In his first interview for several years, Ralph Boston reflects on his ‘amazing life’, family and success for Black History Month
Ralph Boston won the long jump at the Olympics in 1960 and got two more medals at the next two Olympics. He shares his life story, incredible anecdotes, breaking world records, meeting Muhammad Ali and how sport gave him an amazing life.
Boston won a gold, silver and bronze in the 1960s and broke the world record six times. The 82-year-old spoke to Sky Sports News’ Gail Davis in his first interview in several years for Black History Month.
It is not the gold medal in his first Olympics in 1960 which Boston identifies as the moment that changed his life. It was a few weeks earlier when he broke the long jump world record held for 25 years by the legend Jesse Owens.
At a pre-Olympic competition in California, Boston jumped 26 feet and 11.25 inches to beat Owens’ record by three inches. He says a conversation the night before had motivated him.
“The US team had gathered at a training site and I had a room-mate who was a triple jumper,” Boston says from his home just outside Atlanta.
“Late one night about 10 o’clock in the evening, he was trying to do some exercising in the room. And I wanted to go to sleep, and so I said to him, ‘Sharpe, what are you doing?’ His name was Bill Sharpe.
“He said I’m going to break the American record in the triple jump tomorrow. And I said, OK if you’re going to do that, I’ll break the American record in the long jump tomorrow!”
“And he took a couple more stretches and he said, wait a minute. The American record in the long jump is the world’s record. Are you saying that? I said, well, if you’re going to do it, I’m going to do it.
“Lo and behold, it happened. I had no earthly idea that it would, but it did.”
‘I was on my knees apologising to Jesse Owens’
Breaking the world record held by Owens raised the profile of Boston and made the 21-year-old the favourite at the Rome Olympics 61 years ago.
And it changed Boston’s personality almost straight away. He said: “I had never met Jesse Owens. I knew who he was, but I’d never met him. And after I broke his world record, I became, I think rambunctious would be a good word.” (Rambunctious is mainly used in the US and means full of energy and difficult to control, according to the Cambridge dictionary).
“And I was walking around saying, Jesse says it was alright for me to break it, he said he was tired of it! And that word got back to Jesse and he said, ‘I didn’t say that’.
“And when we met, I’m on my knees apologising to him saying I really didn’t mean it. He said, ‘It’s all right. It was a good idea’.”
Owens had won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Munich in the sprints and the long jump. Boston and Owens later became friends and Boston saw the Olympic legend as one of the greatest athletes ever and a mentor.
‘1960 Olympic gold in front of 80,000 people’
At the 1960 Olympics Boston won gold as only 8cm separated the top three athletes. Boston jumped 8 metres and 12cm (26 feet and 7.5 inches) to break the Olympic record also held by Owens, who was in Rome as a spectator.
How did Boston find the experience of competing in his first Olympics? “There were like 35 people who were entered into the long jump event in Rome and there was a morning round qualifying and then there was an afternoon round – the final.
“The morning round I remember going into the stadium and you looked at the stadium and it was empty. There was nobody there! I thought this looks like the high school competitions I was in when I grew up.
“You qualify and you come back in the afternoon and you walk through the tunnel and as you come out of the tunnel, there are 80,000 people! I had never seen that many people in my life – not in one place.
“And interestingly enough, your kidneys start to work then – you’ve got to find your way to the little boy’s room! So you hustle your way to the little boy’s room and you think, oh, I burned up a lot of energy so I shouldn’t have done that. But it all worked out very, very nicely.
Boston beat fellow American Bo Roberson by 1cm with the Soviet Union’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan getting bronze. Winning gold saw Boston being named World Athlete of the Year and North American Athlete of the Year.
In 1964 Boston finished second and won silver as he was 4cm behind Britain’s Lynn Davies, who got gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
And four years later Boston won bronze as he finished third in Mexico City, as his friend Bob Beamon smashed the world record in one of the most memorable moments in Olympics history.
‘My favourite world record was when my mum was there’
Born in Laurel, Mississippi, Boston attended Tennessee State University. The university was known for producing Olympic athletes, including the famous ‘Tigerbelles’ such as Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus who were coached by the highly-regarded Ed Temple.
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Boston had shown great athletic ability by impressing in the long jump, triple jump and hurdles. He had wanted to pursue a career in American football but his mother urged him to focus on the long jump and Boston is glad she did.
“I’m very happy that she persuaded me. That’s what mothers do,” Boston says.
“They set their kids up and send them in mostly proper directions. Because of her persistence I saw a lot of the world.”
During the 1960s he broke the world record six times in the long jump but one stands out as being the most special.
“It happened because I trained and I gave it the best that I could. The one that holds the dearest to my heart is one that I did in Kingston, Jamaica.
“Because my 75-year-old-mother who had never seen me compete was sitting at the edge of the long jump run-up and by the pit.
“And when I broke the world record, she was just happy, ecstatic … 25 or 26-years-old and your mother wants to kiss you!”
In 1961 Boston became the first athlete to long jump more than 27 feet and his last world record jump was in 1965 when he jumped 27 feet and five inches.
Boston won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) outdoor long jump for six successive seasons from 1961 to 1966. He won the AAU indoor in 1961, and the Pan American Games in 1963 and 1967.
Boston was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1985. And in 1976 he was the first African American voted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
‘In 1960 Muhammad Ali wanted my photo …and gave me a message.’
Boston and Muhammad Ali were friends for over 50 years and the long jump champion clearly remembers the moment they first met in August 1960.
“I had just broken Jesse’s record and was back in the US. I’m on my way to New York to get outfitted so I can come to Rome, and as I stepped off the bus coming into the hotel a young man put his hand in my chest.
“And he said in his voice, ‘Ralph Boston’. And he had one of those old cameras. He said: ‘Let me take your picture’. And I said, ‘OK man, who are you?’ He says: ‘You don’t know me now, but you will.’ And I said, ‘OK, tell me your name so I’ll look for you’.
“And he gave me his full name. He says: ‘My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay.’ And of course later on he became Muhammad Ali. But he gave me the full name and we were friends until he passed. And we were together at the Atlanta Olympics where he’s lighting the torch.”
Boston was involved in 1996 where he helped carry the Olympic flag into the stadium at the opening ceremony.
Boston helps Bob Beamon win gold in 1968
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City 22-year-old Bob Beamon jumped 29 feet and 2.5 inches, which smashed the previous world record by almost two feet (55cm).
Nobody had jumped 29 feet before. And nobody had even jumped 28 feet before.
Asked about it being a magical day, Boston says: “I really wanted to win and go out a winner, so don’t call it magical! I knew this was my last – I was 27, 28 years old.”
1968 Olympic long jump champion Bob Beamon speaks about the ‘Leap of the Century’ in Mexico City and how his friend Boston helped him
Boston knew 1968 was his final Games and wanted to win gold but had to settle for bronze. But Beamon credits Boston and says without him he may never have won gold and created an iconic moment in Olympic history.
Boston explains that he told Beamon the first day was only qualifying and that they should jump at least 7.80m to qualify and worry about getting a medal the next day.
“Bob came zipping down the runway. He was down the runway so fast I said, ‘Oh wow … bam! I would guarantee you that the first jump he did that day was better than the one he finally got credit for. He hit it so well, but he fouled (by overstepping).
“And I said, ‘come on Bob, you only got to make 7.80m so go ahead and do it’. And then Bob came down for the second foul and I said ‘I’m leaving you’.
“And he said, ‘please don’t leave me Ralph – I need you. Please stay with me’. So I said, Bob, you move back one foot and you’ll be fine. So he did and he moved back … bam. Made the qualifying, made the distance, and the rest is history.”
When Beamon jumped 29 feet and 2.5 inches (8 metres and 90cm) in the finals the following day the officials needed to find a manual tape to measure the distance since their equipment was not designed to measure such a large leap.
With Beamon not very good at using the metric system, he turned to Boston, who had helped to train Beamon and was a friend and rival for gold. Boston explained to Beamon he had jumped over 29 feet which led to Beamon being overcome with emotion and falling to his knees.
At the time of learning about the distance Boston remembers thinking ‘are you kidding me?’
He adds: “When they flashed the distance on the tote board Lynn (Davies) said ‘I don’t think I can jump after that’. And I said: ‘Lynn there are two more places so we’ve got to try’. And the other guy who was well known in the competition Igor Ter-Ovanesyan said, ‘Ralph, he’s made us look like children’.
“The ending of the competition was that Klaus Beer who I’d never heard of was second. I was third. I remember about halfway through the competition before it came to my jump the rain started, and I couldn’t do the backstroke down the runway, so I ended up third!”
‘Our protest was anticlimactic after Smith and Carlos’
On October 16 in 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested on the podium in Mexico City. Smith had won the 200m race and Carlos had finished third.
The two athletes took off their shoes and wore black socks on the podium to highlight black poverty. Smith also had a black scarf to represent black pride, while Carlos had a necklace of beads to remember people who had been lynched.
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They raised their fists in black gloves to show their support and solidarity with Black people and racial injustice in the world.
The gesture became known as the “Black Power salute”. Peter Norman also stood in solidarity on the stand with the American athletes as he wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.
Two days later Boston and Beamon also made a stand after having a conversation about what they could do. Both had grown up in the United States in the 1960s under segregation and experiencing racial injustice.
But the impact of their protest on the podium was limited as the day and event was remembered more for Beamon’s record jump.
Boston said: “The world was aware of what had happened with John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman. So Bob and I just kind of thought about it. My protest was barefoot. We were protesting the same thing.
“I went to the stadium barefoot and we both rolled up our pants leg (tracksuit pants) and we held up our fist. But the world had already been shocked with John and Tommie and Peter.
“Ours was just kind of anticlimactic to what they had done.”
What I learned at Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park
Boston’s career saw him compete around the world and he has fond memories of his time in London.
“Standing on the corner in Hyde Park Speaker’s corner, watching people debate things, I’ve never seen that,” he told Sky Sports News.
“Actually I’ve never seen the way you drive in Britain. I’ve never seen a left-hand drive and the left hand of the roadway.
“And that was kind of scary for me to but to stand in Speaker’s corner and listen to people talk and verbally say things that I’m not sure I was allowed to do that as I grew up.
“Of course the world has changed now, but then I’m not sure I would have been allowed to do that.”
Boston has stayed in touch with John Carlos and Tommie Smith who live fairly close to his home in Atlanta, although the coronavirus pandemic has prevented them from meeting regularly.
The 1960 Olympic champion has also kept in touch with Welsh athlete Lynn Davies, who won in 1964.
Boston said: “Lynn and I were together in Cardiff a few years ago at the anniversary of his winning the gold in Tokyo.
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“We learned there were some things we had in common. There is a southern dish called grits – it’s made from corn. And Lynn asked me about them.
“Now that I’ve said it, I’ve got to get back on the wagon and send him some more. I would send him packages of grits, five-pound bags of grits so he could have some!”
‘I’ve had an amazing life’
Towards the end of his career Boston got a Master’s degree and accepted a job at the University of Tennessee as the Assistant Dean of Students. He also worked in broadcasting for CBS and ESPN and was also part-owner of a CBS affiliate TV station in Tennessee.
He keeps all three medals in a special wooden box made by a friend who was a carpenter and says is still the big attraction when friends and relatives visit. He holds up the medals during the interview.
“Does it feel lovely to hold that?”, Sky Sports News’ Gail Davis asked the 82-year-old. He laughs and says: “Lovely isn’t even close!” He can’t find a word to describe holding his medals but jokes William Shakespeare might have been able to come up with a suitable one.
Boston is one of 10 children and is glad he could share his success with his family in the 1960s.
“I’m thankful that all this happened while the 10 of us – there were 10 children my mother and father had – were still alive.
“Then an elder sister died and passed on and we are now just down to four. Four of 10. My mother and father had 10 children, and I’m glad they had ten because I’m number 10.
As the youngest of 10 children Boston reflects on his achievements and how sport has changed his life.
“It has given me things that I can never repay. I have a niece who is a secondary school teacher who says you really have had a wonderful life. She’s right and I really have.
“Just an amazing life,” he says.
Black History Month
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