Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

Ralph Boston of Laurel, Mississippi came to Queens, New York to visit Jamaica High School in 1964. The gold and silver medalist of the Rome and Tokyo Olympics stood before the teenagers in the school gymnasium in his red-white-and-blue warm-up gear and talked about dreams, commitment and hard work. An 18-year-old high school senior and budding long jumper named Bob Beamon stared starry-eyed at Boston and wondered, having no idea that this great Olympian would be providing him life-changing advice four years later.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Boston was the World and Olympic record holder in the long jump, but the three-time Olympian knew he was approaching the end of his career, and knew that Beamon had a better chance than he did to re-take the long jump Olympic championship back from the Brits and 1964 gold medalist Lynn Davies.

Amateur photographer, Tony Duffy from London learned about Beamon from Boston himself. Duffy was on vacation in Mexico City, sitting poolside with England’s long jumper and ’64 gold medalist, Mary Rand, in the Olympic Village. According to Deadspin, 1964 long jump gold and silver medalists Lynn Davies and Boston walked by and sat down at the same table, and began talking about Beamon.

Ralph Boston and Bob Beamon_Mexico City
ack & Field: 1968 Summer Olympics: (L-R) USA Ralph Boston (256) and Bob Beamon (254) during Men’s Long Jump competition at Estadio Olimpico. Mexico City, Mexico 10/17/1968–10/18/1968 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

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 f—ing pit.”

It’s possible that Boston was also messing with his rival’s head, but Boston knew what Beamon was capable of. And in fact, it was Boston who, on October 17, 1968, provided critical advice to Beamon. According to this great account in LetsRun of that day, Beamon had worked the previous day with sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to work on his own sprinting speed. Beamon could run the 100 yards in 9.5 seconds, a world class sprinting time. But in the qualifying round, Beamon was simply too fast in his first two attempts, overshooting the board and fouling on both attempts. One more miss and Beamon’s great season up to that point, and his amazing potential for Olympic glory would evaporate, leaving the kid from Queens a footnote in the annals of the Mexico City Games, as Boston explained to me:

I said to Bob, “You can’t win gold today.” This is the qualifying round. It just moves you on until tomorrow. He was zipping down that runway. He hit his jump. It was probably as good as when he won on the second day, but he fouled it. “C’mon man,” I said. “All you got to do is jump 7.8 to qualify.” I took my jump and I qualified easily. I took off my spikes. Bob does it again and fouls by over a foot. I said, “Damn it, Bob. Just qualify!”

According to LetsRun, Beamon was extra careful in his final qualifying leap.

He lengthened his run-up, half-jogged down the runway, and did not come close to touching the board; Boston estimated he was 18 inches behind it when he took off, while Beamon thought it was closer to two feet. Still Beamon leaped 8.19 meters (26-10 ½), second only to Boston’s 8.27 (27-1 ¾). He was in the final.

The rest, as they say, is history. On October 18, 1968, Beamon watched three others foul before he started his sprint on his first attempt in the men’s long jump finals. Duffy, the amateur photographer without credentials took advantage of the lax security in the Estadio Olympico Universitario, and parked himself about 50 feet from the long jump pit.

And with his Nikkormat manual drive camera and 300mm lens, he knew to get ready for Beamon, just in case. Covering 130 feet in 19 strides, Beamon launched himself into the air. Sprinter Carlos thought that “he just kept climbing.” And as Beamon finally began his descent, his arms outstretched forward, his mouth and eyes wide open, a blend of possibility and joy etched on his visage, Duffy snapped away on his camera.

Bob Beamon_Tony Duffy
Tony Duffy’s photo of Bob Beamon

Beamon had leapt 8.90 meters. The distance was beyond what the optical sensors in place could pick up so it took some 20 minutes before they could determine the distance by tape measure. And when the board flashed 8.90 meters, Beamon did not know what that meant in feet, but when he learned that he hit 29 ft. 2½ inches, an astounding improvement on the world record of nearly two feet, he fell to his knees in emotional shock.

Everyone knew that after Beamon’s first jump the competition was over. Davies was famously quoted as telling Beamon, “you have destroyed this event.” Beamon made one more attempt, a relatively pedestrian 8.04 meters, and then stopped. He had the world record, one that no one would touch for another 23 years until Mike Powell raised the current world record to 8.95 in 1991.

An East German named Klaus Beer took the silver medal. And with a jump of 8.16 meters, Boston won the bronze medal, completing the gold-silver-bronze set he accumulated over three Olympiads. He also had the heartfelt admiration and gratitude of Beamon, the biggest story of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as he explained to a reporter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 19, 1968.

Whatever Beamon has achieved as a long jumper he said he has to credit Boston. “Ralph has helped me since I started jumping as a 12-year old,” Beamon recalled. “He has given me bits of information to help and he still does.”

Ralph Boston_Tokyo 1964_from his collection
Ralph Boston and his winning leap at the 1964 Tokyo 1964 Olympics, from his collection

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October to avoid the heat and the typhoons of summer. Unfortunately, except for the beautiful Autumn weather of Opening Day, most of the two weeks of the Olympiad were wet and chilly.

On October 18, the day of the men’s long jump finals, it was 13.5 °C (56.3 °F) and it rained hard all day. According to reigning Olympic champion, Ralph Boston, “It was really coming down. The weather was raw. The air was heavy with moisture and it was just tough.”

And then, there was the wind. The way the long jump was set up for the finals, the wind blew directly into the faces of the athletes as they ran down the runway towards the sand pit. Boston observed that the long jump area was designed to go in either direction, with sand pits at both ends of the runway. In the morning during the qualifier, they ran in one direction, but in the afternoon for the finals, the officials flipped the direction. “I remember asking the official from Netherlands in charge, whether we could turn this around and run the other way, but he said we couldn’t do that,” Boston told me.

Of the 32 competitors who started that day, only 12 qualified for the finals. In those first three jumps, the Soviet favorite, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan had the longest leap at 7.78 meters. The group narrowed to six competitors, and as the day got longer, Boston recognized the day as a war of attrition – no one was going to hit anything close to world record levels. “I don’t think anyone will jump eight meters today,” said Boston to one of his teammates.

Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston
Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston in 1964

Lynn Davies, the 22-year-old Welshman representing Great Britain, overheard Boston’s remark, and found himself re-energized.

Davies told the BBC that up to that moment he had looked up to Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan as unbeatable competitors. “They were my heroes. But when I heard Ralph say that I realized the conditions were tough for them too and I thought I had a chance because I’d jumped eight meters back home in Wales in similar conditions.”

At the end of four rounds, Boston was in the lead with a jump of 7.88 meters. As Davies gathered himself for his fifth attempt, he took three deep breaths, his face set in a scowl of concentration. Lynn launched himself down the runway, flew through the air, and hit the sand just right so that he was able to pop right up. Lynn was impassive as he walked out of the pit, but when the scoreboard flashed 8.07 meters, he brought his hands to his head in a mixture of joy and disbelief.

Boston had fouled his fifth attempt, but he had one more chance. He had fallen behind, not just Davies but also Ter-Ovanesyan, whose leap of 7.99 put him in second place. Perhaps because Davies had shown that 8 meters was not insurmountable that day, Boston charged down the runway with his best leap of the finals – 8.03 meters. The American overtook the Soviet, but could not overtake the new Olympic champion, dubbed in the British press as Lynn The Leap.

Ralph_Boston,_Lynn_Davies,_Igor_Ter-Ovanesyan_1964 (1)
Ralph Boston, Lynn Davies, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, 1964 Olympics (Asahi Shinbun) public domain

Boston won the silver medal, and told the BBC that Davies deserved the gold.

It was rainy, rainy, rainy. When it rained in America I tried not to go out in it so I wasn’t prepared for it. It was one of the most horrendous days I’ve ever competed in. But I always said it behooved a champion to take advantage of whatever’s there and that’s what you [Davies] did and all the best to you for doing it.

ralph-boston-rome
Ralph Boston in Rome.

Ralph Boston was a sprightly kid who loved football. And as a high school track star in Laurel, Mississippi, Boston got scholarship offers to play football. But as he explained in this interview, his mother knew best. “I actually became a long jumper by accident. I wanted to play football. My mother didn’t like that. Back in those days, mom prevailed. So I went to college to run.”

That turned out to be a golden decision. Offered a track scholarship, Boston enrolled at Tennessee A&I, now known as Tennessee State University, famous for the women’s track team lovingly called the Tigerbelles. The Tigerbelles sent 7 athletes to the 1960 Rome Olympics, yielding an incredible 6 gold medals among them.

Ralph Boston’s trading card.

Boston was no slouch either, having set a world record in the long jump only weeks before the start of the Rome Olympiad. In fact, he broke Jesse Owen‘s mark, one that stood for 25 years. Boston was definitely a favorite to break Owen’s Olympic record from the 1936 Berlin Games, and take gold home as well. And yet, it was Boston’s first Olympics, and he was intimidated.

It was probably the scariest day of my life – 1960 in Rome, September 2nd. I’d never seen that many people before in my life. The stadium had something like 85,000.

His teammate Bo Roberson, and Soviet jumper, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan were also gunning for gold, but they knew they had to best Boston to get it.

Boston’s first leap in the broad jump finals was decent at 7.82 meters (25’ 8”), but Ter-Ovanesyan,the Soviet favorite, was better at 7.90 (25’ 11”). Boston fouled on his second leap while his teammate set the Olympic record with a leap of 8.03 meters (26”4 ¼”). That must have gotten Boston’s motor running. As David Maraniss described in his book, Rome 1960, Boston made sure not to foul again.

Returning to the infield, he took his position at the end of the runway, 100 feet from the takeoff point. He had already fixed his spots precisely with the steel tape measure. One deep breath, relax, four loping strides – free and loose to unlimber his body – and then he was at full speed, trying to clear his head of all but a few key thoughts. First the starting mark. He had to spring into the air as close as possible behind it,but not go over into the narrow putty forestrip and get disqualified. Speeding down the runway for this final jump in Rome, he felt something slightly amiss and had to adjust his stride just before takeoff. Once airborne, he tried to concentrate on bringing his feet back within 10 or 12 inches of each other for the landing. Not perfect.

As Boston recalled in this interview, he didn’t think much of the jump.

When I landed, I thought it was a terrible jump.   out of the pit as I normally do but I thought it was a terrible jump.When I saw the distance (26 feet 7 3/4 inches or 8.12 meters) I was very happy with that. I won. I won!

Actually, he hadn’t won yet. He had indeed re-set the Olympic record, but there was still three more rounds to go. Boston fouled on his fifth leap and landed under 8 meters in his final leap, and was still in the lead, but he had to wait three others to take their final turn. The last to go was Roberson, who despite his heavily taped left leg with the balky hamstring, was a real threat to Boston’s dreams of gold.

Roberson accelerated, hit his spot and launched high into the air. Upon his teammate’s splash into the sand, Boston could not tell if he had won or not.  When the electronic scoreboard in Stadio Olimpico flashed the results, Boston saw that Roberson grabbed silver and Ter-Ovanesyan won bronze. Boston, somewhat surprised, somewhat relieved, had won Olympic gold.

Even more surprised was his mother, whose fateful decision to steer her son from football to track yielded results beyond her expectations.

“I didn’t have any idea that my baby’s jumping around would ever amount to anything,”said Eulalia Boston in Laurel to a UPI reporter. “This is the proudest day of my life.”

“Now that it’s all over, I think I’ll get me a glass of milk and lay down for a while.”

Ralph Boston and his winning leap in Rome, from his collection

Ralph Boston Performing Record Breaking Jump at Olympics
Ralph Boston

It was the evening of August 11, 1960. Ralph Boston had one of the best prime ribs he had ever had at steakhouse, Red Tracton’s, and was settling into a good night’s sleep before the United States track and field meet at Mt San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Los Angeles. This was the last tune up for American track and field athletes before the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Rooming with three-time Olympic triple jumper, Bill Sharpe, Boston engaged Sharpe in some pre-sleep braggadocio.

“At 10:30 I’m settling into bed and Phil is doing some exercises,” Boston told me. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m preparing to break the record in the triple jump.’ I said, ‘OK. I tell you what. If you break the record, I’ll break the American record in the broad jump.’ He stared at me and said the American record is also the world record. I had no idea. I didn’t care. I went to sleep.”

August 12, 1960 went on to become a historic day in American track history as over 8,600 spectators at Mt SAC saw Americans break four world records – including John Thomas’ high jump of 2.18 meters (7’ 2”, Bill Nieder’s shot put throw of 20.06 meters (65’ 10”), and Hal Connolly’s hammer throw of 70.33 meters (230’ 9”).

The biggest world record to fall that day was one that had stood for over 25 years – Jesse Owen‘s long jump of 8.13 meters (26” 8 ¼”). And the record breaker was Ralph Boston, with a leap of 8.21 meters (26” 11 ¼”) that bettered his personal best by half a foot, and Owens’ record by three inches.

Boston had just turned 21 and he had outleapt a legend. The legend was humble. “I’m happy to see the record broken, and I’m just thankful that it stood up this long,” said triple gold medalist Owens to an AP reporter. “This shows that progress is being made in track and field. It also shows that youngsters have come along today much better than they did 25 years ago.”

Ralph Boston and Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens and Ralph Boston in Rome.

The youngster was not as prepared to face the press as the legend. “Jesse said it was all right to break it,” he told reporters that day. “He’s tired of it.”

The fact of the matter is, Boston didn’t know Owens and had never talked to him. As he admitted, he had just turned 21 that August. “I’m a neophyte. I don’t know what the heck is going on. And I’m trying to be what we call in the hood, ‘cool,'” but instead ended up sounding like a disrespectful kid.

When Boston arrived in Rome for the 1960 Olympics, and finally came face to face with America’s hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was ashamed of his post-meet comments at Mt SAC. “I got on my knees, and said ‘I’m sorry.'”

But there was no denying it. Ralph Boston was now the favorite for gold in Rome, and was famous. Reporters asked him for interviews and passersby asked him for photos, including a GOAT to be.

On our way to Rome, after I broke Jesse’s record, we hung around LA, and we flew to NY to get processed and head to Rome. We pulled in front of the hotel, people were exiting, and this young man came up to me and said, “Ralph Boston. I want to shake your hand. I want to take your picture.” I asked him who he was, and he said, “You don’t know me. But you will. My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay.’ 

Ralph Boston Muhammad Ali Wilma Rudolph_TSU
TSU Olympic legends Ralph Boston and Wilma Rudolph hang out with Muhammad Ali during one of his visits to Tennessee State University. (TSU archives)

Fred Hansen with gold medal
Fred Hansen and his gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It’s February, 1964 and Fred Hansen is fiddling with his grip.

The then-world record holder for the pole vault, fellow American named John Pennel commonly held the 17-foot pole nearly 15 feet up from where the tip hits the vault box. Hansen’s coach, Augie Erfurth, is trying to coax Hansen to place his grip higher than 14 feet. It’s scientific reasoning. “We’ve got him gripping at 14-2 and 3,” explained Erfurth to a reporter of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “If the pole reacts, he’ll have more bend.”

Since George Davies won a pole vault competition using a fiberglass poll in May of 1961, it became clear to all that the space age technology of fiberglass was more flexible and stored more kinetic energy in the pole than the more traditional materials of bamboo, steel and aluminum.

If you watch gold medalist, Don Bragg, win gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, you can see his aluminum pole bend, maybe, 45 degrees at best, as he lept to an Olympic record of 15′ 5″ (4.70 m). Pennel, Hansen and other pole vaulters vying for a spot on the Olympic team to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were routinely getting over 16 feet, trying to figure out how to get their poles to bend 90 degrees, and maximize the kinetic energy stored in the pole that propels them over the bar as the pole unbends.

The higher the athlete holds the pole, the greater the potential in bend. But as the Rice University graduate, Hansen explained in the article, “vaulting is just like a golf swing. There are so many things to remember.”

You have to be clear in the number of steps you take down the runway, when to hit maximum speed and where to plant your foot when you slip the pole vault into the vault box. You have to be conscious of the position of your arms as you launch to get maximum bend, and of your legs as you approach the bar, efficiently rotating your body vertically so that you are upside down as you climb. Then you have to time your hip extension just as your pole is unbending and releasing its stored energy, sending the athlete to his or her maximum height. Rotating the body horizontally at the right time so that you come down feet first without touching the bar is the final act of the complexity of the pole vault.

In other words, you have to be muscular and flexible in all the right places. Hansen’s training routine was becoming more sophisticated – in addition to isometrics, weightlifting and running, Hansen added a full program of gymnastics, thanks to advice from a fellow American competitor, Brian Sternberg of Seattle, Washington.

“I went to an all-comers meet in California,” Hansen told me. “Brian beat me. He had the most beautiful form I had ever seen – this guy’s got something, I have to find out more.” When Hansen approached the Washington native, Sternberg said he did a lot of gymnastics training, and Hansen thought he should start doing the same to keep up. “I devised a program that was gymnastic oriented. I trained on gymnastics apparatus – the seven phases. I would replicate vault movements on the various apparatus. I don’t know if anybody else was doing that.”

Anybody other than Sternberg, who was a trained gymnast who pole vaulted. Leveraging his gymnastics background and the power of the fiberglass pole, Sternberg twice set a world record in the pole vault in April and June of 1963. The twenty-year-old Sternberg was at the top of his game, very close to being the first person to clear 17 feet, with his coach speculating he could fly over 20 feet one day. Certainly, Sternberg was a shoo-in for the Olympic team headed for Tokyo, destined for golden glory.

Until tragedy struck.

Brian SternbergSternberg did a lot of training on the trampoline, and was training for a competition in the Soviet Union. It was July 2, 1963 and he was doing flips and turns on the trampoline, when he attempted a double-back somersault with a twist. It’s a difficult move, according to this article, that Sternberg had made thousands of times. This time, he landed in the middle of the trampoline, on his neck. The accident turned Sternberg, the best pole vaulter in the world, into a quadraplegic.

“This is a change,” Sternberg said ten months after his accident to AP. “Any change can be a good sign. The pain is mine: I must endure it.” And beyond the expectations of medical science at the time, Sternberg endured it, in pain, for 50 years, passing away on May 23, 2013.

“Brian helped me out with several things I was doing wrong when he was the world’s best,” Hansen said in a Seattle Times article about Hansen’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo. “The only thing that could make me happier at this moment would be if he were here too.”

Hayes Boston Carr Hansen
Tokyo, October, 1964: Four of America’s top hopes for medals in the track and field events pose after arriving in Tokyo for the start of the 1964 Olympic Games. From left to right, they are Bob Hayes, Ralph Boston, Henry Carr and Fred Hansen.

For every Olympics since the re-boot of the Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, Americans had won every single pole vault competition. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Fred Hansen of Cuero, Texas was the world record holder and favorite to be the 15th American Olympic pole vault champion in a row.

But that streak was at risk late into the evening of October 17, 1964.

Wolfgang Reinhardt of Germany made it over 16′ 6¾” (5.05 meters), one of two final competitors, out of the 32 who started. His compatriots, Klaus Lehnertz and Manfred Preussger failed on their three attempts, ending their competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Then Hansen made a gutsy decision. He decided to pass at 16′ 6¾”, and go for 16′ 8¾” (5.1 meters). If Reinhardt makes it at that height and Hansen doesn’t, the tall Texan would not only lose the gold medal, he would be the first American ever to not win gold in the pole vault. Even worse, having passed on two prior heights Lehnertz and Preussger had already made, Hansen’s gamble put him at risk of falling to fourth!

To Hansen, all he was doing was saving his energy for the biggest vault of his life.

At the time, pole vaulting competitions would commonly last three to four hours. But the finals of this Olympic competition was a marathon, starting at 1pm, and continuing late into the cool Autumn night.

“The only thing the Japanese did wrong throughout the Olympics,” Fred explained to the Dallas Morning News, “was let the pole vault finals run too long. The competition lasted nine hours.”

Hansen told me the Olympic officials raised the bar at smaller increments than normal, he suspects, to enable as many vaulters to advance as possible. Through the preliminary round on October 15, and the beginning of the finals, the bar was raised 4 inches at a time (10 cm), but in the last seven rounds of the finals, the bar was raised only 2 inches at a time (5 cm).

At the time of the Olympics, Hansen was the reigning world record holder at 17′ 1¾” (5.23 meters). It was becoming apparent that the long competition was not going to yield a new world record, but he knew his advantage was the need for fewer vaults. In fact, over the two-day competition, Hansen made a total of only 8 attempts out of a possible 31. Contrast that with the Germans Reinhardt, Lehnertz and Preussger who made a total of 15, 16, and 12 respectively.

Conversely, Hansen had to wait, and wait, and wait for his competitors to go through a cycle of three attempts at each height, as the day turned to night and the air turned chilly. But he was ready for the long slog, as he explained in a Dallas Morning News article:

The pressure never really got to me in Tokyo, however. I knew there were certain things I had to do and if I did them right, I could win. The psychological side of vaulting is just as important as the physical side. I managed to keep calm, and that was worth a lot.

So the bar was at 16′ 8¾” (5.1 meters). In the past 7 hours, Hansen had vaulted only 4 times. He had to stay loose, stay warm, and wait for his chance. Finally, in front of only a fraction of the spectators who filled the stadium at the start of the competition, under the very bright lights, Hansen finally stepped up to the runway.

Fred Hansen_bi to chikara_1
Hansen’s approach on his gold-medal winning leap, from the book “Bi to Chikara”.

To the cheers of the remaining Americans in the stands, Hansen runs, sticks his pole in the box, and elevates to the bar, but his chest just brushes against the bar enough on the way up to send it crashing to the ground.

It’s Reinhardt’s turn. In a thin mist, the German runs and seemingly leaps high enough, but he taps the bar on the way down, sending the bar off the uprights.

On their second attempts, Hansen hits the bar again on the way up, while Reinhardt again knocks the bar down on his downflight. Reinhardt is exhausted as he tries to extract himself from the plastic and foam rubber that fills the landing area. As he tumbles off, he sits on the ground for a moment, legs splayed, depleted.

So it comes down to the third and final attempt for Hansen. It’s 10 pm, the temperature has dropped to 19°C. Due to Hansen’s gamble to skip the previous height, if he misses, gold goes to Reinhardt right then and there

Fred Hansen_bi to chikara_2
Hansen clearing the bar_Bi to Chikara

Hansen hit the bar on the way up his first two attempts as he thought he wasn’t getting his feet back enough on the launch. So on the third attempt, fully aware of the need to keep his feet back to create a tiny bit of separation between his body and the bar on the way up, he launches himself into the air, and cleanly over the bar.

Reinhardt has one more chance. But it is not to be, as his feet hit the bar on the way up, ending the long day’s journey into night. Hansen wins gold, setting an Olympic record, and ensuring America’s continued Olympic dominance in the pole vault.

“I didn’t consider it a gamble – I knew I could make it,” said Hansen to reporters after the competition had ended. “I felt like I had to come through for my country.”

Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.

Gerald Ashworth, Richard Stebbins, Paul Drayton, and Bob Hayes_The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics
Gerald Ashworth, Richard Stebbins, Paul Drayton, and Bob Hayes, from the picture book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics (Baseball Magazine)

The American men’s 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics broke the world record, and won the gold medal. A more apt description is that Bob Hayes won the team the gold medal. His historic anchor leg took the American team from 5th to 1st in arguably the fastest 100-meter leg in 4×100 relay history.

As Rich Stebbins said, “The good lord gave Bob Hayes something most people don’t have. Pure unadulterated speed.”

And yet, it is a team event. Four sprinters have to circle the track and transfer the baton successfully three times in stride in order to have a chance. Stebbins knew this. He was a member of Grambling State University’s dominant 4×100 championship team, which had a 18-match stretch where they were one or two tenths off the world record. “The secret was we had exquisite exchanges. We would walk around campus handing the baton off.”

The American relay team was in a bit of a pickle. Mel Pender and Trent Jackson were speedsters who got injured during the individual 100-meter sprint competition, so were unavailable for the relay. Paul Drayton was available but had to run with a pulled muscle in his leg. So when the coaches and sprinters gathered to discuss the make up of the team, Stebbins said Hayes looked at him explaining that Stebbins was the best relay runner in the country, and said, “He third, I’m anchor, and I don’t care who else.”

Stebbins was very confident in his hand-offs and could do so with either his left or right hand, and so when Hayes told him he wanted the baton in his right hand, Stebbins made the exchange with his left. Hayes is so fast that he almost outran Stebbin’s hand-off. But the baton landed firmly in Hayes’ right palm, and off he went, racing into history.

Fifty two years later, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Stebbins saw on his television a team that reminded him of the importance of great baton passing. “The Japanese team that won silver – their passing was exquisite.”

Rich Stebbins_high sc hool
Stebbins, crossing the finish line in the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 relay for Fremont High School leading them to the 1962 Los Angeles City Championship. (Photo Courtesy of Richard V. Stebbins)