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Mexico City: The 1968 Summer Olympics

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In 1968, Mexico City became the first Latin American city to host the Olympic games, having beaten out Detroit and Lyon for the honor. The XIX Olympiad was a memorable one, with several long-standing records set and the strong presence of international politics. The games were marred by a horrible massacre in Mexico City just days before they were due to kick off. The games lasted from October 12 to October 27.

Background:

Being selected to host the Olympics was a really big deal for Mexico. The nation had come a long way since the 1920's, when it still lay in ruins from the long, ruinous Mexican Revolution. Mexico had since rebuilt and was turning into an important economic powerhouse, as oil and manufacturing industries boomed. It was a nation that had not been on the world stage since the rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) and it was desperate for some international respect, a fact which would have disastrous consequences.

The Tlatelolco Massacre:

For months, tensions had been building in Mexico City. Students had been protesting the repressive administration of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, and they hoped the Olympics would bring attention to their cause. The government responded by sending troops to occupy the university and instituted a crackdown. When a large protest was held on October 2 in Tlatelolco in the Three Cultures Square, the government responded by sending troops. The result was the Tlatelolco Massacre, in which an estimated 200-300 civilians were slaughtered.

The Games:

After such an inauspicious beginning, the games themselves went relatively smoothly. Hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio, one of the stars of the Mexican team, became the first woman to light the Olympic torch. This was a sign from Mexico that it was trying to leave aspects of its ugly past – in this case, machismo – behind it. In all 5,516 athletes from 122 nations competed in 172 events.

The Black Power Salute:

American politics entered the Olympics after the 200m race. African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won gold and bronze respectively, gave the fist-in-the-air black power salute as they stood on the winners’ podium. The gesture was intended to draw attention to the civil rights struggle in the United States: they also wore black socks, and Smith wore a black scarf. The third person on the podium was Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who supported their action.

Věra Čáslavská:

The most compelling human interest story at the Olympics was Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská. She strongly disagreed with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, less than one month before the Olympics. As a high-profile dissident, she had to spend two weeks in hiding before finally being allowed to attend. She tied for gold in floor and won silver in beam on controversial decisions by the judges: most spectators felt she should have won. In both cases, soviet gymnasts were the beneficiaries of the dubious scores: Čáslavská protested by looking down and away when the Soviet anthem was played.

Bad Altitude:

Many felt that Mexico City, at 2240 meters (7,300 feet) of altitude was an inappropriate venue for the Olympics. The altitude did effect many events: the thin air was good for sprinters and jumpers, but bad for long-distance runners. Some feel that certain records, such as Bob Beamon’s famous long jump, should have an asterisk or disclaimer because they were set at such a high altitude.

Results of the Olympics:

The United States won the most medals, 107 to the Soviet Union’s 91. Hungary came in third, with 32. Host Mexico won three each of gold, silver and bronze medals, with the golds coming in boxing and swimming. It is a testament to home-field advantage in the games: Mexico won only one medal in Tokyo in 1964 and one in Munich in 1972.

More Highlights of the 1968 Olympic Games:

Bob Beamon of the United States set a new world record with a long jump of 29 feet, 2 and one-half inches (8.90M). He shattered the old record by almost 22 inches: before his jump, no one had ever jumped 28 feet, let alone 29. Beamon’s world record stood until 1991: it is still the Olympic record. After the distance was announced, an emotional Beamon collapsed to his knees: his teammates and competitors had to help him to his feet.

American high jumper Dick Fosbury pioneered a funny-looking new technique in which he went over the bar head first and backwards. People laughed...until Fosbury won the gold medal, setting an Olympic record in the process. The “Fosbury Flop” has since become the preferred technique in the event.

American discus thrower Al Oerter won his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, becoming the first ever to do so in an individual event. Carl Lewis matched the feat with four golds in long jump from 1984-1996.

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