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.
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.' "