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John Underwood
October 28, 1968
In an Olympics studded with broken records, none was more awesome than the leap by Bob Beamon, who went nearly two feet beyond anyone before him to help brighten the Problem Games
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October 28, 1968

The Long Long Jump

In an Olympics studded with broken records, none was more awesome than the leap by Bob Beamon, who went nearly two feet beyond anyone before him to help brighten the Problem Games

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Still, there was Jim Ryun. Ah, had we forgotten Jim Ryun? The best saved for last. It would be Ryun who would salvage Olympic gold and end the frustrations of the American distance runners, this time at a distance closer to reality for the man who takes his air at sea level: 1,500 meters. On the last day of track and field competition Ryun went out to challenge the ubiquitous Keino, who had been beaten badly in the 10,000 but by only a stride or two in the searing 5,000. Keino seemed tired at last after his week of almost continuous competition. In a semifinal the day before, Ryun had run him down in the last lap and had looked too strong for Keino while winning easily. What had seemed significant about the race then was that Keino appeared to be trying.

At the start of the final Sunday afternoon it was obvious that this was going to be a very fast race, whether Keino liked the pace or not. At first it seemed he did not. Schoolboy Ben Jipcho, unwittingly serving as his countryman Keino's rabbit, moved out quickly, with Keino and Ryun hanging back. Then, in the second lap, Keino sprinted wide and came up on Jipcho as Ryun settled into ninth place. Early surging is not his style. The German contender Bodo T�mmler held third place behind the two Kenyans.

Suddenly the race began to get away from Ryun. On the third lap the pack divided. Keino led one group and Ryun led the other, but Keino was five yards ahead of his and accelerating. His intention was clear: spread so much Tartan track between himself and Ryun that Ryun would not be able to collar him in the stretch. Having been out-kicked in the 5,000, Keino was not about to have the same disaster overtake him in the 1,500. Now aware of the advantage Keino was making for himself, Ryun picked up speed and for a while ran between the two packs. At the bell for the last lap he moved up to fifth place in the first group.

Ryun at this point was 40 yards back. That is a lot of ground to make up even if you are Jim Ryun. If you have to make it up in rarefied air against a Kipchoge Keino, you probably won't. On the backstretch Keino glanced around to see if Ryun was coming. Ryun was, passing T�mmler, stumbling slightly as he did so, but his progress was gradual and minimal. Keino had too much left. At the tape he was grinning broadly and Ryun was 20 yards in his wake. The time was a somewhat spectacular 3:34.9, only 1.8 seconds off the world record, .7 of a second faster than Herb Elliott's Olympic record set eight years earlier at Rome. It was easily the fastest 1,500 meters ever run at altitude.

Accompanied by Jipcho, who kept touching him and patting him on the back as if the sparks might be passed on, Keino took a smiling, waving victory lap, holding up his forefinger to signify Kenya's new preeminence in distance running. Ryun, walking slowly to keep from staggering, moved up the ramp and out of the stadium. His race, in retrospect, had been just slightly less spectacular than Keino's. Only Elliott's Olympic time was faster. Peter Snell, winner at Tokyo, would have been several strides behind him. Ryun found a bench and sat there for a long time alone. A friend came to him and Ryun looked up, his face still contorted by the effort he had made. "God, it hurts," he said.

It was not many minutes after that that Mamo Wolde, an Ethiopian palace guard like Abebe Bikila before him, trotted into the stadium an easy winner in the marathon. Bikila, who won in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, dropped out this time after 10 kilometers, but he is getting older now and he has been ill. Wolde's victory made it five golds out of five for Africans in running races over 800 meters. Of the five, only Gammoudi does not make his home at high altitude, but he seems to be in the enviable position of being able to train there whenever and for as long as he likes.

What did the distance races prove for future generations of Olympic site selectors? They proved that nations that spend a couple of million dollars to get a team acclimated at special camps are not guaranteed a nickel's return. They proved the absolute folly of sea-level runners trying to sneak up on the problem by arriving at altitude the day before competition. They proved that the element of danger is not as remote as some people thought. Maurice Herriott of Great Britain, who had finished second in the steeplechase at Tokyo, passed out seven times in 48 hours after his race in Mexico and was still red-eyed and rubbery days later. They proved that Dr. Roger Bannister may not have been kidding when, in answer to the question of how long it would take a sea-level runner to acclimate to Mexico City, he brusquely replied, "Twenty-five years."

The trouble with Mexico City, of course, is that it does not just sock it to you in the lungs, it goes for the stomach, too. The incidence of infection among visitors is so great that "You got it yet?" has become more common as an Olympic Village greeting than "How you doing?" Precautions had been plentiful—cooks and kitchen workers wore sterilized clothing, silverware was delivered to the tables in sealed cellophane bags—but they were not foolproof. Most of the afflicted competed anyway (the swimmers generally did not seem to mind), but on occasion there was tragedy. Jack Bacheler, America's only qualifier in the 5,000 meters, was hospitalized and could not run in the finals. Wade Bell, the tough little Oregonian who was favored to win the 800 meters, was out for two days with severe cramps. He threw up on the track before his trial heat race and was reluctant to run, but he tried anyway and did not qualify for the finals. He came off the track listing far to one side to relieve the pain. He complained that a muscle relaxant should have been given him, but Olympic officials are hot after drug takers just now and he was refused. He walked alone all the way back to the village, crestfallen.

Beyond Mexican riots and Mexican altitude, the third and what should have been one of the more obvious threats to Olympic peace was the likelihood of a demonstration by a small group of American Negro athletes led by John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans. They had been hinting at it for months but communication between them and the U.S. Olympic officials broke down long ago, and the officials seemed satisfied to fill the void with a kind of tacit, Pollyanna belief in the surfacing power of harmony.

The Olympic 100 meters passed without incident because Jim Hines was the winner and Hines does not buy all that the militants try to sell. Then Smith won the 200. He won it in courageous style. He had torn a groin muscle in the semifinals and had to be iced down and taped from the waist to the bottom edge of his running shorts in order to continue. In the final, two hours later, Carlos held the lead with 50 yards to go. At that point, as he is wont to do when on the verge of victory, Carlos looked around. He need not have bothered. Smith, settling down in the stretch, was streaking past him. Carlos broke stride, and then when he looked to his right the Australian Peter Norman was passing him for second place. It was a fine race, one that Smith could be proud of, but he will not be remembered for his 19.8. He will be remembered for what happened next.

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