumps (in the 1968 Olympic final) if I had to.”
What went through his mind during his winning jump.
“I just worried about winning.”
What he was thinking after the record-breaking jump.
“I was just very excited that my jump was a legal jump. I was pretty excited. And then by them actually measuring it, it was an incredible announcement for me.”
Whether he ever thought about jumping 29 feet.
“That’s the great thing about it is that I didn’t go in to break any records. I was only interested in winning a gold medal. So to me, that is quite an experience to be in such an incredible, intense position. Being able to perform at that level and do something like that is just absolutely incredible. I enjoyed every moment.”
On Mike Powell breaking his world record.
“You know, records are made to be broken. And I still hold the Olympic record, so I’m enjoying it after 40 years.”
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