Defying gravity: the remarkable tale of Bob Beamon’s 1968 Olympic gold medal leap

At the politically charged ’68 Games in Mexico City, Beamon broke boundaries with a world record jump and a historic stand for equality

In sporting history, certain moments stand out as extraordinary. One such indelible moment unfolded at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where a 22-year-old prodigy from New York, Bob Beamon, made sport’s greatest leap.

Inside the Olympic stadium on the afternoon of 18 October 1968, a track steward summoned Robert Beamon of the USA to take his first attempt in the men’s long jump final. Just days prior, Beamon had overstepped his first two jumps in the qualifying rounds. As Beamon stood at his mark, his singular thought was ‘I will not be denied,’ he tells Christie’s.

With 19 impressive strides down the runway, he hit the board perfectly, ascended into the air like a bird, and firmly planted his feet in the sand six seconds later.

beamon medal

Bob Beamon's sets a new world record in long jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Photograph: Ed Lacey/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Beamon had leaped where no one had landed before: an incredible 8.90 meters, or 29 feet, 2 ½ inches, smashing the world and Olympic records, the latter of which still stands.

Beamon had landed so far beyond the distance measurable by the optical rail, that officials had to take out a measuring tape to manually measure the jump. ‘I was truly relaxed and felt like I could float over water,’ Beamon recalls of the moment.

Beamon’s Olympic gold medal will be offered in The Exceptional Sale on 1 February 2024 at Christie’s in New York. The medal represents the pinnacle of Beamon's athletic career as well as an irreplaceable piece of Olympic history.

Conceptualized by Italian artist Giuseppe Cassiolo, the medal design shows a robed goddess of victory, with a palm in her left hand and a winner’s crown aloft in her right. Medals from the ’68 Games feature the inscription XIX OLIMIADA MEXICO 1968 in a font that combines influences from 1960s Op Art and the traditional patterns of the Indigenous Huichol peoples of Mexico. On the reverse is an Olympic champion carried in triumph by the crowd.

beamon medal

An Olympic gold medal presented to Bob Beamon for the men’s long jump, Mexico, 1968. 2 3⁄8 in (6cm) diameter, 4 oz. 2 dwt. (128 gr.). Sold for $441,000 in The Exceptional Sale on 1 February 2024 at Christie’s in New York

While Beamon’s record-breaking leap looked effortless, his path to glory was not without its challenges. The year 1968 was characterized by intense political and social turmoil in America, including the Civil Rights Movement and widespread antiwar protests in response to the Vietnam War.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in April 1968, Beamon was deeply affected by the loss of the civil rights leader and the event catalysed his own activism. While ‘those days were gloomy,’ he tells Christie’s, ‘There was also a way out by bringing together people who felt the need to make some great changes in life, as we became more involved, not only politically, but, also in general.’

Four days after King was shot, Beamon and eight other members of his university track team at the University of Texas at El Paso met and planned to boycott an upcoming meet at Brigham Young University, in protest of the Book of Mormon’s views on Black people.

The boycott was met with disapproval from the university, costing Beamon his place on the team, as well as his scholarship. ‘And so we lost our scholarship, but we all stayed focused,’ said Beamon. Undeterred, he continued to train, eventually qualifying for the Olympic Games.

I was between time and space because I didn't quite understand what I had done
Bob Beamon

It was against this backdrop of civil unrest and personal uncertainty that Beamon competed in the 1968 Olympic Games. He persevered and won by a landslide. Beamon’s monster jump proved so iconic it inspired a new word — Beamonesque — to denote an astonishing athletic feat.

‘After digesting all of this, it was time to get up on the award stand and get this wonderful, incredible medal.’ Beamon says. ‘I was between time and space because I didn't quite understand what I had done.’ But Beamon clearly understood the magnitude of the moment, that millions of eyes would be focused on him as he mounted the podium.

Just two days prior, African American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic podium and raised black-gloved fists in the Black Power Salute, in the wake of King's assassination.

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Bob Beamon victorious on Olympic medal podium after winning gold. Photograph: Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Image

Before Beamon stepped on the podium, he rolled his tracksuit trousers to his calves, revealing black socks he wore in solidarity with his teammates. Following the national anthem, Beamon turned towards the crowd, cradling the box holding his gold medal in his left arm, and raising his right arm in a fist in the Black Power Salute.

Over 55 years since Beamon leaped into history, his legacy endures. Beamon has remained an active philanthropist, creating mentoring programs for young track and field athletes and even developed his own motivational program. Beamon is also pursuing music, performing as a drummer in Jazz band Stix Bones and The Bone Squad.

From a sport perspective, Beamon’s medal represents the gold standard of otherworldly performances Culturally, it is a tangible piece of Americana that commemorates Beamon’s unwavering integrity against all odds.

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