The reigning long jump world champion, Luvo Manyonga, was born 23 years after Bob Beamon appeared to briefly defy the laws of gravity and leap to an astonishing 8.90 metres at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968, but it has not stopped the young South African from devoting hours of study to the all-time great.
“It is useful to look at the photographs,” Manyonga said. “They motivate me, I want to be in the same position.”
On 18 October 1968, Beamon, a young New Yorker who had fought through a tough, violent childhood, stood on the runway as the favourite for Olympic gold. The American had won 22 of the 23 meetings he had entered that season and was, despite the presence in the field of the two previous Olympic champions and the joint-world record holders, the one to watch. But no one expected what happened next.
Beamon was a world-class sprinter with a mark of 9.5 seconds to his name for 100 yards and, backed by this speed, the altitude of Mexico City and a marginally legal tail wind, he took off. The look (above) on Beamon’s face in mid-air tells the rest of the story.
“It’s an out-of-control feeling,” said Manyonga, knowing something of the mixture of surprise and joy captured in this iconic image of Beamon. “It’s hard to explain, but you get the feeling at the beginning of the flight. You can feel that the height is different and you already know it’s big.”
Beamon landed a full 55cm beyond the previous world-leading mark shared by the USA’s Rome 1960 champion Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, of the Soviet Union. It is no wonder Welshman Lynn Davies, who won the Olympic title in Tokyo in 1964 and finished ninth in the 1968 competition, reportedly said: “What’s the point? He’s destroyed the event,” on seeing Beamon’s mark flashing up on the screens in Mexico City.
The record stood until 1991, the year the USA’s Mike Powell once again bent the accepted rules of physics to his will and soared to 8.95m at the World Championships in Tokyo. It was, of course, also the year Manyonga was born.
“I’ve studied the way they (Beamon and Powell) jump, the technique, how they perfected it,” Manyonga said. “The techniques are not the same. Bob Beamon had a slight double jump, his hitch kick and another kick of jumping and Mike Powell did a hitch kick and a stretching at the end. I don’t really copy their technique, but I analyse how they jumped and how they did their hitch kicks because techniques are not a thing you can master in a week or a month. It takes a lot of time. I look at their form and how they approached the board, how their posture was and how their hips were and then I compare it to my technique.”
It has worked pretty well for the 27-year-old so far. In April 2017, Manyonga jumped 8.65m at an event in his homeland, further fuelling his intense desire to be like Beamon.
“When I jumped 8.65(m) it was amazing, the best day of my life,” he said. “The moment you are about to start the run-up everything narrows, you feel like you are going to explode, before you even start running. When I landed I realised it. It was the highlight of my career so far.”
Manyonga is yet to jump in Mexico City, although it is on his list to do so. Last year he gave conditions in the Alps a go, attempting to see if the rarefied air and a purpose-built track could help him hit the heights Beamon did back in 1968. It did not work out – “it was too difficult to breathe” – but it does indicate the levels Manyonga is prepared to go to. And he remains bullish about one day matching the feats of his hero.
“I cannot say what I really need. It’s just a matter of time and the conditions on the day and competition is needed, you need someone to push you,” he said. “It’s really important. That day will be a good day. My form is there at the moment, it’s just a matter of when the execution will happen. I want people talking about my pictures and how I broke the world record. It’s a great thing, the whole world knows you.”
For the man who lost out on an Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 by 1cm to the USA’s Jeff Henderson, the Tokyo 2020 Games would be a pretty good time and place for it all to come together.
“It would be fantastic if people in 30 years are talking about me at Tokyo going out and jumping beyond the world record,” he said.