IT'S been called the perfect jump. It's been called a freak of nature. It's been called the most outstanding individual accomplishment in the history of sport. It is, quite probably, all of the above.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a bony young American named Robert Beamon set a world record with a long jump of 29 feet, 2 inches that is still difficult to believe. It is also still difficult to beat, and - at 20 years - is the longest-standing record in track and field.
Beamon broke the existing record by nearly 2 feet. To fully appreciate the magnitude of that improvement, consider that the record had been extended by only 8 inches from the time Jesse Owens jumped 26 feet, 8 inches in 1935, until Beamon leaped into the history books in 1968. He exploded the record by 6.6 percent, which is unheard of.
It's as if, one pundit suggested, the first astronaut had zipped past the moon and landed on Mars instead.
Today, with the Seoul Olympics approaching, the record is certain to get a lot of attention - just as it did in Los Angeles four years ago. Now, as then, Carl Lewis is setting his sights on the mark, and although he missed it while winning the gold medal in 1984, he has come close enough over the last few years to make it clear he has a chance. Furthermore, whether or not Lewis breaks the record, all the news-media hype surrounding his quest will again remind everyone of Beamon's feat.
As for the man who accomplished it, Beamon (interviewed by this reporter on several occasions since the '68 jump) is a shy, introspective man, who seems as awed by it as other track experts are.
``It was instinctive and natural when it happened,'' he says. ``I was beyond things. People want to know what was different about that one jump, and I can't tell them. Everything came together at the right time.''
Beamon, whose life has taken many twists and turns since 1968, is on leave of absence from the Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department in Miami. He has done promotional appearances related to the Olympics, but said he did not plan to go to Seoul.
He has always been something of a mystery figure, favoring fancy suits but seldom seeking the public eye. Adjusting to fame has never been easy for him, and he appears happier working with underprivileged youngsters than making speeches.
``Twenty years ago people were amazed at the jump,'' he says. ``But now they're realizing it was a feat at least a generation ahead of its time.''
The forgotten irony is that Beamon almost failed to qualify for the finals at Mexico City. He fouled on his first two attempts, taking off beyond the board.
Then the veteran Ralph Boston came over and told the 22-year-old Beamon to relax and to take off at least six inches behind the board, so he'd be sure to qualify. Beamon took off almost 2 feet behind the board, but sailed 26 feet, 10 inches on his last try, well within the qualifying length.
The day of the finals dawned gloomy. Beamon was worried that it would rain, and urged himself to ``hang one out there early.''
He poised at the top of the runway, 134 feet from the board, and thought of his late mother, who had raised him in a New York City ghetto. She had always told him he was going to be someone special. Then he admonished himself not to foul. Throughout his career he was inconsistent with his takeoff, perhaps because he did not discipline himself to hit intermediate checkpoints on the runway as most jumpers do.
He began his approach slowly, gradually building speed. The formula for long jumping is S plus H equals D, or speed plus height equals distance. Beamon was blessed with sprinter's speed.
He slowed slightly on his 19th and final stride to be sure his body was under control as his right foot hit the takeoff board. Other jumpers always said Beamon ``attacked'' the board harder than anyone else, which meant his right heel was always sore but he would lift off dramatically.
It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary effort. Beamon attained unprecedented height - he was almost six feet in the air at the apex of his jump - and hung suspended like a surreal puppet on a string. His thin legs were extended in an airborne sitting position, his arms dangling between them.
When he landed, his momentum carried him out of the pit.
``I knew it was a good jump, but I had no idea it was 29 feet,'' he says. ``It took a while to get the measurement, because I'd gone past the distance the measuring machine worked, and they had to find a tape. Then the distance was announced in meters, and I wasn't sure how far 8.9 meters was. Finally Ralph Boston told me, and I was overwhelmed. I went limp and sank to my knees. I prayed it wasn't a dream.''
Everything had coalesced for a shocking record. The Mexico City air was thin, the helping wind at the allowable limit, the runway firm, and Beamon's mental set, stride, and technique flawless. The perfect jump.
In subsequent years Beamon could not follow his own fantastic act. Emotionally and physically he was not the same competitor. He never jumped 27 feet again.
He stayed up in the air a long while, trying different jobs, going back to college to get a degree in psychology, occasionally attempting comebacks.
``I thought the jump was something you could live on the rest of your life,'' he said. ``I was young and naive. I had to learn to survive as an average person.''
An average person who on a fateful day 20 years ago performed a superhuman feat.