Beamon, Robert Alfred ("Bob")

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BEAMON, Robert Alfred ("Bob")

(b. 29 August 1946 in Jamaica, New York), track and field athlete and Olympic champion whose world long-jump record of 29 feet, 21/ 2 inches stood from 1968 to 1991 and is considered one of history's greatest athletic achievements.

Beamon was the son of Naomi Brown Beamon and an unnamed physician, whom his mother met when she worked as a nurse's aide at a hospital in Queens, New York. Her husband, James Beamon, was serving a prison sentence at the New York state penitentiary in Ossining at the time. Beamon's mother died of tuberculosis when he was eleven months old, and he was raised by his paternal grandmother. Throughout his life, Beamon believed that his grandmother was the only person who really cared about him as a child. Unwanted by his mother's husband, Beamon lived at his Aunt Carly's rooming house. In addition to her paying tenants, she provided rooms for abandoned children. An older boarder known as Mr. Moore often beat young Beamon with his blackjack, saying "this is how they treat bad people." One night Beamon, then age five, slipped into Mr. Moore's room, found the blackjack and began beating him as he slept, repeating the words said to him. Mr. Moore woke up and threatened to strangle Beamon, until Aunt Carly intervened. The next day, Beamon's grandmother took him home.

Beamon, known as a troublemaker throughout elementary and junior high school for fighting, shoplifting, and drug dealing, recalled that people "predicted I would be in prison by the time I was fourteen."

Beamon did not go to prison by age fourteen, but rather to Public School 622, one of New York City's reform schools for juvenile delinquents. More than anything else, success in basketball and track and field changed his life. Beamon, who stood six feet tall at age fifteen, out-rebounded and outscored other youngsters his size and age because of his great leaping ability. A year later, he long-jumped 24 feet to win the local Junior Olympic title. Beamon wanted to leave the reform school after two years and asked Larry Ellis, the dean of boys and track and field coach at Jamaica High School, if he could transfer there to "better himself." Ellis approved Beamon's transfer.

At Jamaica High School, Beamon developed into a good basketball player and a superstar in track and field. He earned a varsity basketball position in 1964 and quickly gained acclaim for his rebounding and shot-blocking skills. "Beamon," observed one reporter, "was above the basket as often as he was under it." In 1965 he averaged fifteen points and eleven rebounds a game and scored over twenty points in an All-Star game. Between 1964 and 1965 Beamon improved his national ranking in the long jump from tenth to second, and his ranking in the triple jump from sixteenth to first. In 1965 he long jumped 25 feet, 31/ 2 inches, just one and a quarter inch behind the national high school record set that year by Californian John Johnson. On 12 June 1965 Beamon exceeded Johnson's standard by one inch, but an aiding tailwind disqualified the performance from record status. His triple of 50 feet, 33/ 4 inches, however, marked a national high school record. After Beamon finished fourth in the long jump at the 1965 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, Ralph Boston, the national champion, predicted that he would "put the world record out of sight" one day.

Beamon, who graduated from Jamaica High School in 1965, earned an athletic scholarship to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, a predominantly black institution in Greensboro, North Carolina. Despite achieving personal bests of 25 feet, 7 inches in the long jump, 55 feet, 8 inches in the triple jump, and 9.5 seconds in the 100-yard dash while at that school, in 1967 he transferred to the Texas Western University in El Paso, Texas, where Coach Wayne Vandenburg had assembled a crack cohort of track and field talent. That year, Beamon captured the AAU indoor championship and established an American record of 26 feet, 111/ 2 inches in the long jump. A third place in the 1967 AAU outdoor championships preceded a silver medal–winning performance in the long jump at the Pan American Games. Beamon set indoor world records of 27 feet, 1 inch, and 27 feet, 23/ 4 inches in winning the 1968 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) title and the 1968 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, respectively. At the NCAA championship, he also won the triple jump title. Asked for the secret of his success by a Time reporter, Beamon replied, "There's nothing to it, really, I just jump."

For Beamon, the rest of 1968 was marred by controversy. In April he and seven other Texas Western athletes boycotted a track and field meet against Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to protest Mormon views "that blacks are inferior to whites and are disciples of the devil." Beamon lost his scholarship because Vandenburg ruled that the boycott participants "voluntarily removed themselves from the team."

Although sympathetic to a movement among black athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games at Mexico City to protest American racism, Beamon participated in the games anyway because, as he said, "I had worked very hard for many, many years" to be an Olympian. At the Olympics, his years of hard work came together in one remarkable long jump of 29 feet, 21/ 2 inches. Upon learning what he had done, Beamon fell to his knees, held his face in his hands, and mumbled, "It's not possible, I can't believe it. Tell me I am not dreaming." Although experts debated the effect of Mexico City's elevation of 7,575 feet on Beamon's performance, U.S. Olympic official Dan Ferris, who had attended every Olympics since 1912, praised it as "the greatest single achievement I've ever seen."

Beamon, who suffered a hip injury after the 1968 Olympics, never equaled his Olympic feat. His best subsequent performance came in the 1969 AAU championship with a winning long jump of 26 feet, 11 inches. Track and field meet directors nevertheless wanted the Olympic champion to appear at their competitions, even if only to jog around the track and wave at the crowd. Beamon received bitter criticism from the press for "going around the track circuit, not jumping, just making appearances."

In 1972, after failing to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials, he retired from track and field. That year Beamon graduated from Adelphi College in Garden City, New York, earning a B.A. in both anthropology and physical education. In 1973 he toured with the Professional International Track Association and tried out for the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association. Beamon earned an M.A. in psychology at San Diego State University and operated a center for inner-city youths. Since 1982 he has worked in the sports development office of the Metro-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department in Miami, Florida. He is married to the former Milana Walter and has two children from previous marriages. At the 1991 world championships at Tokyo, Japan, Michael Powell surpassed Beamon's world record with a long jump of 29 feet, 41/ 2 inches.

Bob Beamon and Milana Walter Beamon, The Man Who Could Fly: The Bob Beamon Story (2000), is an autobiographical work emphasizing triumph over personal struggle. See also Dick Schaap, The Perfect Jump (1976), and David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Outdoor Sports (1989).

Adam R. Hornbuckle