At the 1968 Olympic Games, Tommie Smith, setting a world record, came first in the 200m sprint, with John Carlos placing third. After the event, the duo wore black socks and no shoes to protest Black poverty and made the Black power salute on the podium.
Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee had them kicked out of the Olympic Village for this and when they returned home, both them and their families had received death threats. Brundage, who had no issue with Nazi salutes being performed on the podium in the 1936 Games, claimed the Olympics were an apolitical event which had no need for these kinds of protests. Two days later, Bob Beamon, a Black American, would wear black socks as he performed one of the greatest athletic feats in the history of humanity.
The long jump world record has been a game of inches for generations, with each new record only barely surpassing the previous. Between 1935 and 1967, the world record increased by only 8 inches. Going into the 1968 Mexico Games, Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan had tied the record at 27 feet and 4.75 inches.
Beamon was the presumed favourite, being a known quantity and being coached by the aforementioned Ralph Boston, and he had personally aimed to set a new record, wanting to be the first human to jump over 28 feet. Beamon grew up in New York public housing. As an infant, his mother died from tuberculosis. His older brother was brain-damaged from the beatings his mother had received while pregnant. His father beat Bob relentlessly. He became a member of a street gang and saw a friend stabbed to death.
He initially went to a smaller university to be near his ill grandma but moved to UTEP after she passed away. In the February of 1968, Beamon and the UTEP athletics team contemplated a boycott of an event held by an organisation that refused black members. They decided not to. Beamon was becoming increasingly unsure of whether or not to protest but in the April of that year, the fatal shooting of Dr Martin Luther King in Memphis made his mind up for him.
The UTEP team decided they did not want to attend an event at the Mormon Brigham Young University, which taught black people were inferior. They were kicked out of UTEP and Beamon became an independent competitor. Beamon’s personal best in the long jump was 27 feet and 6.5 inches, which was wind-assisted and hence ineligible for the record books. Jesse Owens and Ralph Boston both said he was capable of jumping 28 feet, but to do so would shatter the previous record by almost 8 inches.
At Mexico City, he would stand at the line preparing himself for the jump. He had two false jumps during qualifying but managed to get to the final, where he competed against world record holders and Olympic gold medallists.
He leapt and achieved what he thought was a pretty good jump. He thought he had the record, but on inspection, guessed he jumped about 27 feet and 10 inches, not breaking 28 feet. The judges though were having issues. They had to go and get a tape measure in order to actually evaluate the jump. They spent 20 minutes looking at it.
Eventually, they said a number – 8.90m. Beamon had no idea what that meant, having never used the metric system before. He was told he had broken the record with a jump of 29 feet and 2.5 inches. He was in such shock that he suffered a cataplectic seizure. He had shattered the world record by almost two feet. He had taken the bounds of what the human body was meant to be capable of and leapt far beyond it.
Despite wearing black socks on the podium, Brundage never made a complaint about Beamon. He had risen above it all. In six seconds, he had done something no person had ever done, what no one would ever do at the Olympics again. He had leapt beyond all foreseeable achievement.
A poor Black kid, whose mother had died when he was an infant, who was beaten constantly, who saw a friend murdered, who was kicked out of university for protesting his very existence being considered inferior, had performed arguably the greatest athletic feat in the history of the human race. He had become immortal. Igor Ter-Ovanesyan would say: “compared to this, we are children”.