Months before his famous jump, Bob Beamon got kicked off his college track team for protesting racism
When the man who could fly stood down
Start with the photo. Not the one you know, in which he’s suspended in the thin air of Mexico City, limbs lunging forward as his torso chases to keep up, his mouth agape, almost shocked at what he’s doing — which is, of course, leaping 29 feet, 2½ inches to break the world record in the long jump by nearly 2 feet. Not that photo.
There’s another picture of Bob Beamon, one that isn’t as well-known. It’s from later the same day, Oct. 18, 1968. In this one, the 22-year-old is on the medal stand, a gold medal draped around his neck. He is standing in the same spot where, two days earlier, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute. Before stepping onto the medal stand, he rolled up his pants to his calves, revealing the black socks he wore in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. Moments after the national anthem played, Beamon faced the crowd. His left arm cradled the box for his gold medal, and he raised his right arm with a fist.
This is not the image that will be remembered, however. Beamon’s socks and raised fist won’t cause the same stir as Smith and Carlos’ protest. Unlike them, Beamon won’t be thrown out of the Olympic Village. He won’t be the subject of countless editorials. Instead, he will be recognized mostly for his otherworldly jump.
For Beamon, that is just fine. Or is it?
This wasn’t Beamon’s first protest. That April, Beamon and eight of his teammates on the University of Texas at El Paso track team boycotted a meet against Brigham Young University because of the Book of Mormon’s views on black people. They were all kicked off the university’s track team and had their scholarships revoked. Six months before the jump that remains an Olympic record today, Beamon was without a team.
Which is why the other photo is so important. There is more to the man than the jump.
On the night of April 8, 1968, four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, nine members of the university track and field team met with their coach, Wayne Vandenburg, in his small apartment in El Paso. They were planning to boycott the Easter weekend meet against Brigham Young, they told him. This was not the first time they had thought about sitting out a meet. Earlier in the year Vandenburg had nearly encouraged it.
In February, Beamon and his teammates had crossed a picket line outside Madison Square Garden. Harry Edwards, the leader of a movement of black athletes who were considering boycotting the 1968 Games, had urged black athletes to boycott the New York Athletic Club Indoor Games. The club did not allow African-American members, Edwards noted, so why should black athletes compete at a meet that would benefit the club?
But Beamon, who was from Queens, and several other teammates were reluctant to forgo a free trip to New York, where many of them could compete in front of family and friends. Plus, he wasn’t sure what a boycott would accomplish. “It got down to this,” he told Sports Illustrated. “The NYAC is prejudiced against a lot of different kinds of people, including Jews, and if they’re that way, why should we get excited about it? What happens if we boycott and they agree to admit Negroes but they still keep out the Jews? What have we accomplished?”
This was an invitational meet with collegiate athletes and pros alike, not a dual meet or NCAA championship with team scoring on the line. Before it started, rumors of violence swirled through the dressing room. Vandenburg approached Beamon, who was in his college-issued orange sweats. “Remember now, you don’t have to compete,” Vandenburg told him, according to a New York Times report. “It’s your decision, it’s an individual decision. That goes for everybody.”
Beamon, who had set the world indoor record (27 feet, 1 inch) in January, decided to jump, much to the delight of the crowd. He won with a leap of 26 feet, 3½ inches, about 10 inches short of his record. His teammates competed as well. They returned to the UTEP campus as heroes. “They told us, ‘Great job, wonderful!’ ” sprinter Dave Morgan told Sports Illustrated. “They said that we really stood up for our rights.”
This was the same campus where, two years earlier, coach Don Haskins played seven black players to defeat Kentucky and Adolph Rupp and win the NCAA title. (The school was called Texas Western at the time.) Rupp had been resistant to integration and had only white players on his roster. The reaction wasn’t quite what the track team was expecting.
The trip to New York and the return to UTEP, where only about 250 of the 10,000 students were black, sparked something in Beamon and his teammates. “Later down the road, I understood why there was a boycott outside Madison Square Garden,” Beamon says today. “As months go on, I get deeper into understanding what is happening not only in El Paso but in America in a sense. It was a bittersweet kind of situation for us, competing in that meet. You live and you learn.”
In El Paso, UTEP’s black athletes began to question their surroundings. Morgan, a sprinter and leader on the team, felt that Edwards had a point — why should the black athletes help these institutions when black students aren’t treated fairly? Beamon, meanwhile, wasn’t as quick to reach the same conclusion. There were problems on campus and in El Paso, he knew. The only job his then-wife Melvina could find was lifting boxes for $1.35 per hour, even though she was a qualified secretary and bilingual in English and Spanish. But was a boycott the answer?
Then King was assassinated. Beamon and the rest of the UTEP team competed in the Texas Relays in Austin the weekend after the assassination. But when they returned to campus this time, a small collection of black athletes held a meeting and made a decision: They were going to boycott the Easter weekend meet against BYU.
The black athletes were emotionally drained from the death of King. But there was more to the boycott. BYU is a Mormon school, and for much of its history, the church would not ordain men of black African descent as priests and barred black men and women from certain church rites. (The policies were reversed in 1978.)
Sitting in Vandenburg’s apartment the Monday night before the April 13 meet in Provo, Utah, the nine team members — Beamon, Morgan, sprinters Charles McPherson and Robert Boalts, hurdlers Kelly Myrick Jr. and Levi Portis, and middle-distance runners John Nichols, Jose L’Official and Jimmy Love — told him they were not going.
But Vandenburg’s reaction was different from the one in New York. “I said I don’t believe they’re being any more discriminated against today than they have been for the last 10-15 years that we’ve competed against BYU,” he recalled recently. “You’ve competed against them in the indoor conference championships and there was no issues, so now we’re making it an issue.” Sit out the meet, he told them, and they’d be off the team.
From there, everything moved quickly. Vandenburg told his superiors in the athletic department, and they informed the athletes their scholarships would be revoked if they did not compete against BYU. The athletes stood their ground and attempted to get others on the team to join them. Pete Romero was a freshman middle-distance star of Mexican descent from California. He recalled recently that he told his teammates he couldn’t afford to lose his scholarship. “This is all I have,” he said.
By Friday, the news of the boycott was out. U.T. El Paso Negros Withdraw from Track read the headline in that day’s El Paso Times. An Associated Press article ran in papers all over the country, with headlines such as Negroes at El Paso Nix Competition to Beamon, UTEP Fellow Negroes Pledge Boycott filling pages.
The athletic department released a statement declaring that any athlete who boycotted the BYU meet would “be considered by the athletic department as having voluntarily disassociated themselves with the track team.”
“There were about a dozen reasons [to boycott],” Morgan told Sports Illustrated in July 1968. “The Mormons teach that Negroes are descended from the devil. As a reason for the track team’s boycott it may sound like a small thing to a white person, but who the hell wants to go up there and run your tail off in front of a bunch of spectators who think you’ve got horns. And it was Easter week, and it seemed to us that there was an obvious connection between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Dr. King. To a white it might be nothing; to us it had great significance. And on top of all of that, there was the general fact that the Negro is treated like something out of the jungle here, and we wanted to express ourselves about that.”
BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson issued a statement, saying the UTEP students had “erroneous information” regarding the treatment of black people within the Mormon religion. “We do not discriminate because of race and have Negroes in our student body,” Wilkinson said.
Vandenburg held out hope that the athletes would change their minds up until the doors of the plane to Provo closed, but eight stayed behind. Nichols, a middle-distance runner, traveled with the team to Provo because he wanted to see the situation at BYU. But, he told Sports Illustrated, things were so tense that he got into a fistfight with a teammate who kept calling him “black boy.” Nichols ended up boycotting, too, and lost his scholarship.
Beamon, however, was still set on becoming an Olympic champion.
Beamon did not lose his scholarship immediately — it was near the end of the spring semester, and he remained in Texas. He missed two months of NCAA competitions, including the NCAA championships in mid-June. But there were still opportunities to jump.
He moved from El Paso to Houston once the semester ended in May to train with the Houston Striders track club and manager Dave Rickey. He moved towns and took on a new coach but somehow remained focused on his gold-medal task. “I didn’t have time to think about losing my scholarship,” he said. “I was really strapped to my dream. And there was nothing that would get in my way, that would make me change my direction. I went straight forward. I never lost a step.”
Beamon had broken his own world indoor record in March with a leap of 27 feet, 2¾ inches. Without NCAA meets to compete in, Beamon traveled with the support of the Striders and continued to jump. He soared 26 feet, 11¼ inches in Modesto, California, in late May. In early June, he leapt 26 feet, 7½ inches to win a competition in Los Angeles. At a tuneup meet in August in Houston, he jumped 25 feet, ½ inch.
Then in September, Beamon won the Olympic trials in Echo Summit, California, with a wind-aided leap of 27 feet, 6½ inches that surpassed the world record. The wind made the jump record ineligible, but Beamon was on a tear. He went into Mexico City as the favorite, even though he was facing both Ralph Boston, who won gold in 1960, and Lynn Davies of Great Britain, who won gold in 1964.
Then, he made the leap that cemented his legacy.
Beamon’s leap of 29 feet, 2½ inches — which far surpassed the record of 27 feet, 4¾ inches — was the stuff of legend. Athletes weren’t supposed to do what he did. Common sense said he needed to jump 28 feet before he could leap 29. In his first attempt in the finals, he broke the world record by nearly 2 feet. (Some noted that the wind was at the maximum allowable for a record: 2.0 meters per second — a condition that applied to all the competitors that day.)
The jump remains the gold standard of otherworldly performance. Plus, Beamon did it after getting kicked off the UTEP track team and losing his coach six months before the Olympics. World records weren’t supposed to fall so easily. And especially not when an athlete’s entire world had changed drastically. Many athletes would have faltered facing such change, but not Beamon.
For him, the magnitude of the leap was a surprise, but winning gold was not. That was always part of the plan.
“I lost my scholarship,” he said, “but I never lost focus on preparing myself for the Olympic team. I stayed right in the pocket.”
“When I give speeches,” Beamon said, “I like to tell people, ‘When I jumped off the board and leaped in the air, I took a moment and looked at my watch.’ ” He laughs, knowing how ridiculous it sounds. “They just go bananas on that.”
Beamon at 71 remains as vibrant as the multicolored geometric shirt and matching sneakers he is wearing. He sits next to his wife, Rhonda, inside their Las Vegas home on a stiflingly hot sunny day. As his dogs Phoebe, a Maltese poodle mix, and Bailey, a schnauzer, bark from upstairs, he talks about the 50-year-old jump — a subject in which he is well-rehearsed. “It took them at least 20 minutes or so for the jump to be measured,” he said, his legs bouncing as if there is still plenty of spring in them, “and I thought maybe I jumped close to 28 feet. But they couldn’t use the electronic device, so they had to send somebody out to Ace Hardware to get a tape to measure the jump.”
Jokes aside, Beamon still marvels over what he did that day. “They plastered this jump on the board, and it was 8.9 meters,” he said, his hands drifting apart in front of him as if he’s revealing an imaginary scoreboard, “and I didn’t know meters, I was just dumbfounded by meters. I was with my teammate Ralph Boston [who won bronze in the long jump in 1968], and he said, ‘You know, you just jumped over 29 feet.’ I didn’t process it for a moment, then the next thing you know, he was picking me up, and I couldn’t believe it. I just found myself between time and space. I wasn’t sure if this was really real, and I was wondering if it was just a wonderful dream. Maybe I can’t quite explain it. It was just way, way above what we had imagined.”
When the conversation turns to the UTEP boycott, though, he slows down, and his giddiness turns reflective. He ticks off a list of names: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.
“When you see a nonviolent man being shot down,” Beamon said, “it just keeps building. The country has to respond in some kind of way. I was seeing so much, so much death and hate around us. So many different types of things that were not, to me, right.”
In 1968 he was laser-focused on his sport, but he also understood that the world was changing — and that he could be a vehicle to accelerate that change. Once King was shot, Beamon and his teammates knew they had to do something, anything. So they boycotted.
Looking back on it today, he does not regret that he did it, he only regrets that everything moved so quickly. The same is true for Vandenburg, now a board member for the USA Track & Field Foundation, who says he is still in touch with the UTEP athletes from the 1968 team. “You look at things in hindsight,” Vandenburg told me recently. “Do I believe I would have seen things differently today? Yeah, I think so. It probably wouldn’t have gone as far. It was one of those situations where you didn’t sit down and talk through it. I was 26 years old at the time, but that’s not an excuse. It just quickly got out of hand.”
“I don’t think the administrators were understanding or sympathetic,” Beamon said. He remains sorry that Vandenburg and the UTEP track team lost some of its best athletes. (Vandenburg left the team in 1972, when coach Ted Banks took over and led it to 17 NCAA titles in track and field and cross-country over the next nine years.)
But Beamon is not sorry that he had stood up for something he believed in. It was the same as supporting Carlos and Smith by wearing black socks on the medal stand. Beamon is quick to say that was an easy decision, especially with Boston, who was a mentor on and off the track, on the medal stand with him. And why wasn’t he vilified for wearing the black socks or for raising his fist? Beamon isn’t sure, but after he broke a world record by such an unfathomable amount, it’s easy to see why people focused on the jump.
Sitting in his Las Vegas home, I ask Beamon if he is OK with that, if he is fine being known almost exclusively for the jump. If he is OK with the fact that not as many people know about the BYU boycott. Or the raised fist in Mexico City.
He sits on the question for a moment, running it through his mind before asking me a question: “Have you ever looked up the term ‘Beamonesque’?”
“It’s in the dictionary,” he says. “It means spectacular. Something beyond the possible.
“It’s quite a thing to be in the dictionary. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Beamon and his wife have been in Las Vegas for about a year. They live in the northwest part of town, about a 25-minute drive from The Strip. They went to the same high school in Queens, New York, and got married 15 years ago after meeting again in Florida, where they both lived at the time.
In the 50 years since the jump, Beamon has worn many hats.
He returned to UTEP after winning gold in October in 1968 but left before graduating. He thought he was NBA material and was selected by the Phoenix Suns in the 15th round of the 1969 NBA draft. He never played for the Suns, however, and eventually went back to school, graduating from Adelphi University in 1972 with a degree in sociology. Beamon spent time as a publicist and became involved in the arts community in Florida, working with Art of the Olympians, a program that showcases art by Olympians and Paralympians. He even contributes some of his own abstract acrylic paintings. Plus, he was the chief executive of the now-closed Art of the Olympians Museum in Fort Myers, Florida, and has been an ambassador for the Special Olympics since the early days of the organization.
He has remained drawn to sports. He was a director of athletic development at Florida Atlantic University and moved to Chicago in 2010 to take a job as associate athletic director at Chicago State University. Today, he’s in Las Vegas with Rhonda, excited to rid themselves of the Chicago cold. He works on public relations projects and gives inspirational speeches.
There is, indeed, more to the man than the jump, and more to the man than a definition in a dictionary.
Beamon knows there is still more to be done when it comes to equality. And he’s thankful for athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, who, he says, “are picking up where we left off.”
“I’m seeing it start all over again,” he said. “We stood strong around the country, and I think that’s what is happening again. I think it’s getting ready to blossom. And so, 50 years are gone and it’s a new type of style, new type of behavior. The younger generation has to shape this thing and this country.”
Ideally, they will do something spectacular. Beamonesque, even.