Youngsters should get second chance - they just might go for Olympic gold

June 11, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

BOB BEAMON sprinted down the long-jump track in the rarefied air of Mexico City that autumn of 1968, hitting the board and leaping high into the air. He landed on both feet, then fell forward.

He waited while the Olympic judges measured his effort. When the official word came down, it was determined that Beamon had jumped some 2 inches beyond 29 feet. He had broken the world record by more than 2 feet.

Once he realized the magnitude of what he'd done, Beamon slumped to his knees. He put both hands to his face and wept. You might remember this scene if you're old enough to remember watching the 1968 Olympics.

Four photographs from those games stand out today. One is of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand with their fists thrust skyward in a "black power" salute. Another is of boxing heavyweight George Foreman holding an American flag in the ring after he had just pummeled his Soviet Union opponent into submission to win the gold medal. The other two are of Beamon. One shows him sailing through the air. The other shows him on his knees, his face in his hands, overcome with emotion.

"The leap into the 21st century." That's what Beamon's record-shattering effort was called at the time because track and field experts figured it would be that long before it was broken. They were wrong. The record was broken in just over 20 years.

But if you watched Beamon's monumental effort in 1968, you may or may not have known that, metaphorically speaking, he had made an even greater leap some six or seven years earlier - from juvenile offender to law-abiding citizen.

Beamon was in our neck of the woods last week, in Washington, D.C., at a conference on the juvenile justice system. The conference participants are worried that in the current mania toward charging children as adults, politicians may be damaging something that worked for guys like Beamon. And Foreman too, who was also a youth offender.

"The judge was very lenient with the kinds of crime I had committed," Beamon, now 53, said in a telephone interview. His offenses included truancy, drugs, drinking (he was 14 at the time) and assaults on his teachers and fellow students.

"They were going to send me to jail until I was 21," Beamon recalled. "They took the alternative step of sending me to an alternative school."

"Alternative" as in a place that might be called the Corrective Academy for the Attitude Adjustment of Knuckleheads. It worked for Beamon, who still remembers the school's regimen.

"It was quite an experience to be in a lock-up for eight hours, to be frisked for weapons and contraband. I was in with guys - my age and older - who had committed all sorts of crimes: robbery, theft, assault, attempted murder." But Beamon says the school helped prepare him to attend regular school and did something educators had failed to do to that point: teach him to read and write.

He did two years at the juvenile facility and then went to Jamaica High School in New York City. He entered Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y., then transferred to the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) and joined its excellent track program.

Under the guidance of a grandmother who took legal guardianship of him when he was 14, Beamon blossomed. Always good at track - "I was always running from something," he quipped - Beamon blossomed into a world-class long jumper. Today he divides his time between being an athletic director at Florida Atlantic University and giving motivational speeches. That metaphoric leap from juvenile offender to high school All-American in track and field was, Beamon says, greater and more important than his "leap into the 21st century."

"I don't think I would have been able to compete in the Olympic Games" otherwise, Beamon said of his transition from juvenile offender. "It was made at the right time."

Vinnie Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute - an organization that works with juvenile offenders - fears today's youth may not get the chance Beamon, Foreman and others had.

"We may be instituting a system that screws up the Bob Beamons of the world," Schiraldi said. He's talking about the political climate. The pendulum is swinging in the direction of trying younger and younger offenders as adults.

"People can change," Schiraldi emphasized, "and none of us wants to be defined by our worst act. The way people should approach juvenile offenders is to ask themselves one question: `If my kid was messing up, what would I want done with him?'"

We would all insist, no doubt, on a system that would at least give our kid a second chance.

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