Ralph Boston, Who Leaped 27 Feet and Landed in History, Dies at 83
Ralph Boston, the Olympic long jump champion who, in August 1960, broke the track star Jesse Owens’s 25-year-old world record in the event, and a year later became the first jumper to break the 27-foot mark, died on Sunday at his home in Peachtree City, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. He was 83.
The cause was complications of a stroke, his son Todd said.
Boston dominated the long jump through much of the 1960s by breaking or tying world records six more times over that span. A tall and sinewy Mississippian, he won a gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960, a silver medal in Tokyo in 1964 and a bronze in Mexico City in 1968.
Boston won the N.C.A.A. long jump title in 1960, when he was an emerging athlete at Tennessee State University (then known as the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University). In August, he burst onto the national scene at a conditioning meet in Los Angeles that served as a final tuneup before the Rome Olympics.
The U.S. track team broke four world records in that event, but it was Boston’s long jump — of 26 feet, 11 inches — that made the biggest headlines. The jump surpassed Owens’s best, the previous world record, by three inches.
“Jesse said it was all right to break it — he’s tired of it,” Boston told reporters that day. He had not actually spoken to Owens and eventually apologized to him when they met at the Rome Olympics. Owens was gracious.
“I’m happy to see the record broken, and I’m just thankful that it stood up this long,” he told The Associated Press.
Boston then broke the Olympic record (26 foot 7½ inches) to win the gold medal in Rome. But his world-record performance in Los Angeles had already made him a star.
He soared into history again in 1961 when he broke the 27-foot barrier — with a 27-foot-½-inch jump at the Modesto Relays in California. His personal best was a leap of 27 feet 5 inches at Modesto in 1965.
Three years later, in Mexico City, Boston, on his way to winning a bronze Olympic medal there, was warming up for a jump when his teammate Bob Beamon leaped an astonishing 29 feet, 2½ inches, shattering Boston’s world record by nearly two feet. (The current record — 29 feet, 4¼ inches — was set by the American Mike Powell in 1991.)
Boston often recalled an encounter he had with a fellow Olympian on a New York City street as the U.S. team was preparing to leave for Rome in 1960.
“He’s got a camera and he says, ‘Ralph Boston, I want to take your picture,’ and he snaps it,” Boston told The Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I said, ‘Who are you?’ And he said, ‘You don’t know me now, but you will. My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay.’”
Ralph Harold Boston was born on May 9, 1939, in Laurel, Miss., about 85 miles southeast of Jackson, to Peter and Eulalia Boston. His mother was a homemaker, his father a railroad fireman who took up farming after losing his right eye in a hunting accident. Ralph, the youngest of 10 children, helped his father in the fields before school.
At Oak Park High School in Laurel, he became a star athlete, setting a national high school record in the 180-yard hurdles. As a biochemistry major at Tennessee State University, he competed in the high jump, sprints, high hurdles and triple jump, along with the long jump.
“I became a long jumper by accident,” he said in an interview in 2015 with a local Mississippi television station. “I wanted to play football, but my mother didn’t like that. In those days, Mama prevailed.”
During the 1960s, he had an intense but friendly rivalry with the Soviet Union’s long jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Boston was a favorite to repeat as the gold medalist, but the steady rain and strong winds that affected his jumps led to an unexpected upset.
Lynn Davies of Britain, a relative unknown, stood at the end of the runway and waited for the wind to die down for his final jump. When the wind momentarily calmed, he jumped to first place with a distance of 26 feet 5½ inches.
Until then, Ter-Ovanesyan, who had never beaten Boston in an outdoor meet, was ahead going into that fifth and final jump. But when Davies took the lead, “Boston shrugged his shoulders and turned to Ter-Ovanesyan,” The Times reported. “‘There goes the gold medal,’ Boston said.”
He managed to overcome his Soviet rival and take the silver medal with his final jump.
Boston married Geneva Jackson Spencer in 1962. The couple had two sons, Todd and Stephen, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1971. In addition to his sons, he is survived by two sisters, Eugenia Angel and Bettye Beverly; a brother, Charles; three grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Boston retired after the 1968 Olympics and served as coordinator of minority affairs and assistant dean of students at the University of Tennessee from 1968 to 1975. He covered track and field for CBS Sports as well as ESPN. Boston was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1985. He became a corporate executive, eventually joining ServiceMaster Services, a cleaning company, in Stone Mountain, Ga., as president and chief executive.
Boston was also known as a generous mentor and coach to fellow athletes. Beamon credited Boston for making Beamon’s s record-breaking jump in Mexico City possible.
“What people don’t know is that I wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for Ralph Boston,” he told the news website Mississippi Today in 2021. “I fouled on my first two attempts and was about to get disqualified, and then Ralph told me I needed to adjust my footwork leading to my takeoff. I figured I had better listen to the master, and I did.”
Ashley Shannon Wu contributed reporting.