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

I’ve researched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for four years. I published an original blog post everyday for over a thousand days straight in the course of my research. And I finally completed the manuscript of my book, “1964:  The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise From the Ashes.” Here are a few of the articles I wrote in 2018 relevant to those Games in 1964:

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Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.
Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’ 

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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 Hayes, from the book The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

It’s the Olympics. You’re a football player with blazing speed, and you’re prepping to win gold, to be crowned the fastest man in the world.

But on October 15, 1964, in the midst of the Tokyo Olympics, Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power by Soviet leadership. American journalists, hoping to get a great quote from the biggest name in Tokyo, ask Bob Hayes, “What do you think?”

As he wrote in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, “What did a twenty-one-year-old kid who was trying to win a gold medal at the Olympics know about what was happening in the Soviet Union? I mean, if the experts in the CIA couldn’t see Khrushchev’s downfall coming, what was I supposed to know about it?”

Hayes hit the nail on the head with his response to the press: “I’m just going to answer your question once. I’m here to win a gold medal and not to talk about politics.”

Hayes, like the best high performance athletes, was focused on his mission.  Gold in the 100-meter finals. Gold in the 4×100-meter relays.

And yet….there’s always something.

It is hours before the finals of the 100-meter dash on October 15. Hayes is sitting in his room in the Olympic Village with the hopes of keeping himself calm. His roommate, long jumper Ralph Boston, is lying on his bed, keeping to himself.

Then walks in Joe Frazier, boxing heavyweight contender, who bounced into Hayes’ room a “bundle of nerves, but especially that day because he had an important boxing match coming up. He started throwing punches at my head. I asked him to leave me alone, so he went over to Ralph’s bed and threw jabs up to within an inch or two of Ralph’s head.”

Needless, to say, the eventual gold medal and heavyweight champion of the world was a distraction. Not getting the reaction he wanted, Frazier began rummaging Hayes’ bag for gum, stuck it in his mouth, and left.

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Receiving his gold medal for the 100 -meters finals, from the book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

Flash forward to the National Stadium and the fastest runners in the world are prepping for the 100-meter finals. Hayes gets to the track and opens his bag to pull out his shoes. To his surprise, he finds only his right shoe. He dumps the contents of his bag and can’t find the left shoe. “The biggest race of my life, and I was missing a shoe.”

But who walks by but middle distance runner and teammate, Tom Farrell. Hayes has relatively small feet and is hoping against hope that Farrell happens to have the same size shoes – size eight. So when Farrell replied to Hayes’ sudden and unusual question, he said “Well, I wear size eight.”

Not only did Farrell wear the same size shoe, he also wore the Adidas 100 shoe that Hayes’ did. Now, properly attired for battle, Hayes lined up.

And then he learned that Hayes was placed in lane 1. Lane 1 is the innermost lane on the track, and the cinder track had been chopped up by some three dozen race walkers for three circles before heading out on the rest of their 20K journey. Don’t the fastest runners in the semis get the choice middle lanes? Not at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where sprinters were assigned lanes randomly.

So Hayes set up his blocks. His biggest rivals, Cuban Enrique Figuerola and Canadian Harry Jerome were in the less chewed up lanes 3 and 5. As he got set at his mark, the muscular Hayes was a tightly wound coil ready to spring, ticked off about his lane placement. “I was totally intense, the more so because iw as angry about having to run in the inside lane. Finally, I picked out a spot straight ahead of me down the track and vowed that I was going to get there before anyone else did.”

He did. Convincingly. Watch the video from the 3’ 55” mark to watch the black and white footage of the race. The angle is long enough to show the entire field. And you can see Hayes dominating the field from start to finish. Fastest Man in the World. By far.

 

Gold medal in hand, Hayes returned to his room. Hidden under his bedspread was the missing shoe. The next time he saw Joe Frazier, he shouted “’Don’t you ever go in my bag again!’ That was about the only time I ever saw Joe Frazier apologetic.”

Bob Hayes – fastest man in the world – bringing new meaning to the phrase “if the shoe fits, wear it.”