Beamon's Olympic legend still soars

August 03, 2008|By RICK MAESE

You can have your superhero movies. I met a man who could fly without a cape.

"It's been a long time since I've been in Baltimore. I jumped here once. Can't remember where exactly." Bob Beamon paused, snapped out of his internal time-traveling by a sudden realization. He slapped me lightly on the shoulder as he laughed. "You weren't even born when I was jumping, were you?"

No, I sheepishly admitted. But I sure wish I had been. Bob Beamon defines Olympic greatness the way Bill Shakespeare defines Elizabethan literature. And I sincerely wish I had witnessed Beamon's tremendous leap live, not via television highlights and not via YouTube.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Beamon's record-setting, mind-boggling long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. With another set of Summer Games less than a week away, we would be fortunate to see a Beamonesque moment. But let's not count on it.

Beamon's jump - 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches - is still an Olympic record, the oldest track and field record on the books, in fact. We'll get to that jump in a bit. But today, on the cusp of what promises to be a historic Summer Games, it's a 61-year-old Beamon whom I find as impressive as any statistical achievement.

He rolled through town yesterday as a part of the America's Cheer program, which invited people to stop by the Inner Harbor and record messages of encouragement to be shared with American Olympians in Beijing. Bank of America's tour had already visited 15 cities, and Baltimore marked the final stop before Friday's opening ceremony. Beamon signed autographs, met with an area Boys and Girls Club and watched as they recorded a special cheer.

Since Beamon took flight through the thin Mexico City air, so much has changed about the Olympics, a corporate-friendly, highly political, financially driven touring circus. Forty years later, Beamon still embodies the Games as well as anyone.

"I definitely get a special feeling, but it's not just every four years," he says. "I feel like I'm carrying the torch every day."

He's all over these Games, too. Last month, he was in Las Vegas, invited to speak to the U.S. men's basketball team.

"We were talking about personal goals, and each of them exhibited to me that aggressiveness, wanting to win," Beamon says. "I'm not talking NBA. They want gold. And that takes teamwork. There's no price tag on that, I told them. You can't buy that. Each of you has tremendous individual gifts. But when you put a team together, it has to come without ego."

Beamon leaves for Beijing today and will be a constant presence over the next three weeks. On television, he's featured in a Visa commercial in which Morgan Freeman recounts his historic jump. On the ground in China, Beamon will chat with sponsors and athletes. In fact, at the opening ceremony, the U.S. fencing team will be wearing selections from the Bob Beamon collection, his design outfit that produces everything from ties and scarves to boxers and suspenders.

All these years. Beamon is still a part of the Olympics. And the Olympics still a part of him.

There have been many historic moments. Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and Babe Didrikson. Cassius Clay and Wilma Rudolph in 1960. Mark Spitz in 1972 was unforgettable. Maybe you recall Mary Lou & Co. in 1984? Or Greg Louganis, Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner? The Dream Team in 1992. Michael Johnson in 1996, plus Kerri Strug on the vault. The U.S. women's soccer team in 2004. Or that Baltimore swimmer who won six golds in Athens ... Michael something?

Hard to top Beamon's feat, though.

Before him, no one had jumped even past 28 feet. The previous record - 27-4 3/4 - had stood for 31 years. And there Beamon went, sprinting for 19 strides before taking flight through the Mexico City night.

"When I took off on the board, something was strange," he told me. "I was up there ... a half-hour went by... then an hour went by," Beamon chuckled. "Not really. It was all pretty fast. I landed, and it was just a surprise. To everybody else, but also to me."

He outjumped the measuring device, in fact, and officials had to measure the jump by hand. He topped the previous record by nearly 22 inches. Jumped nearly as far as a first down. Twice what Michael Jordan managed, dunking from the free-throw line. In one splash of sand, Beamon was the first to jump 28 feet - and 29 feet.

Shortly thereafter, it started raining. Soviet jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan said, "Compared to this jump, we are as children." And the reigning Olympic champ, Lynn Davies, told a fellow competitor: "I can't go on. What's the point?" As a compliment to Beamon, Davies said, "You have destroyed this event."

Twenty-three years passed before anyone leaped farther than Beamon in competition. Still today, no one has jumped farther in the Olympics.

"It's something for athletes to shoot for," he says. "Records are made to be broken. I watch every four years to see what's happening. It's been 40 years now. Hope it stands. But if not, I've sure enjoyed it."

In fact, we all have. Young and old alike.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Full coverage

Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg and columnist Rick Maese will be in Beijing this week to cover what could be a record-setting Olympics, from the first time Baltimore's Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff dive into the pool until the final medals are awarded. They will chronicle the performances by Phelps, Hoff and other Maryland Olympians while delivering the sights and sounds of Beijing and the people of China daily in The Sun and in a new Olympic blog, "From Baltimore to Beijing," at www.baltimoresun.com .

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