Lee Evans, photo by Jerry Cooke/Corbis and Getty Images/IAAF
October 18, 1968 was an amazing day in Olympic Track & Field. Mike Fanelli writes about it below. The day has several important meanings for me, as the editor of RunBlogrun. On a small black and white TV, in Bridgeton, Missouri, I recall watching a recap of Bob Beamon’s long jump, as my father, brother Brian and I had hotdogs (saurkraut, mustard, relish), and watched some sports. To this day, the photo of Bob Beamon reacting to his massive jump brings tears to my eyes. I was ten years old, and it was my first reaction to athletics.
I would not meet Lee Evans until 1990, when, thanks to one of my spiritual advisors, Peanut Harms, I was introduced to Lee Evans at a Coaching Clinic. It was also where I met the late Doug Speck. I idolized Lee Evans, and he lived up to the expectations. Lee Evans also coached with Peanut Harms in Nigeria in the 1970s.
Bud Winter, the dean of long sprint coaches, was with my high school coach, Fr. Ray Devlin, S.J., at his retirement in the fall of 1974. Bud Winter took the relaxation techniques that he taught to American fighter pilots (P-51s and P-47s) on their long trips, and used it with his sprinters at San Jose State.
Enjoy Mike’s masterful retelling of Day six of the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Monumental Marks Manifested…Olympic Friday commenced early and concluded late, as the first 5 events of the decathlon unfolded over a lengthy ten full hours, here on day six in Mexico City. The pre-meet dope sheet saw it as a duel between the West German world record holder, Kurt Bendlin (8319) and America’s four time AAU Champ, Bill Toomey (8222 PB). Right from the gun, the Philadelphia born ten-eventer, Toomey, took the 100 (10.4). He extended his lead in the next competition, the long jump, in which he set a lifetime best by three inches (25′ 9 3/4″). For Toomey, the 1,953 points he scored after just two events, exceeded his best ever…in fact, it was a deca record of sorts. Joachim Kirst came up big in the third event while putting the shot 53′ 11″ to Toomey’s somewhat dismal 45′ 1 1/4″…nearly two feet shy of his career best. “This was my most depressing event” Toomey later said. And rightfully so, as the East German, Kirst, was now in the lead over Toomey by a margin of 83 points. Next up came the high jump where Billy T leapt a solid 6′ 4 3/4″, but even still, he slipped back further to a 109 point deficit…though he maintained a 50 point advantage over Hans – Joachim Walde in third. Then came Toomey’s ‘go to’ discipline, the 400 meters. He had recently set the one lap decathlon world record (46.4) while qualifying for this meet in the similarly oxygen deprived Sierra air of Echo Summit. The red, white, and blue clad Bill ripped off a mighty 45.6, which would garner him a whopping 1021 points…137 points more than the next fastest time at 48.3. Bill Toomey, now the leader, would head back into the locker room with a credit of 4,499 chits, and would sleep soundly on a cushion of 115 over Kirst and 94 more on Walde.
While the decathletes juggled about in their ten-ring circus, the long jump had started early…real early. In fact, this one started during the Spring of 1962 when a wanna’ be hoodlum in the NYC ghetto of South Jamaica, Queens, first took note of a poster that advertised something called the Junior Olympics. The sociologists said that the fifteen year old, Robert Beamon, wasn’t a bad boy, but instead, “a product of his environment”…after all, his father was in Sing-Sing when he was conceived and his mother died only 11 months after he was born. Just exactly where he got the initiative to bum the sixty cents required to afford public transportation out to Randall’s Island, and then borrow track spikes once he got there, we may never know. What we do know is that when the following day’s Daily Mirror included a mini headline, “Beamon Jumps 24′ 1″ in Junior Olympics”, a young Bob became hooked on track.
The morning qualification rounds had been some fifteen degrees warmer than the later starting finals, therefore, the previously almost soft tartan surface had firmed up considerably. The true track fan recognized that the long jump might well be one of the most explosive events of these Games, as all three medalists from that 1964 Tokyo track meet were finalist contestants here. Co-world record holders (27′ 4 3/4″), Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, wearing the hammer and sickle, and Ralph Boston, who sported the colors of Old Glory, owned three Olympic medals between them…Lynn Davies, displaying the Union Jack also had one that was colored silver. Epic, altitude-infused, horizontal bounding was anxiously anticipated.
Once underway, the stiffening up of the runway surface prompted the first three jumpers of round one to foul in their attempts. Beamon came up fourth in the rotation. As Bob readied for a first effort, his sage mentor Ralph Boston stood nearby and admitted to track journalism great, Dick Drake, “I’m always nervous when Beamon goes down the runway because you know that some day he might put all his great talent together in one big jump.” With high knees and great acceleration, he charged towards the pit, planted his right foot on the board with accuracy and authority and levitated forth. It should be noted here that Beamon also had 6′ 5″ high jumping skills. He remained airborne for what seemed like an absolute eternity, and when he finally came down to earth, the bleached white sands beneath spread far and wide and every which way. Keeping his balance would necessitate three more frog leaps out of the back end of the pit. He had not a clue as to whether it was a very good jump or if his butt first landing point had cost him a foot or more in distance. Beamon then languidly strolled back towards the top of the runway where the electronic board would display his tally. The Omega board read unofficially 8.60 (an impossible 28′ 2″) but it’d be another 30 entire minutes before the judges could feel confident with their actual measurement. When they finally posted up, it unfathomably read 8.90. In an instant, the UTEP Miner recognized that he had broken the world record, although he didn’t understand exactly what that’d convert to. He hopped up and down excitedly as Boston exclaimed “That’s twenty-nine feet,” near frantically. “No wait” the still calculating Boston exclaimed. “It’s more than twenty-nine feet.” To which Beamon promptly crumbled to the track in what doctor’s what later call a “cataplectic seizure,” and described as an “atonic state of the somatic muscles on the heels of emotional excitement”…much more dramatic than a mere faint. On his very first leap, Bob Beamon had upped the world long jump record by nearly two feet, to an otherworldly 29′ 2 1/2″…hence giving birth to the eponymous adjective, ‘Beamonesque.’
The remainder of the long jump battle became largely irrelevant. Beamon would take another stab, this one landing at 26′ 4 1/2″ and then passed on his final four attempts. East German, Klaus Beer, had a frothy 26’10 1/2″ in his second attempt and that would be good for silver, while reigning Oly champ Boston got up for third (26′ 9 1/2″) and Ter – Ovanesyan finished fourth (26′ 7 3/4″). As the long jumpers inside the track continued rounds two through 6, the day’s final final, the men’s 400 meters, was getting underway on the surrounding oval.
But not all was well in Mexico City. Earlier that morning, the United States Olympic Committee announced the suspension of Tommie Smith and John Carlos due to their stand on human rights, while receiving their hard-won 200 meter medals two days prior. Imminently, they’d be ejected from the Olympic Village. The news hit teammate and kindred spirit, Lee Evans, like an incendiary device. As their brother-in-arms, Evans immediately declared that he’d not be running the one lap finals in five hours time. End of story. That is until his very trusted Speed City coach, Bud Winter, appeared at his dorm room. He had in tow both Smith and Carlos. Each took a turn at telling Lee why he SHOULD go out and run. That they had their medals and now it was his turn.
Lee acquiesced. He would make his statement on the track.
The finalists in this, the longest dash, were concluding their warm ups while readying to be called to their blocks. But then there was a delay and yet another…some kind of commotion over at the long jump pit. Eventually all eight starter’s were in their blocks awaiting the big bang. Ron Freeman was on the inside lane, Larry James in two and then Evans was way out in six. BOOM and they were were sent flying. Evans, normally a follower, jumped out hard from the start. His most feared competitors were his countrymen to his left, neither of whom were visible. He easily made up the stagger on the cats in seven and eight before heading into the final turn. They key was the third 100 meters, Evans said. “I took out my aggression on the USOC with a hard turn.” Entering the stretch, Evans had a three yard lead and was motoring strongly in his highest gear. Larry James, however, was in a winning state of mind and thought he really could. James closed down on Evans the entire way to the tape… but the line appeared before he could finish off the deed. Ron Freeman flashed across next to give the United States of America a 1-2-3 sweep of the medals. Lee Evans nailed the American, Olympic and World record with a superlative 43.8 to James 43.9, as the lane one disadvantaged Freeman scored 44.4 for bronze.
And here, my friends, is where I go on record to say that in this track fan’s estimate, October 18, 1968, is the single all-time greatest day in the history of American track and field. Lee Evans’ 400 meter mark would stand the test of time for a bit over 19 years. The Beamon record would last for more than 22 years. I rest my case.
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