Readers of a certain age or interest in Olympic history probably know the name Bob Beamon, but for those who don’t, I’ll quickly provide a summary of “the leap.”
Born in Queens, Beamon was raised by his grandmother after his abusive father threatened to kill him if his mother brought him home from the hospital. As fate would have it, his mother died eight months later at age 25. Despite entering the world with the chips stacked against him, Bob went on to excel at the long jump in high school and eventually earned a college scholarship.
Fast-forward to 1968. Bob is having a great year in the long jump at track meets, and is generally regarded as the favorite to win gold in the Mexico City Olympics. On the first two of three qualifying jumps, Bob oversteps and the jumps don’t count. With his remaining jump he is able to jump legally and with enough distance to qualify for the finals. A combination of thin, dry air at altitude and moderate wind was allowing multiple records to be broken in track and field that year, but other athletes were merely chipping away at records.
In the finals, Bob unleashed a jump that has become Olympic legend. Beamon gets up from the jump and hears the announcer call the jump at 8.90 meters, but is unfamiliar with the metric system and does not grasp just how far he has jumped. A teammate tells him that he has just broken the world record—by nearly 2 feet! Bob is overcome and collapses to his knees, hands covering his face, and has to be helped to his feet by teammates.
Bob may have had difficulty coming to terms with his achievement, but I’d like to illustrate it with some Minitab graphics…
Here is a plot of the gold, silver, and bronze medal jumps from every Olympic games since 1900:
Never again in the Olympic games has someone jumped as far, or so thoroughly dominated their competition in the Long Jump. To put in perspective how far he exceeded the other jumpers in the competition, here is an Individual Value Plot of the longest jump by each of the 16 finalists:
Bob’s lead over the second-longest jump was nearly the same as the second-place finisher’s lead over the last-place finalist!
The world record was ultimately broken, only once, by Mike Powell in 1991. Mike’s jump, and every record-breaking jump prior to Beamon, represented an incremental improvement over the previous record. Here is a plot of the distance over the previous world record for every record-breaking jump since 1901:
In London it is likely we will see some truly great athletes break existing world records, but those are likely to be small improvements. It is unlikely that we will see another Bob Beamon, and that’s what makes his performance truly legendary.