At 3:46 p.m. on Oct. 18 in the Olympic Stadium at Mexico City a track steward called the fourth competitor, No. 254, Beamon U.S.A., to take his first try in the long jump. Although the sky promised rain at any moment, when Robert Beamon went to his mark the conditions were ideal, the runway fast. Because he had fouled his first two tries in the qualifying round the day before, Beamon was fearful of doing so again. As he stood at his mark he lowered his head and lifted it twice. He closed his eyes slowly and opened them, thinking only one thing: don't foul. In his first loping steps on the runway he felt slow, but as he gathered speed his doubts diminished. He hit the takeoff board with a good, full stride and went into the air. Remembering the instant now, Beamon, a laconic man, says simply, "It felt like a regular jump."
Because the finals of the men's 400-meter dash were about to get under way, some of the 40,000 spectators in the stadium were diverted and did not see Beamon's historic effort. Among those who did there were a few experts who realized, while Beamon was still in the air, that the jump was a whopper. Jesse Owens, the 1936 gold medalist of eternal fame, was serving in Mexico City as a radio commentator. Following Beamon through binoculars from the stands opposite, Owens declared, "His body went up five and a half to six feet in the air, and with his speed, that will do it."
Long jumper Lynn Davies of Great Britain, who took first at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and Ralph Boston of the U.S., who won in Rome four years before that, were seated on a bench near the start of the runway, both waiting to make their first try for a second gold medal. "We could see very little of the actual jump, being too far behind it," Davies recalls. "Even so, it looked impressive. He seemed to be such a hell of a long time in the air."
"That's 28 feet," Boston said.
"No, it can't be," Davies replied, lying out loud to bolster his own spirits.
"That's more than 28 feet," Boston insisted.
Although the jump seemed only "regular" to Beamon while he was in flight, when he hit the dirt he knew he had jumped very far. Judging by the shouts of the crowd and the momentum that sent him frog-hopping out the far end of the pit, he was quite sure he had exceeded the world record of 27'4�", held by Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan.
In Mexico the long jump was measured with an optical device that slid along a rail parallel to the landing pit. To try to line up Beamon's mark in the dirt, a judge moved the optical sight out and out, and still farther out until, just past 28 feet, the sight fell off the far end of the rail. "Fantastic. Fantastic," the judge said to Beamon. "We will have to measure it with a tape."
When the tape-measured result, 8.90 meters, flashed on the scoreboard, Ter-Ovanesyan said in despair to Davies, "Compared to that jump, the rest of us are children." American track buffs in the stands immediately began converting the metric result into feet and inches—and they had a terrible time. After multiplying the metric result by 39.37 and dividing by 12, and then remultiplying and redividing and cross-checking to get a logical answer, they kept coming up with 29 feet and something—impossible. Beamon first got the spectacular truth from Boston, a veteran of many campaigns in metric countries. "You really put it all together," Boston told him. "You went about 29 feet 2 inches."
In the elation of the next 10 minutes, Beamon is not sure just what he did or when. At some point before he had fully collected his wits, he recalls kneeling on the track, overwhelmed by his good fortune. Either before or after collapsing, he remembers being beckoned to by spectators wanting his autograph. Before he reached them, some of the autograph seekers—including a good number of jubilant Mexican ladies—had come out of the stands onto the turf. "I don't remember signing an autograph," Beamon relates. "It seems all they really wanted was to kiss me—some of them for the second and third time."