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.
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.
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.”