The Story Behind Bob Beamon's Miracle Jump And The Only Photo That Mattered

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The man who took one of the most famous photos in Olympic history wasn’t a professional photographer. Tony Duffy was on vacation at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and with nothing more than an amateur’s bravado, he casually wandered into the Athletes’ Village—which should have been off limits to him—and first heard the name of the man who’d make his career.

Earlier this month, at his home in Encinitas, Calif., Duffy recalled hanging poolside with British long jumper Mary Rand inside the Athletes’ Village. As they talked, Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston approached Rand and began handicapping the men’s long jump competition.

Duffy knew that their comments were worth listening to. Davies, a Welshman, was the defending Olympic champ in the event. Boston was the 1960 gold medalist and the 1964 silver medalist; he’d been the man who surpassed Jesse Owens’s long-jump mark that stood for 25 years. Boston was still the current co-holder of the world record, along with his rival from the Soviet Union, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, at 27’4¾.”

The subject came around to Bob Beamon, Boston’s precocious American teammate, “a slash of a man, 6’3”, 160 pounds,” according to Sports Illustrated. Boston knew that Davies liked to play psychological games with his opponents, and he had some advice for Davies about the long-limbed, long-necked 22-year-old Beamon: “Don’t get him riled up because he’s liable to jump out of the fucking pit.”

Duffy immediately filed away that tidbit. “Wow, this Beamon must be worth watching,” he thought to himself.

Tony Duffy was born in London just before World War II. He spent most of his youth there, except for when he and many other children were transported to the countryside for safety as Germans bombed the city. He went on to study law at the University of Manchester before becoming an accountant. He joined a large international firm and worked in the taxation department. He wanted a lot more.

Living in London during the Go-Go ‘60s, Duffy grew to hate the “staid, stilted, conservative accountancy environment where you’re expected to be sober and careful and prudent and all that stuff,” he told me in a broad accent that Mike Myers might have studied for Austin Powers. “It was totally the opposite of what my personality was.”

He turned to photography as a hobby. He bought an old Voigtländer camera “mainly for holidays. I was never really into photography as a medium. It was a method of taking pictures of my trips and various girlfriends I had. That was about it.”

Patricia Nutting, an 80-meter hurdler who was talented enough to represent Great Britain in three Olympics, was one of those girlfriends. “She’d say, ‘Look, I’m competing on Saturday. Why don’t you come along?’” Duffy remembered. “I started taking pictures of her in action out of something to do, rather than just sit and watch.”

His photos turned out quite well, especially the action shots, and Nutting encouraged him to send them to a local track-and-field magazine. When they used one, sent him a small check, and published his name on the credit, he was encouraged. “Damn, this can’t be bad,” he said. “That’s what gave me the first inkling of an alternative route.”

He traveled to local meets to shoot pictures, even after he and Nutting split up. He upgraded his camera to a Nikkormat, the consumer version of a Nikon, not the sort of equipment a professional would use. He had to manually advance the film each and every time he took a picture.

But he now had the bug even if he couldn’t be bothered to take a photography class. In the fall of 1968, Duffy decided to combine his love of sport with his fledgling hobby and attend the Olympics in Mexico City. He saved money and signed up for a package tour organized by a Welsh outfit. He purchased a 300 mm f/4.5 lens for the occasion.

Duffy discovered athletic nirvana in Mexico, even if the Tommie Smith-John Carlos protest has come to overshadow the dramatic performances that were occurring daily inside Estadio Olimpico Universitario. Kip Keino’s victory in the 1,500 meters marked another milestone in Africa’s dominance of distance running, Dick Fosbury unveiled a revolutionary approach to the high jump, and Jim Hines clocked a 9.95 in the 100.

Operating without media credentials, Duffy found that in the relatively carefree days before the terrorist attack at the Munich Games, Mexico City was an unsupervised playground. Nutting lent Duffy her tracksuit top, and he sneaked into the Athletes’ Village with little problem, waving his camera at the guards as he walked alongside actual competitors.

While Beamon’s competitors knew his talent, they had no idea how much he’d overcome to get to Mexico City. Beamon’s mother died before he was one, and he never knew his biological father. He was raised by his step-father’s mother in Jamaica, Queens, where he joined a gang and dealt drugs as a teen before being sentenced to one of the dreaded “600” reform schools in New York, operated by the Bureau for the Education of Socially Maladjusted Children.

Beamon rescued himself when youth coaches helped him realize his nascent athletic talent. By 1964, he ranked among the top high-school jumpers in the nation (up there with Bobby Bonds, father of Barry). Beamon and fellow New Yorker John Carlos met and competed for the Pioneer track club before Beamon went off to college in Texas. Just before the 1968 Olympics, while he was still a student at UTEP, Beamon was suspended for boycotting a meet against BYU in protest over what he considered to be racist policies of the Mormon Church.

Unlike Ralph Boston, an elder statesman who was technically skilled, Beamon was not a scientific jumper. But he had sprinter’s speed, which Carlos helped him harness and hone, and he caught fire in the months preceding the Olympics. He registered 20 victories in 21 meets in 1968, and uncorked a personal best of 27’6½” at the U.S. Olympic Trials. (It didn’t count as a world record because it was wind-aided.)

With Beamon joining Boston, Davies, and Ter-Ovanesyan in Mexico City, legendary sportswriter Dick Schaap billed the competition “as a battle among four of the half-dozen greatest long jumpers in history.”

On the morning of October 17, one day after Carlos and Smith raised their black-gloved fists from the podium after running the 200 meters, the long jumpers gathered for the first round of the competition. They each had three jumps to surpass the qualifying distance of 25’3” to reach the finals. Boston, Davies, and Ter-Ovanesyan did so, as did Charles Mays, the third American in the field. Beamon fouled badly on his first two jumps.

Boston played the role of mentor and advised Beamon to take off well short of the board to ensure a clean if unspectacular jump. Beamon did so, leaping 26’10” on his last attempt to qualify.

That night, Beamon admitted, he relaxed with some tequila and committed the “cardinal sin” of having sex with his girlfriend. “All I could think of were words that started with ‘D’–deplete, drain, dissipate, distract, da da da dum!,” he noted in his memoir, The Man Who Could Fly. “‘You have just left your gold medal on the sheets,’ I told myself.”

He and the other 16 finalists reconvened the next afternoon, October 18. That day, Duffy had tickets in the nosebleed section along with the other members of his tour. The long jump was the first event on the afternoon program and as the athletes began their warm-up routines, Duffy noticed that the stadium was slow to fill. Vast number of seats were unoccupied, perhaps because of darkened skies that threatened squalls. Seeing that there were plenty of empty seats next to the track, Duffy thought to himself, “You know what? I bet I can get in there.”

With the Nikkormat dangling from his neck, Duffy began to hustle his way closer to the action. He waved and blustered past the Mexican students who were serving as security guards.

“The students were there to have a good time,” Duffy said. “I bullshitted and blarneyed my way through by smiling a lot and patting them on the back and fiddling around with credentials I didn’t have. I just kept on walking until I made it to the front row of the seating.”

With the runway for the long jump placed outside of the track oval, Duffy was perfectly positioned to get a head-on shot of the jumpers as they leaped toward him. And, with most of the media focused on the 400-meter finals that was scheduled to begin immediately after the start of the long jump, he was practically the only photographer stationed by the pit, and he was just 50 feet away.

The competition began shortly after 3:30 p.m. The first three men fouled. The fourth jumper was Beamon, the youthful American Duffy had heard so much about. As Beamon readied for his first attempt, Duffy stood and aimed his Nikkormat over the low railing.

In the thin air of Mexico City (elevation: 7,349 feet), conditions were “synchronistically ripe” for Beamon, according to Duffy. The temperature was 74 degrees. The rain was holding off. The wind speed on the track measured 2.0 meters per second – the maximum allowable by the rules for setting official records.

Beamon stood motionless on the runway, his close-cropped hair parted neatly on the left side of his head. He stared at the pit, rocked briefly to gather himself, and then took off, his impossibly long legs advancing toward the board. His last thought, he said later, was, “Don’t foul.”

Nineteen strides later, or about 130 feet, he planted his right foot squarely on the board and flew skyward. It appeared that he was running in mid-air. He hovered as high as six feet above the sand, estimated Jesse Owens, who was watching through binoculars.

“He took off running, man, and when he hit the board he just kept climbing,” John Carlos told me.

As gravity took over, Beamon swung his arms backwards and outside his legs for one last thrust. His white Adidas spikes made landing and disappeared in a cloud of brown sand, with his knees and ankles taking the brunt of the jarring impact that folded his body into itself. His butt momentarily brushed the sand. The sequence took all of about six breathtaking seconds.

Beamon hopped forward, using his momentum to propel himself onto the green grass beyond the pit. He glanced back to see if he had fouled, then turned onto the straightaway of the track, shaking out his limbs while jogging past the officials in red blazers who were staring at him in wonderment.

He took another peek at the mark, as it to implant the moment forever, before loping toward the starting-point. He was practically dancing by the time he reached Boston and Mays. They greeted him with low-fives before Beamon stepped across the runway and faced down Ter-Ovanesyan and the Soviet contingent, swathed in red jerseys, their jaws agape.

“It looks like a marvelous jump,” was the reaction from the ABC-TV announcer, which might be the grandest understatement in Olympic broadcast annals.

Officials had installed an electronic measuring device that ran on a rail alongside the pit. The judges moved the optical sight to the point where Beamon landed — out, farther, out some more – until it fell off the far end of the rail. They hurried off to find a measuring tape.

Some 20 minutes passed as the officials checked and double-checked the distance. Finally, three numbers were posted on the scoreboard: 8.90.

It was the distance of the jump in meters, and Beamon did not realize what that was in feet and inches. Boston informed him it was beyond 29 feet–and Beamon collapsed onto the track.

He had obliterated the world record by almost two feet, soaring past the previous best of 27’4¾”, past 28 feet, to 29’2½”. The record lasted for 23 years. It remains, arguably, the greatest individual feat of the modern Olympics.

“My mind was set for 27 feet or 27.5 feet,” Beamon later told Ron Reid of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But 29 feet! Who was jumping on the moon in 1968? I was in the Twilight Zone, between time and space. I didn’t believe I had jumped that far.”

No one else could either. Then the rains returned.

“Compared to that jump, the rest of us are children,” said a shaken Ter-Ovanesyan, who jumped 26’7¾” to finish fourth.

“I can’t go on after that,” said Davies, who managed 26’½” to place ninth.

Beamon took one more of the permissible six jumps (26’4½”) before retiring from the competition. East German Klaus Beer became the answer to a trivia question by finishing second (26’10½”), with the veteran Boston regaining his composure to take third (26’9½”).

Two days after Smith and Carlos startled the world with their demonstration, Beamon raised eyebrows when he accepted the gold medal with his warm-up pants tucked inside a pair of black socks that stretched to his calves.

Tony Duffy had snapped exactly one frame of Beamon’s jump. He recalls seeing “the whites of his eyes” as Beamon came toward him. Even after he became aware of what Beamon had done, Duffy carried around the roll of undeveloped film for a couple of days before taking it to get developed. “I had no conception what I’d got on the roll,” he said.

He brought the film not to a professional processing lab, but to a one-hour place near his hotel that catered to tourists. Back in his room he unspooled the roll of 36 black-and-white negatives and held them up to the light.

He looked for the distinctive USA emblem, then matched the images to the athletes’ bib numbers from the program he’d been given at the stadium. The frame with Ralph Boston was fuzzy. The frame with Bob Beamon, wearing No. 254, was sharp.

Indeed, while the jump was nearly out of the pit, the photograph of the jump was out of this world. Duffy captured Beamon at his zenith: right arm extended over his right leg, left arm by his waist as if readying to brace for landing. His mouth is formed into an “O” while the scoreboard frames his figure. He appears to be leaping over one background judge and, simultaneously, jumping out of his white shorts (you can glimpse his jockstrap).

It was the perfect shot of the perfect jump.

After Duffy returned to England, he sent the Beamon photo and others he took at the Olympics to a local magazine called Amateur Photographer. The Beamon shot was first published in a double-truck spread in the December 4, 1968, issue of the magazine, alongside a picture of British long jumper Maureen Barton, under the headline “Mexican Ballet.”

The reaction in Europe, where track and field is venerated, was profound: Duffy the amateur had scooped the pros. And, even though other photographers had snapped pictures of the moment, none managed to catch Beamon at peak height and head-on. (Sports Illustrated used a color picture of Beamon on his way up that was taken by veteran photojournalist John Dominis.)

Duffy’s photo was so good, and had so little competition, that naysayers insisted the image must have been of Beamon’s second jump. Said Duffy: “When that happened I thought, ‘Well, fuck, how am I going to prove this?’”

When Duffy compared his picture with images of Beamon’s second jump, he noticed that Beamon had donned his black socks for the latter attempt. That evidence clinched it.

“I got the shot, but I had no idea what it meant,” Duffy said. “It took another six months before the light gradually began to dawn on me that I had got something special.”

“The Jump” was soon reproduced in magazines and posters around the world. The acclaim that Duffy received gave him confidence he could be a fulltime shooter. He began trolling for work at the myriad publications that lined Fleet Street, all the while learning the craft through trial and error and by asking questions of veteran photographers.

He fell in with one experienced hand named John Starr, who had the technical training and acumen that Duffy lacked. They rented out a little studio in the back of a friend’s insurance business. “I’d do shoots indoors and say, ‘John, how do we do this?’ He’d say, ‘Well, you need to strobe it.’ I said, ‘Can you do that?’ He said, ‘Yep.’”

For a while Duffy balanced his marriage, his accounting job, and shooting sports, but photography eventually won out. Duffy divorced his wife, and quit accountancy at the end of 1971. By the time of the next Summer Olympics he was a credentialed photojournalist. With Starr’s support, he formed a photo agency called Allsport.

Duffy remembers shooting the pole vault in Munich next to an elderly woman. He thought to himself, “Boy, they’re giving out credentials to anybody.” Then he was informed that the woman was Leni Riefenstahl, the infamous Nazi propagandist and mastermind behind the coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

What Duffy remembers most about Munich is the feeling that he and Allsport had arrived. “We had deals with people for coverage and the access was really good,” he said. “We were in business.”

Duffy and Allsport continued to break ground after Munich. He worked with the Times of London on a photo spread that featured nude athletes. (“Sport and the Body” was, in retrospect, the precursor to ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue.”) With journalist Paul Wade, he published a book of photos of female athletes entitled Winning Women: The Changing Image of Women in Sports.

He traveled the world shooting the most important sporting events (including those behind the Iron Curtain). The “accidental” photographer won major awards and produced iconic images: a stunning shot of Austrian synchronized swimmer Alexandra Worisch; a riotous photo of the “Twickenham Streaker,” his privates covered by the fortuitous placement of a London bobby’s helmet; Steve Prefontaine at the 1972 Olympics; and Bruce Jenner at the 1976 Games.

Allsport grew into an industry behemoth. The company hired top photographers, like Bob Martin, Simon Bruty, and Mike Powell, whose work rivaled the best that Sports Illustrated produced. They acquired other photo agencies and collections to expand their archives. In 1983, Duffy moved to the United States to start Allsport USA and to cover the Los Angeles Olympics the next year.

Duffy and Beamon crossed paths on several occasions, including on the 25th anniversary of “Beamon’s Bombshell,” which also coincided with the 20th anniversary of the founding of Allsport. Each acknowledged the other’s role in helping to create their own legends. But while Duffy used the moment to launch a new career, Beamon struggled at times to escape the specter of his accomplishment. Injuries slowed him after Mexico. He never again jumped 29 feet or 28 feet or even 27 feet. He was drafted by the Phoenix Suns, but did not play in the NBA.

“It’s like, what do you do for an encore?” Duffy said. “There was no way he could better what he did in Mexico City.”

Beamon graduated from Adelphi College and was the subject of a gem of a book, entitled The Perfect Jump, written by Dick Schaap in 1976. (It featured Duffy’s photo on the cover). Now 69, he lives in Florida and is enshrined in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

“It was great,” he told Schaap of the jump, “but it was just something I did.”

Years, then decades passed as challengers, including the great Carl Lewis, fell short of his record. Finally, in 1991 at the world track and field championships in Tokyo, Mike Powell leaped 8.95 meters–29’4½”–to surpass Beamon.

Tony Duffy happened to be sitting in the stands that evening. Duffy noticed that the air in Tokyo felt “remarkably similar” to Mexico City in 1968, “with the intermittent rain holding off and the same atmospheric conditions. I wonder what sort of impact that had.”

Duffy did not get the shot of Powell breaking Beamon’s record; he had deferred his place on the track to an Allsport colleague, coincidentally named Mike Powell. “I knew he was going to nail the shot, and I knew his chances of getting it were a lot better than mine,” Duffy said. “My eyes were shot in those days.”

Duffy worked his last Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, not long after he and Allsport split ways. He received a healthy compensation package from the company he founded, but that figure was dwarfed by the reported $51.1 million “purchase consideration” that Getty Images paid to acquire Allsport and its archives in a transaction that was finalized at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. The deal included the rights to the Beamon photo.

For a while Duffy hoped to launch another sports photo agency, but he soon concluded that he was too old to build anew. He concentrated on shooting female athletes–“my personal Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue,” he joked––before slipping into semi-retirement. He received U.S. citizenship in 2000 and has written most of his memoirs.

Now 78, he lives in Southern California in an airy condominium on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When I asked him if the Beamon photo was the best picture he’d ever taken, he didn’t hesitate.

“It was the luckiest one,” he said, “and it was the most important one, but it certainly was not the best because no work went into it. He ran and jumped and I clicked the camera once.”

David Davis @ddavisla is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku (Univ. of Nebraska Press).