I haven’t paid much attention to the Olympics this time around. I don’t like the coverage, I don’t like the cheating, I don’t like the excessive nationalism, I don’t like the questionable judging, and the athletes are mostly professionals, so they no longer inspire me. I know, it makes me sound jaded and disillusioned.
It has, however, made me nostaligic for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. I was 16 then, and not yet disillusioned. I had a crush on swimming sensation Debbie Myers (Myer?). I cheered for Spencer Hayward and the U.S. basketball team and for Bill Toomey in the Decathlon.
But I still marvel at the two biggest stories of the games–Bob Beamon and the black glove salute.
Beamon didn’t just win the gold medal. He didn’t just break the long jump record. He broke it by almost two feet. No one had ever jumped 28 feet before. Beamon, on Oct. 18, 1968, leaped 29 ft. 2 1/2 in. The previous largest long jump record increase was six inches. Beamon extended it by an astonishing 21 3/4 inches. It took 23 years for someone to top Beamon’s mark (American Mike Powell finally did it in 1991), but Beamon’s mark remains the Olympic record (unless someone breaks it this week).
If you’re not an athlete or don’t follow sports closely, Beamon’s feat may not fully register. It wasn’t a function of improved technology. True, he was jumping at higher altitude and had a tailwind as he ran. According to Wikipedia, a rainstorm swept through shortly after, which may have prevented any other long leaps that day, so we don’t really know how unique it might have been. I’ve heard there was lightning all around the stadium as Beamon took off. Some have conjectured that the atmospheric conditions had an effect. But the fact is, Bob Beamon didn’t just leap. His was truly a quantum leap–an unprecedented feat. When he saw the results, Beamon’s knees buckled and he broke into tears.
As it happens, it was his last hurrah. Beamon never even made it to 27 feet again in competition. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Beamon’s jump one of the top five sports moments of the 20th century.
Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos also performed well in Mexico City, finishing first and third respectively in the 200 meter run. On the medal stand, however, they famously thrust black-gloved fists into the air and bowed their heads during the national anthem. Their political statement didn’t go over well. The International Olympic Committee demanded they be expelled from the games. The U.S. Olympic Committee at first refused, then caved when the IOC threatened to ban the entire U.S. track team.
The two were ostracized, but stayed in athletics and coaching (and education), and have been honored in recent years for their courage. Afri-Ware, a unique gift shop and bookstore at 266 Lake St., used to carry T-shirts bearing the black glove salute image. I have one and wear it proudly. The over-reaction to their protest was the only shameful thing about the incident.
But there’s more to the story. The third man on the podium that night, silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia, was not a clueless bystander. For one thing, he wore, in solidarity, the same Olympic Project for Human Rights badge that Smith and Carlos had on. He was sympathetic to their stand, and when Carlos forgot his black gloves, it was Norman who suggested that Carlos wear Smith’s left glove, which is why they have gloves on different hands.
Norman, ironically, seemed to pay the biggest price for the incident. He was severely criticized back home for his role and was not chosen for the 1972 Australian Olympic team even though he finished third in the trials. He suffered from depression, began to drink heavily and died of a heart attack on Oct. 3, 2006. Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers at his funeral.
The black glove incident will be featured in a documentary titled, “Salute,” at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. The film was directed and produced by Matt Norman, Peter’s nephew.
Compared to 1968, the 2008 Olympics pale.