Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bob Beamon's Leap Into History

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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.

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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

and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEt_Xgg8dzc

For some information on the world high jump records see

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