These were the first Games to be held at altitude. It led to some explosive performances and to fears for the health of those involved in the endurance events. Training was less sophisticated in those days and oxygen bottles were supplied for those unable to cope with the thinner air.
The iconic image of these games is the Black Power salute given by Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the podium as the “Star Spangled Banner” marked their medals in the 200m. Broadcast on prime time TV in the US, America regarded it as an affront that athletes should make such an overt political statement. Then, as now, African Americans are allowed to succeed in American (and British) society in the fields of entertainment and sport but are not expected to engage in politics.
I was 15 at this time. I was aware of the civil rights movement. Aware of the Reverend King, Malcolm and of the Panthers. The iniquities of the Vietnam war were daily shown on TV Muhammed Ali had shown courage to speak out against racism and the war. I was not shocked by the gesture. I knew of the strong views held by these athletes and was thrilled they had used such a high profile moment to make it. Lee Evans was part of this same group of athletes. He had won the 400m and the US took all 3 medals. While they all wore berets to the medal ceremony there is less of a gesture. The athletes had been warned about their behaviour. Evans smashed the world record in his event and then anchored the 400m relay team to gold. The relays are traditionally held at the end of the meeting. What were the authorities going to do, send them home ? They were going any way.
Lee Evans worked in 6 African countries as a coach to help athletes. He returned to coach at a US university. He said at the time that on retirement he
would live in Mexico or Africa where “you are truly free – not like this fake freedom America has everybody believing in.” His world record stood for 24 years ! Everyone remembers Smith & Carlos. I remember Lee Evans as a man of principle and as a great athlete.
The high jump was won by an American, Dick Fosbury. Before Fosbury the 2 prevailing styles of high jump, the straddle and the western roll, both involved the jumper attempting to pass over the bar while facing it. now along comes this crazy american who is going over backwards…wacky ! Not only that but he won the event in an Olympic record with the new sensation the “Fosbury Flop”. Fosbury revolutionised the event. 4 years later in Munich there were 28 floppers against 12 diehards. Now they all do the flop. One of the most influential of modern athletes.
The time difference meant that we saw the live athletics at a very late hour in Britain. I stayed awake as long as I could.My dad had to be at work by 7.30 a.m. and did not stay as late as I could. For the long jump we both decided to watch the full competition. It was our one defending champion, Lynn Davies, again faced by the American, Boston, and the Russian Ter-Ovanesyan. This rivalry had sustained the event since the last Olympics. We felt ourselves to be athletics afficionados and were aware of the potential of the young American, Bob Beamon. He had shown winning form all year.It was though still potential and he had not yet challenged the experienced three in major championships.
Beamon’s first jump in the competition remains one of the most extraordinary things I have ever witnessed in a sports competition. His gangly frame became more graceful, more unified as he approached take off. He seemed to defy gravity. This was a loooong jump, not just in distance but in the time he spent in the air. Beamon had jumped 22 and three quarter inches further than anyone had ever done before. He not only became the first man to have ever jumped 28 feet but had bypassed that mark and jumped further than 29 feet ! This record stood for almost 23 years before it was exceeded. The adjective “Beamonesque” was coined that night. My dad and I shared a look. There would be no need for him to go to work tired tomorrow, the competition was over.
Beamon never jumped further than 28 feet again in his career. A combination of a legal tailwind, the thin air of altitude and his determination to land a big opening jump in the most important competition of his life so far coincided to provide a truly astounding moment of athletics.