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.’ 

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

Bob Costas, the voice of NBC Sports for decades, has announced he is stepping away from his desk as Prime-Time host of the Olympic broadcasts. After this announcement, Costas made the media rounds, including this interview, where he remarked on his favorite Olympic moment – the lighting of the Olympic cauldron by Muhammad Ali at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

As Costas recalled on the radio sports program, Mike & Mike, “It was both dramatic and completely stunning!” After all, the producers kept it a secret as to who the final torch bearer would be until the very last moment.

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Muhammad Ali takes the torch from Janet Evans

No more than 10 or 12 people on the whole planet even knew that he would be the last torch bearer.

Dick Ebersol who ran NBC Sports and was such an important part of the history of the Olympics, it was his idea to have Muhammad (Ali) do it. The night before the Olympics at the production meeting, Dick said to me and Dick Enberg, who was co-hosting the opening ceremony with me, “I’m not even going to give you a hint as to who the final torch bearer is, except that you will definitely recognize him or her. And I want your expression to be as spontaneous as that of the crowd.”

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Ali lights the cauldron

And when Janet Evans, that great Olympic swimmer climbed up the steps carrying the torch, got to the top, Muhammad literally stepped out of the shadows. So no one saw him until the very moment that he got the torch. And Janet handed him torch and you heard in that stadium something you almost never hear in an arena or stadium. You hear lots of sounds in a sports event, but you almost never hear an audible gasp. And that’s what you heard that night, because people were so stunned to see Muhammad Ali.

And here was this man, who once was one of the most physically beautiful and nimble of athletes, reduced to a man trembling, trying to hold onto that torch and light the cauldron, and yet somehow, even in that condition, there was something so dynamic and magnetic about it. And he was once one of the most vocal of athletes and by that time he had been reduced to virtual silence. And yet in that moment, he was just about as profound as he had But there was something truly unique about that moment. And every time I think about it, even now, and I’ve recounted it a couple of times in the last 24 hours when people have asked me the question you’ve just asked me, every time I think about it, I still get goosebumps.

Here is a short clip from an ESPN piece about that moment.

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Buster Mathis in May 1964.

He wobbles. He quivers. He rolls. He shakes. He is a dripping mass of flesh, a monument to fat. He is 6 feet 3 and weighs 295 pounds. His waist is 44, his chest is 52, but sometimes in the heat of action the measurements seem the other way around. Sitting in the corner, he looks like a melting chocolate sundae.

That’s how Sports Illustrated described heavyweight boxer Buster Mathis in an article on the results of the US Olympic team boxing trials, held in May, 1964. Mathis, despite his bulk, was surprisingly athletic. There are pictures of him playing basketball, flitting about on roller skates and dancing. And his ability to move deftly around the ring, weaving and bobbing, led one reporter to say that Mathis “floats like a baby elephant and stings like a bee.”

In the finals of the heavyweight division at the Trials, Mathis took on another promising heavyweight named Joe Frazier. Frazier, the butcher from Philadelphia who would go on to be heavyweight champion of the world in the glory days of Ali and Foreman, was no match for Mathis. Here’s how SI described Frazier’s futile attempt to go inside.

Frazier was a solid 195, but Buster still had a 100-pound pulling the weights. And he had his speed. Instead of hunting for the head, Frazier moved in to pound Buster’s belly, which shook and glinted under the lights. Buster managed to keep Frazier at bay with a whistling left hook (each one thrown with a loud grunt, “uuuuunnnnhhh!”), and even when Frazier did manage to get inside, his punches were smothered by flab. As Pappy (Gault) says, “Buster’s got an extra layer of fat on that stomach that stops the punches.”

buster-mathis-on-roller-skatesMathis, not Frazier was heading to Tokyo. Until he wasn’t. On September 19, just three weeks before the opening ceremony of the Toyo Olympics, it was announced that Mathis had a broken bone in his hand – some say it was a finger, others a thumb. It didn’t matter – Frazier was asked to go in Mathis’ place. Ironically, it is said that Mathis broke the bone in his fight with Frazier, learning the unfortunate lesson that winning isn’t everything.

Frazier would go to Tokyo and win the gold medal in the heavyweight division. However, when he broke his thumb in a semi-final match, Frazier told no one. Clearly favoring his right, Frazier managed to win the finals on points.

After the 1964 Olympics, both Frazier and Mathis turned professional, and began winning streaks. When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the American armed forces, in the midst of the war with Vietnam, he was stripped of his titles and his license to box in the US revoked. Suddenly, the heavyweight title was up for grabs.

On March 4, 1968, Buster Mathis with a record of 23-0, took on old amateur rival Joe Frazier, with a record of 19-0. Mathis had beaten Frazier not once, but twice preceding the Tokyo Olympics. And when the bell had rung ending the sixth round of the 12-round title fight, Mathis was ahead on points. But Mathis had never gone so deep in a fight with the ferocious and determined Frazier. While Frazier’s patented body blows had little effect over short fights, over a longer period of time, Frazier’s blows began to wear Mathis down. And then suddenly, towards the end of the 11th round, a lightning left-hook by Frazier crumpled Mathis.

Hard-luck Buster Mathis could not win. He lost his biggest shot at the title against Frazier in 1968. And in 1964, he beat Frazier in the Olympic Trials, and still loses his shot at the Olympic glory. If not for Frazier, he coulda been a champ. Twice.

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Cassius Clay at the 1960 Rome Olympics

In memory of Olympians or people significantly connected to the Olympics who passed away in 2016.

 

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Iolanda Balas in Tokyo, from the book, XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shinbum

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The lighting of the cauldron at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics live on symbols. The five colored rings that represent the five continents of the world. The doves that represent peace. The gold, silver and bronze medals that symbol achievement at the highest sporting levels.

One of the most dramatic symbols of the Olympic Games has been the lighting of the Olympic cauldron that symbolically represents the Games ancient Greek origins, the beginning of the Games, and by extension, the suspension of hostilities in times of conflict and the coming together of the world’s athletes in competition and fair play. The cauldron lighting of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics most poignantly emphasized the need for world peace.

While this particular ceremony started at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it was at the 1992 Barcelona Games where organizers raised the bar significantly in creating the Wow factor, that moment when you’ve seen something spectacular, something you would not have imagined or expected. In this case, it was paralympian archer, Antonio Rebollo, who shot a flaming arrow some 60 meters over a cauldron that rose seven-stories high, igniting the gases accumulating over the cauldron, and sending chills and thrills across the world.

In 1996, the organizers of the Atlanta Olympics had all sorts of issues with the planning of the cauldron lighting, but one thing they got right was having Muhammad Ali do the honors. Spectacle had to wait four more years for Sydney to bring goosebumps tot the world. An island nation, surrounded by water, Australia brought fire and water together in spectacular fashion. 400-meter sprinter, Cathy Freeman, stood in a pool of water. When she placed it to the watery surface, a ring of fire curled around her, the cauldron rising out of the water like a spaceship, making its way majestically to its home at the top of the stadium.

In 2008, China amazed the world with its spectacular opening ceremonies, highlighted by its impossible-to-imagine sky run, performed by legendary gymnast, Li Ning. Rising high above the crowd, suspended on wires, Ning appeared to run along the stadium wall for 500 meters before applying his torch and igniting another flame that spiraled up into a spectacular ignition of the cauldron.

What new spectacle and symbolism will the Rio Olympics bring? Our hearts are already a-flutter in anticipation.

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Cassius Clay wins gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics after defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski by decision in the finals of the light heavyweight championship.

Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, and the internet flooded with tears.

A great man has passed, and all we can do is remember.

In 1960, Ali was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay. The 18-year-old from Louisville was certainly one of the noisiest Americans at the Rome Olympic Games. He did claim to be the Greatest to anyone who would listen, but he was not viewed as a leader of the US team. According to David Maraniss in his book, Rome 1960, Clay was simply not recognized on the same level as fellow US Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, high jumper John Thomas, basketball players Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

Rafer Johnson running in 1960
Rafer Johnson in Rome in 1960.

As discus thrower Rink Babka, the discus thrower from USC was quoted as saying, “When I think of 1960 and hear people say Cassius Clay was Mr. Olympics and everyone went to see him – bullshit.”

But one person in particular found Clay to be a kind of kindred spirit, or rather an alter ego. Maraniss wrote touchingly about the relationship between 1960’s Greatest Athlete in the World, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, and boxing’s self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time.

“He (Johnson) felt close to the young boxer from the first time they met at the Olympic Village in Rome. Months after they had won their gold medals, they toured the South together on a speaking tour of predominantly black colleges. They were roommates on the road and stayed up late at night as Clay told Johnson precisely how he planned to become an unforgettable character as well as the heavyweight champion of the world. Many of the cocky phrases and poems that Clay – and later Ali – brought to the world, he first tried out on Rafer Johnson in their hotel rooms. Johnson saved those discussions for posterity on a small tape recorder.

The friendship, for Johnson, was an attraction to an opposite, or a repressed part of self, and he was self-aware enough to appreciate it, saying of Cassius Clay: “I love the way he talked. He was just brash and challenged people, and he said it the way he felt it, and he talked about it. I am not that type of person. I carry it inside. I talk about it a little bit, but I don’t need to say everything. He seemed to need to say everything. He wanted to talk about the beginning, and how he was going to do it, and the end, how he was going to finish. I just couldn’t do that. That just wasn’t my makeup. But I loved him for being that kind of person. I loved him for that.”

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1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1968 Olympian and gold medalist George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, in 1974.

Clay won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics. He would go on to fame, recognition and notoriety four years later as Muhammad Ali. You can read all about that on the Internet, where Ali will indeed go down in history as the Greatest of All Time.

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1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1964 Olympian and gold medalist Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila, in 1975.

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Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

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Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.