Nineteen years ago, in the XIX Summer Olympics, two men set world records within a few minutes of each other. Those records still stand. One shocked us; the other we didn't fully appreciate. Only this year have the records been seriously threatened. Accordingly, what goes for rain forests and blue whales goes for them: You never know what you've got until it's almost gone.
Now we are moved to reflect upon what natural wonders these men were and how things came together for them in Mexico City on Oct. 18, 1968, at 3:46 in the afternoon....
As the 400-meter finalists took the track, a rapidly approaching storm, the second of the day, was amassing thunderheads over the far side of the stadium. Against the enveloping clouds the inhabitants of the great bowl seemed to shine in a clear, unearthly light. The wind had not yet risen.
As they walked to the start, the three U.S. quarter-milers, Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman, turned to watch a friend and teammate take his first try in the finals of the long jump. The man was Bob Beamon. He sprinted lightly down the runway and leapt.
June 28, 1987
From their angle the 400-meter men couldn't guess his distance, but Beamon had jumped so high that he performed his hitch kick and got his legs out in front while still about five feet above the pit. As he descended, he was like a majestic, prehistoric bird, suddenly awkward near the earth, landing hard. "Hope he didn't foul that one," thought Freeman, because Beamon was notorious for overrunning the board.
Beamon had not fouled, but he couldn't have come closer. The shadow of his takeoff shoe's toe lay for an instant over the foul line, but he left no mark on the telltale Plasticine. Too, he had been aided by a breeze, but the wind gauge read 2.0 meters per second, the absolute maximum allowable.
One of the judges attempted to measure Beamon's leap. He moved the optical sighting device out along its rail parallel to the pit. Just past 28 feet the sight fell off the end of the rail. Beamon stared at the instrument lying on the grass. Its significance there began to make him dizzy. "Fantastic, fantastic," the judge said to Beamon. "We will have to measure it with a tape."
When at last this was done, the distance was announced as 8.90 meters. Beamon didn't at once grasp what it meant in feet and inches. His teammate Ralph Boston, the co-world-record holder (with the U.S.S.R.'s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan) at 27'4¾", said, "You really put it all together. You went about 29'2"."
In fact it was 29'2½". Beamon had destroyed the record by 21¾". The knowledge flooded his body. His legs gave way beneath him. "Bob's jump held up our race for 5 or 10 minutes," recalls Evans. "He was on his knees in Lane 6 or 7, sobbing, and Boston and Charlie Mays [the third U.S. long jumper] were trying to get him up. I wondered what the hell was going on."
The runners for the 400 were called into the blocks. "Just win," Evans thought. "A win will be the first sub-44." He was in Lane 6. James, the Villanova sophomore who had run 44.19 to Evans's 44.06 in the U.S. Olympic Trials, was inside Evans, in Lane 2. Thus, with the staggered lanes, James would see and react to Evans throughout the race, but Evans would have to run blind. "Larry had come to the room that morning and said, 'I know the lanes!' " says Evans. "I said, 'From that evil smile, you gotta be inside of me.' "
Evans, who habitually hung back early and came on when the leaders died, now could do nothing tactical, nothing but go for an unbeatable time. At the gun he was away astonishingly quickly. "It was the best start I ever got in my life," he says now. "I didn't hear the gun when I went. 'Now' and 'pow' were the same instant. They didn't call me back. I said, Thank you, and flew."
Evans was the master craftsman of his searing distance, the longest sprint. He knew that going flat out all the way, say a sub-21-second split time at 200 meters, would be suicidal. "I'd run 21.3 for the first 200 in the trials," he says, "and I felt tired in the stretch. My coach, Bud Winter, said he thought 21.6 would be best. That was because he really wanted me to do 21.4, and he knew I'd cheat on him a little."
Feeling his way by sensations most of us will never know, Evans sprinted with care. "I had my hand on the emergency brake the whole time," he says. He passed the 200 in 21.4, a nice example of delicacy under pressure. But so did James.
"Then at 200 I took off," says Evans. "I thought, The race starts now." He was convinced, feeling the force he was pouring into the track, that the last curve was the fastest section of his race. "When we hit the straight, I figured I was five yards ahead."
He was not. After the staggers had evened out, he could see James to his left, just behind him. "With Larry there, I felt the bear clawing my legs," says Evans. "I felt faint."
He had trained for this last, eternal 80 meters. He was a strength runner, a stayer. "I thought, O.K., relax...high knees...relax...arms straight ahead...relax...." Yet James, the taller, more elegant mover, held even.
"Three steps from the finish, Larry dropped his head," says Evans. "I knew I had it then. I powered through—ugh, ugh, ugh. Larry ran 395 meters. I ran 401. That was the difference."
He won in 43.86. James ran 43.97. Those remain the two fastest times ever recorded for the distance. The 4 X 400-meter relay record of 2:56.16, set two days later by Vince Matthews, Freeman (who had contributed history's fastest running-start relay leg of 43.2, after taking the bronze in the 400 with a 44.41), James and Evans, still stands as well.
At first Beamon's record was the more overwhelming. C. Robert Paul Jr., the U.S. Olympic Committee's historian, revealingly called it "terrifying."
"It is a mutation performance," said Dr. Ernst Jokl, physiologist and statistician at the University of Kentucky. "In the 33 years before 1968, the long jump record was only improved 8½ inches from Jesse Owens's 26'8¼" in 1935. At that rate, Beamon's jump is an 84-year advance."
Beamon boosted the long jump record by 6.59%. To rip that big a chunk from the 400 record, Evans would have had to blaze something like a 41.20. So his 43.86, far from being called an unbeatable limit, was thought to be simply the latest step in a continuing progression.
Yet only now is the human race closing in on these marks. Oddly, Beamon's has been in the most danger. Carl Lewis began landing out beyond 28'6" in 1982, and his best now is 28'10¼". He had six jumps over 28'3" at the Mt. SAC Relays in April. Then, last month, at a meet in Tsakh-kadzor, Soviet Armenia, the U.S.S.R.'s 22-year-old Robert Emmiyan became the second to go over 29 feet, with 29'1".
Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez, professes no surprise. "The thing about the long jump is that it's always possible," he says. "Based on the speed and strength of guys today, you can calculate a 30-foot jump. The key is perfect timing, which can happen just once, or be perfected, as Carl is doing." Tellez and Lewis tend to see Emmiyan, who was beaten by the U.S.'s Larry Myricks for the world indoor title, as a basic 27'6" jumper who got insanely lucky. "But at altitude [where Emmiyan was], with a given jump, the sky is the limit," says Tellez.
Lewis himself has given evidence of this. In the 1982 National Sports Festival in Indianapolis he had a jump ruled foul by an official who said that Lewis's toe had "broken the plane" of the foul line, even though his shoe left no mark in the damning clay. There is no such rule. If there had been, Beamon's record jump probably would have been a foul. By rights, Lewis's jump should have been accepted, at the very least measured, but he didn't demand a measurement under protest, and the sand was raked. A competitor, Jason Grimes, noted the point Lewis had reached. It was at least 30 feet from the takeoff board.
Meanwhile, no one has come within yards of Evans's time. Not Olympic champions Alberto Juantorena (44.26 in 1976), Viktor Markin (44.60 in 1980) or Alonzo Babers (44.27 in 1984). But last month Ohio State junior Harry (Butch) Reynolds tore through a surprising 44.10 at an invitational meet in Columbus. Five weeks later in Baton Rouge he won the NCAA meet in 44.13, for the two fastest nonaltitude times ever.
Ah, altitude; there's the rub. As the mind turns to the question of why Beamon's and Evans's marks were so enduringly good, it pounces gratefully upon that one variable. Air at Mexico City's 7,349-foot elevation is but 76% of its density at sea level. It presents less resistance to a runner's or a jumper's passage, although for a long sprinter, less air is a mixed blessing.
"During a race you felt strangely light," recalls Evans. "Your feet were quick off the ground, like there were little sparks under them. But your lungs burned, and you took a lot longer to recover. The first time I ran at altitude, Riggy got me so bad I was just trying to stay in my lane."
Riggy, an intimate of quarter-milers, is rigor mortis. He may hand you a refrigerator or a grand piano on the last turn. Quarter-milers labor their final yards while bearing the weight of a variety of animals: bears, hippos, elephants.
Of Mexico City's altitude, science's best guess is that it gives a raw speed advantage of something less than 1%. "Sports physiologists say about .3 of a second in the 400," says Evans. "I'd agree that's about it." Thus, Reynolds's 44.10 would convert to a record at altitude. "But if he'd been in there, I'd have zapped him," asserts Evans joyfully. "I always ran with the competition."
"Did he ever," says Tommie Smith, the 200-meter champion, now a phys-ed instructor at Santa Monica College, who asserts, with other members of the 1968 team, that there was more to the Mexico City records than altitude, much more. "There was the quality of the men who set them," Smith continues. "Lee was a 9.4 sprinter, with an eight-foot, two-inch stride and the anaerobic capacity of a half-miler. And limitlessly tough."
"I always put Lee on a pedestal," says James, now athletic director at Stockton State College in Pomona, N.J. "He wanted it more than anyone else. I was the time-set person. All year I'd prepared body and mind to run 43.9 in the Olympic final. Lee was the mind-set person, the competitor. I did run my 43.9. So he ran 43.8."
Too, the '68 Olympians had what no other U.S. team before or since has had, a six-week, high-altitude training camp before the final trials. The camp and the trials were at Echo Summit, above Lake Tahoe in the California Sierras.
All the quarter-milers, opponents in the trials and the Games, evinced remarkable closeness. "We shared training information in camp," says Freeman. "We worked our hardest. We sneaked out at dawn and stole workouts, and it wasn't for any TV contract or money or career. It was purely being the best we could be."
Their event served to keep them humble. "You could not woof in the 400," says James. "You could not brag. Somewhere Riggy would pay you back."
But the most powerful unifying force was what it meant to be a black American athlete in 1968. The two great moral struggles of this generation, civil rights and the war in Vietnam, were peaking. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, Robert Kennedy in June.
In the fall of 1967 at San Jose State, where Evans, Smith, 200-meter man John Carlos and 400-relay member Ronnie Ray Smith went to school, meetings to discuss housing discrimination against black athletes grew under the forceful leadership of sociology professor Harry Edwards into calls to use the prominence of blacks in sports to expose racism and demand reforms. "If they won't rent to us," Edwards asked, "why should we run for them?"
The result was a proposal, first voiced, as Evans recalls, by comedian/ activist Dick Gregory, for an Olympic boycott. The movement was named the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
"I always felt we would run I in the Olympics]," says Evans. "But fear of a boycott was leverage we should use. At a meeting in June we'd voted to run and maybe wear black armbands or something. Then, two weeks before the Games, [IOC president] Avery Brundage attacked us. He said we were lucky to be in America, lucky to be allowed on the team."
This, coupled with Brundage's push to have South Africa readmitted to the Olympics after being banned in 1964 because of apartheid, was the galvanizing provocation. "If he hadn't come out like that," says Evans, "I don't think anything would have happened."
The debate among black Olympians culminated at a meeting in Denver before the team left for Mexico. "It had evolved to a set of personal decisions," says James. "We were programmed to go for the gold. We would run."
"And we would win," says Tommie Smith. "And then maybe say 'Hi' to the world. Make your gesture, but, man, be able to explain it to the press."
They set more world records than any U.S. Olympic track team since 1932. "Winning was related to what was important to me," says Evans now. "Black pride and the cause of social justice. I had an advantage over kids today. They don't have that political force poking them in the back."
When Smith won the 200 in a world-record 19.83 (which would have been a still-standing 19.7 if he hadn't thrown up his arms with six meters to go) and Carlos was third, they mounted the victory stand in black socks. When the anthem played, they bowed their heads and shot black-gloved fists to the sky. The socks symbolized black poverty, Smith told the press afterward, the fists black power and black unity.
"It was not a gesture of hate," Smith said then and says now. "It was a gesture of frustration. I loved my country. I wanted it to be better."
Within a day, Smith and Carlos had been expelled from the Olympic Village. The question now was whether anyone else would follow them out. "After John and Tommie's gesture," says Evans, "I decided not to run. How could I? I was their friend. We went to the same school. Everyone would think I was a traitor to the black community."
He was visited by Winter, his coach, a master of relaxation techniques. Winter never told him what to do; he simply got him to sleep. When Evans awoke, there was Carlos. "Hey, Lee," he said gruffly. "I heard you weren't going to run. You run, and you win."
Smith, too, released him. "And I think he used it all as fuel for that third 100," says Smith. "He burned up all the fear and ordeal of that summer of trying to make ourselves understood."
Evans set a record that has stood for 19 years. The extent of the quarter-milers' protest was black socks and berets, which they removed for the national anthem. They walked to the victory stand, aware of death threats against them. "We decided we'd smile a lot and show our warmth," says Evans. "It's harder to shoot a guy who's smiling."
Few were smiling when the Mexico City world-record holders returned home. As he had feared, Evans was ostracized in the more radical quarters of the Bay Area, where hunger for symbol was insatiable. He continued running and made the 1972 U.S. 4 X 400 relay team, yet did not get to race. Teammates Matthews and Wayne Collett, first and second in the Munich 400, were thrown out for chatting on the victory platform during the national anthem, and John Smith was injured, so the U.S. couldn't field a full relay team.
By 1975, Evans was in Nigeria, coaching. "I was embarrassed at the African sprinters' being eliminated in the first round in Mexico," Evans says. "We were going on about black solidarity, and here were these guys, blacker than we were, getting whipped just because they had no technique."
So he took them technique. Now the only Fulbright scholar working in sports, he coaches at the Cameroon National Institute of Youth and Sport in Yaoundè. Over the past 10 years he has trained and sent as many as 50 West African sprinters to U.S. universities, including Innocent Egbunike (Azusa Pacific) and Chidi Imoh (Missouri), who in their respective events—the 400 and 100—last year were ranked No. 2 in the world.
Beamon, in the years after Mexico, followed a haphazard course. He was lionized in Europe, signing autographs simply, "8.90," but his work as a TV commentator fizzled because he is an austerely laconic man in public.
He graduated from Adelphi in 1972 and studied for a master's in counseling from San Diego State. Since 1982 he has been an administrator in the Dade County (Fla.) Parks and Recreation Department. He also works with the Special Olympics and with antipoverty organizations. In terms of exposure, he has benefited more from Lewis's sustained attack on his record than from setting it in the first place.
Each year that Beamon's and Evans's records go unbroken, they become more impressive memorials to a time and day that charged us with fearful wonder. Beamon even seemed to suspend the laws of physics. All these big, black, newly proud guys seemed able to break world records at will.
The natural reaction (at least of this '68 Olympic teammate) was simply to step back in awe. But America, already reeling from changes in thought and mores, didn't wholly care for that. Awe isn't a frame of mind we're good at sustaining anyway. And such was the power of Smith's and Carlos's upraised fists that their beloved country translated that awe into fear and disdain. That fell upon all the black champions of Mexico City, Evans and Beamon included.
"It seems like the '68 Olympics have been erased from the history books," says James. "It's in the minds, but not the literature."
It's an interesting question: These men were giants on the earth; will it take the breaking of their records, the final removal of their potency, for them at last to be gratefully celebrated?