Thursday, 7 October 2010


Somewhere around 1971 or 1972 one of my dad's friends gave me a pile of English sports magazines.  It was one of the best presents I ever got, although I think he was just clearing out junk.  There was a set of something which may have been called Football Monthly, and a pile of something that could have been called Sports Illustrated although it didn't have any swimsuit models.  They spanned a period from 1967 through to 1970, including the 1968 Olympics and the 1970 World Cup, both held in Mexico.

I read those magazines over and over again,  partly because I would read anything and partly because I loved sport.  I was still young enough not to be blase about the unfolding drama.  The writers speculated about who would win the World Cup and patriotically promoted England's chances.  Then they gushed about the brilliance of the eventual Brazilian winners, and mourned the moments that cost England.  They ran over the form guide for the blue riband events in the Olympics, then a few months later celebrated the eventual winners.  It was like reading a novel, with the drama unfolding over successive editions.

There were some dramas that I came back to more than others.  I loved the story of Derby County's rise from the lower divisions to become English football champions.  I loved the cheek of American hurdler Willie Davenport, kicked off his college athletics team because he refused to train before claiming Olympic gold.  The headline of the story lamenting the decline of Yorkshire cricket still sticks in my mind: "We Don't Play Cricket for Foon!"

The story that most captured my imagination, though, was the tale of Bob Beamon.  Like Davenport he was sacked from his college athletics team, in his case for refusing to compete against another university in protest against its racist policies.  In the lead-up to the Olympics he was one of the favourites but other jumpers like joint world record holders Ralph Boston (who doubled as Beamon's coach after he lost the support of his college) and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan were more highly regarded.  On his day Beamon could jump as far as anyone, but his technique was variable, he never marked his run-up so he fouled a lot, and he was one of those athletes from whom you never knew what you might get.

True to form, he fouled his first two qualifying jumps before posting a modest distance at his last attempt and making the final.  Then in his first jump in the final he soared out to 8.90 metres, or 29 feet 2 1/2 inches - almost half a metre or two feet past the existing world record.  This improvement was more than twice the total improvements in the world mark over the previous 30 years.  The jump was so long that he landed beyond the range of the photographic measuring equipment and officials had to find a tape measure.  Footage follows of him collapsing in amazement as team-mates translated the metric measurement into feet and inches for him and he realised what he done.   Apparently the English defending champion Lynn Davies told him "You have destroyed this event!"  Beamon watched as the other athletes fought out the silver and bronze.

If this had happened recently your immediate thought would be "performance enhancing drugs", particularly stimulants, to produce this huge one-off lift in performance.  This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Beamon never again performed close to that level, and it took 23 years for Mike Powell to better the mark. 

Performance enhancing drugs were a huge subject of controversy in the 1960s, and Mexico was the first Olympics to feature drug testing.  My Sports Illustrated  reading introduced me to the death of a British cyclist as the result of clumsy stimulant use, and to the problems of detecting anabolic steroids.  Yet in trawling the internet to catch up on Beamon's story, I didn't come across any suggestion that he was guilty of doping.  He was jumping at altitude, he was a freakish talent, it all came together in one never-to-be-repeated moment of extraordinary acheivement.  His name became synonymous with amazing athletic feats, so much so that the word "Beamonesque" entered the lexicon of sports journalism.

Have you seen or done something Beamonesque this year?

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