Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bob Beamon's Leap Into History


It was the afternoon of October 18th 1968, and the occasion was the long jump final of the Mexico City Olympic games. Bob Beamon, the United States champion, stood at the beginning of the long jump runway, eying the raked sand landing pit some 50 metres away.

A tall, lean and muscular man, Beamon was one of the favourites for the event, but not the world record holder – this had been set at 8.35 metres by the Russian athlete Igor Ter-Ovanesyan almost exactly a year before.

Beamon began his run, accelerating smoothly to top pace and hit the take off mark absolutely flat out and in perfect balance. Soaring into space he seemed to briefly defy gravity and float above the sand before returning to earth with a textbook landing. Even to the untrained eye it looked to be a massive jump, but it was destined to be far more than that – it became one of the defining moments in the history of track and field.

His leap was so huge that that it was beyond the range of the special optical device that had been installed to measure the jumps – instead, stunned officials scrambled to measure the distance with a tape. The result was electrifying – a new world record of 8.90 metres was flashed up on the scoreboard. And not only a new record but an absolute demolition job – nobody in history had jumped anywhere near this distance before.

Bob Beamon's jump was a record in terms of distance and also in terms of the amount by which the previous record was broken. Image from Wikipedia Commons
(Click to enlarge)

Normally, in the long jump, when a new record is set, any improvement over the old figure is measured in small increments. But Beamon’s jump raised the distance by an astonishing 55 cm – by far the biggest increase in recorded history.

The rest of the meeting was almost an anticlimax – rain washed through the stadium soon after and second place went to Klaus Beer, the East German, with a leap of 8.19 metres – an astonishing 71 cm short of Beamon’s jump. Bob Beamon finished the day with an Olympic Gold medal, a world record and one of the most remarkable performances ever recorded in the history of athletics.

So how was he able to jump so far on that afternoon? A great deal of study and investigation followed to try and account for his phenomenal performance.

Mexico City lies at an altitude of 2300 metres where the atmosphere is only about 75% as dense as that at sea level, meaning that Beamon experienced correspondingly less air resistance. In addition, he jumped with a “tailwind” which also assisted him – subsequent studies showed that these two factors of altitude and wind assistance could have provided him with a 31 cm advantage compared to a similar jump in still conditions at sea level. This still leaves unexplained a distance of 24 cm – the balance of the 55 cm by which he broke the world record.

Technically, Beamon’s jump was near perfect – his run up was smooth and he hit the take off board at full pace without having to lengthen or shorten his stride. Post analysis of the jump using both still and “movie” images show that he would have cleared a horizontal bar set at 1.7 m over the middle of the pit, which is a phenomenal height for a long jumper. His style through the air was textbook – he adopted a classic aerodynamic position that minimised air resistance and the landing was also ideal with maximum extension achieved without toppling backwards.

But even all these factors do not adequately explain the enormity of his achievement – perhaps it is only the human spirit, that can, on special occasions, produce superhuman results – that provides the answer.

Bob Beamon’s jump stood as the world long jump record for 23 years until exceeded by 5 cm in a jump by Mike Powell in August 1991. However it still stands as the Olympic record – 44 years later as of 2012.

The gold medal for the London Olympic games was won by Greg Rutherford of Great Britain with a great leap of 8.31 m. However this would not have come close to Bob Beamon's jump.

If we rank all the long jump world records since 1900 in order by the amount that each broke the previous record, we obtain the following table:

1. Robert Beamon (USA) 55 cm 1968
2. Jesse Owens (USA) 15 cm 1935
3. William Hubbard (USA) 13 cm 1925
4. Edward Gourdin (USA) 8 cm 1923
5. Ralph Boston (USA) 8 cm 1960
6. Robert LeGendre (USA) 7 cm 1924
7. Chuhei Nambu (JPN) 5 cm 1931
8. Michael Powell (USA) 5 cm 1991
9. Ralph Boston (USA) 4 cm 1961
10. Sylvio Cator (HAI) 3 cm 1928
11. Ralph Boston (USA) 3 cm 1961
12. Igor Ter-Ovanesyan (URS) 3 cm 1962
13. Ralph Boston (USA) 3 cm 1964
14. Edward Hamm (USA) 1 cm 1928
15. Ralph Boston (USA) 1 cm 1965
16. Ralph Boston (USA) 0 cm 1964 (equal WR)
17. Igor Ter-Ovanesyan (URS) 0 cm 1967 (equal WR)

We see from this analysis that Bob Beamon’s jump stands alone. His performance earned him the title of Track and Field Athlete of the Year for 1968 and was later named as one of the five greatest sporting achievements of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.

For a great vision of the now legendary jump see



For some information on the world high jump records see

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Race of Death

By world standards, mountains in Australia are not very tall with the highest peak being Mount Kosciusko at only 2235 metres. However, extreme conditions can occur across the mountain ranges over south-eastern Australia, particularly in the winter months when quite heavy snow can fall over widespread areas. This has led to tragedy in the past, and some hard lessons have been learned about life in the high country.

Image: Mount Wellington towers above Hobart, often carrying a mantle of snow during the winter months.
Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.
Mount Wellington forms a picturesque backdrop to the City of Hobart, rising to a height of 1270 metres, and often with its peak covered in snow during the winter months. However, because of its southerly latitude, snow producing cold fronts racing up from the far Southern Ocean can reach the area at any time, even during the summer, triggering extreme changes in temperature across the area. When a strong cold front moves through Tasmania snow can extend down to quite low levels, with several recorded cases of snow actually reaching sea level around Hobart.
It was Mount Wellington, with its notoriously capricious weather that formed the stage for a gruelling athletics race in 1903, a race that was to end in a double tragedy.
In the early 1900’s there was an Australia-wide athletics craze, with numerous running and walking competitions staged around the country, involving both sprinting and distance events. Unlike today’s fun running phenomenon, these events normally involved trained and sometimes professional athletes, with prizes given and a good deal of public betting on the side.
However the first major race up Mount Wellington was an all-amateur affair, organised by the Tasmanian Amateur Athletics Association, and with the first prize not money, but a brand new double barrelled shotgun presented by the sponsor Watson Whisky.
The race was organised for Saturday September 19, 1903, and ran from Lower Elizabeth Street to the top of Mount Wellington and back – a distance of some 27 kilometers. The format was what was called a “Go As You Please” race, which meant that the route the runner elected to take was optional - provided he reached the checkpoint at the top of the mountain, he could go any way he wanted.
On the morning before the race, the weather was described as “very unsettled”, with snow drifting down to low levels on the mountain. There was talk of postponing the start, but eventually the field got under way in the early afternoon, with 39 out of the 70 original entrants beginning the race. The pace was a cracker out of the city but naturally began to slow as the runners began the arduous climb up the side of the mountain.

The Organ Pipes - a distinctive rock formation near the summit. Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.

Then, only part of the way through the climb, it began snowing and the athletes, only lightly clad in athletic singlets and shorts, found themselves in freezing conditions, with a strong south-west wind producing a chill factor that effectively dropped the temperature much further. The going became too tough for several and only 23 out of the 39 starters reached the pinnacle and began the downhill run home.
One member of the group of officials at the summit reported that “He had never met with worse weather on the mountain. With the heavy snow beating on them,(the athletes) their clothes got frozen hard”. Leading at the half way mark was a runner called Charles Beard, but he was followed closely by a group which consisted of Betts, McDonald and Cockshutt. Another athlete, Mark Richards, also reached the summit but complained of feeling faint and dizzy. He was about to drop out but was “encouraged by another competitor” and was persuaded to run on.
As a result of the steep downhill grades on the return journey, the pace picked up considerably, but because of the freezing conditions many of the athletes became exhausted and dropped out. More than half of the 23 men who reached the summit failed to reach the finish, and only a small band eventually raced into the city, applauded by a large crowd. The eventual winner was Cockshutt in the very respectable time of 2hr 44 min.
However the euphoria of the finish of the first organised race up Mount Wellington was soon eclipsed by the news filtering back from the mountain; Mark Richards had collapsed and died part way down, and another athlete, George Radford, was missing. The local police, together with the race promoters, immediately organised search parties, and these continued in failing light and falling snow until well after midnight, but no trace of Radford was found. Next morning the search resumed at sunrise, and a little later, Radford’s body was found in the snow on the “Old Fingerpost Track” where he had fallen backwards and frozen to death.
This double death toll cast a pall of gloom over the race as well as the organisers and a full coronial enquiry was ordered. This found that both Richards and Radford had died from a combination of heart failure and prolonged exposure to below freezing conditions.
Such a tragedy is unlikely to happen today. Recognised distance running events involving either elite athletes or “fun runners” are carefully planned and have medical assistance available to all competitors. In addition, the weather forecasts are routinely monitored, and if extreme conditions, such as very hot or very cold temperatures are forecast, race organisers will incorporate this into their planning.
As far as Tasmania is concerned, not only Mount Wellington, but the state as a whole, can experience great temperature variations. Cold outbreaks can produce snow across many parts of the Tasmanian highlands even during the summer months, and the Bureau of Meteorology issues “Bushwalker’s Alerts” when such a change is expected.
Today the Radford Track on Mount Wellington is both a memorial and a reminder of the tragic events of September 1903.
Reference: Australia's Natural Disasters, Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publications, 2005