Mexico’s Olympic memories: 1968 and all that

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Marvin West


2004. It’s showtime in Athens. The Greeks are all stirred up about the Olympic Games, worrying about terrorist threats and who’s going to pay the bills when the party is over and everybody goes home.

Thirty-six years ago, it was a lot like that in Mexico City.

Before you read what I remember about those Olympics, please digest this disclaimer: 1968 wasn’t a particularly good year for the establishment.

The United States boiled in anger about the Vietnam war and Lyndon Baines Johnson decided he didn’t like playing president. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis and riots broke out across the country. Robert F. Kennedy, next in line in the famous political family, was gunned down in Los Angeles. Chicago police declared war on demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. NOW targeted the Miss America contest, giving birth to the descriptive label “bra-burning feminists.”

Elsewhere, North Korean patrol boats captured the USS Pueblo. North Vietnam, with strategic assistance, launched the Tet offensive. Some were killed and many injured at Bloody Monday, student revolt in Paris. Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia. Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. Military troops and police reacted violently to a student-led protest in Mexico City.

That last tragic event, on Oct. 2, 1968, was the unofficial warm-up for the XIX Olympiad. The student chant, over much of Mexico, was “We don’t want Olympic Games, we want a revolution.”

Fiction writers insist the Olympics are somehow above politics. The International Olympic Committee wants you to believe politics play no part whatsoever. Never was. Won’t be.

The Olympics provide an almost perfect platform for politics. Much of the world is watching.

Best I remember, the 1968 controversy started in 1962 with the choice of Mexico City as the Olympic site. Critics complained that high altitude meant a terrible shortage of oxygen, that distance events would be a disaster. Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, shouted down the opposition with this sound bite: “The Olympic Games belong to all the world, not just the part at sea level.”

After worry subsided about how high the hill, the issue was awarding the Olympics to an underdeveloped country, thought to be a bit short on electric lights and indoor plumbing. The mañana mentality would be devastating.

When Mexico built roads, arenas and other facilities near enough to on time, the International Olympic Committee whipped up a little controversy of its own. It decided to re-admit segregated South Africa to competition. Two days later, 41 countries announced they would boycott the games.

The IOC backtracked. South Africa didn’t get to play and the boycott didn’t happen, but the Black Power movement seized the Mexico City spotlight. That’s what I remember.

Two little boxers, flyweight Ricardo Delgado and featherweight Antonio Roldan, won gold medals for the home team. Felix “Pepe” Munoz got a Mexican gold in swimming.

There were remarkable performances in track and field. American Bob Beamon, an erratic long-jumper who often took off on the wrong foot, made a stunning first jump, so long that the optical measuring device ran out of rail before it reached Beamon’s landing point in the sand. Judges had to resort to an old-fashioned tape measure. They came up with 8.90 meters (29 feet, 2 ½ inches), far beyond the previous world and Olympic records.

American Lee Evans ran 400 meters in 43.86 seconds, a record that lasted two decades. The U.S. sprint relay team ran a record 2:56.16 and that one stood for 24 years. Two triple jumpers broke the previous world record and didn’t win anything.

The big winner was Vera Caslavska, Czech gymnast. When Soviet troops invaded her country two months before the games, all athletic training stopped. Vera went into hiding. A wonderful talent was lost. Surprisingly, she showed up in Mexico City and performed reasonably well — four gold medals and two silver. A day after her final event, she married Josef Odlozil, a member of Czechoslovakia’s track team. Mexico weddings are so much fun.

I’ll never forget Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, teammates from San Jose State who ran first and third in the Olympic 200-meter race. They wore black socks but no shoes to the awards ceremony. They shared a pair of black gloves. Smith had a black scarf around his neck.

They accepted their medals but when the Star-Spangled Banner was played, they refused to look at the American flag and raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. The crowd caught on quickly. Boos and jeers competed with the music. The booing got louder as the runners left the dais. The athletes answered by again raising their fists.

The International Olympic Committee snarled at this political intrusion. Smith and Carlos were declared ineligible for further competition. They were ordered out of the Olympic Village. Best I remember, they were sent home to California, probably by bus.

Some other things happened. George Foreman won the heavyweight boxing championship and immediately hatched the idea of Big George grease-free grills. Dick Fosbury went over the high-jump bar head-first and upside-down and we called it the “Fosbury Flop.”

Drug-testing was introduced and one athlete was expelled. Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swede in the modern pentathlon, tested positive — for alcohol. Yes, it was tequila.

Even if you attended those Olympic Games, you undoubtedly missed John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania. He started the marathon with all the other runners but finished alone. The stadium was almost empty by the time he came in. The winner had gone to dinner an hour earlier.

When Akhwari finally stumbled across the finish line, one lonely reporter asked why he hadn’t quit somewhere along the 26 miles. Said Akhwari: “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. It sent me here to finish.”

Others were finished before the games started.

Mexico, in 1968, was rocked to its roots by a fierce outburst against the establishment. A student rebellion erupted. Buses were burned on downtown streets. The U.S. Embassy was attacked. Riot police were often overmatched.

Students took over schools. They made demands for governmental change. The law of the land was challenged in angry clashes. There were deaths, injuries and arrests.

The revolutionary spirit was contagious. Student-led marches supposedly grew to 200,000. Mexico City was fermenting in the early autumn heat. Battles between young warriors and security forces became more deadly. There were firefights and tear gas. Rocks rained down from rooftops.

The big explosion happened 10 days before the opening of the Olympics. October 2 was a fine time to protest. Hundreds of international journalists were already in town.

As one participant recalls, maybe 10,000 students and supporters gathered at the Tlatelolco apartment complex, at the Plaza of Three Cultures, to protest government brutality. Army troops and police were dispatched to maintain order.

All hell broke loose. Who pulled the trigger remains open to debate. The official report insists troops and police were provoked by radical leftists, that student snipers started it. In the unofficial version, tanks and helicopters fired ruthlessly into the crowd.

The official report said a riot was suppressed. Students called it murder. The official report said 32 were killed. The Manchester Guardian reported 325 died and maybe a thousand were wounded, some by bayonets. This sad event is known as the Massacre of Tlatelolco.

Against this 1968 backdrop of hostility and bloodshed, president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz said “Let the games begin” and they did.

These things I remember. Some I’m trying to forget.

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2004 by Marvin West © 2004
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