An Olympic gold medalist long jumper and six-time world-record holder who lived in metro Atlanta since the mid-1990s, Ralph Boston died Sunday. Boston, who won the long jump at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, was 83.
“His legacy and contributions will live on for generations to come,” read a statement from USA Track and Field.
Boston died after recently suffering a stroke, according to the Tennessean. An avid golfer, he had lived in Peachtree City since 1997.
Boston, born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1939 in the segregated South, the youngest of 10 children. He attended and competed at Tennessee State University, where he earned a degree in biochemistry. From humble beginnings, he rose to break the world long jump record in 1960, weeks before the Olympics, eclipsing a 25-year-old mark held by Jesse Owens. He then won gold in Rome with a leap of 26 feet, 7½ inches.
“You think about how close the competition was,” Boston said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010 upon the 50th anniversary of his gold medal. “I won by one centimeter. Three-eights of an inch. That was a day that I guess ‘changed my life’ is a good phrase. You think about how a life has changed and how life changed and how things have happened since then.”
A year later he became the first person to reach 27 feet. He earned silver in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and bronze in 1968 in Mexico City, where Bob Beamon shattered Boston’s world record by nearly two feet. Boston played a role in that record. Beamon had fouled on his first two attempts to qualify for the finals. Boston suggested Beamon move back his starting point three feet down the runway. Beamon did as told and qualified for the finals, setting the stage for the seismic jump into history.
“I remember sitting at the head of the runway with the reigning Olympic champion, who had beaten me in Tokyo, and I said, ‘Watch this guy,’” Boston said. “He started sprinting. I said, ‘Watch him miss his step.’ Because he’d always had step problems. He didn’t miss a step, and when he hit the pit, there was a roar. Whooooaaaa.”
With a complete set of Olympic medals – gold, silver and bronze – Boston retired from competition after the 1968 Olympics, pursuing a variety of business ventures, including co-owning a TV station in Knoxville, Tennessee. Among many other achievements, he was the first Black athlete ever inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (1976). He was given the honor of being one of eight Olympic greats selected to bring the Olympic flag into the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“As a child I idolized him and he was a major influence in my life,” track great Carl Lewis wrote in a tweet Sunday. “I’ll miss his voice and support. He changed the game as an athlete, advocate and mentor.”
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com