The performances, records, innovations and drama at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, officially known as the Games of the XIX Olympiad still continue to resonate after 52 years. As the last edition of the turbulent 1960s, the Mexico City Olympics were the first to be held in Latin America and the first in a Spanish-speaking country. The Games presented 172 events and 5,516 athletes – 781 women and 4,735 men, from 112 countries. Notably, three athletes, Bob Beamon in long jump, Dick Fosbury in high jump and Al Oerter in discus throw achieved magical feats.
The Games were the first to be held at high altitude. The choice of Mexico City to host the 1968 Olympic Games proved to be a controversial one. At an elevation of nearly 2,300m (7,400 feet), the thin air in Mexico City provides only 77 percent of the oxygen at sea level. This led to a slew of records in athletics. The high elevation was both a benefit and a hindrance to track and field competitors. The sprinters and field athletes thrived in the thin air. The same was not true for most of the distance runners and there was near tragedy in the pool. No Games have been held at such a high elevation since 1968.
These games were notable for a number of Olympic firsts and numerous world records. The 1968 Summer Olympics were the first to use ‘Fully Automatic Timing,’ in athletics as well as in canoeing, rowing, cycling, equestrian and swimming competitions. This was the first Olympics to use an all-weather track surface as well.
Athletes underwent gender testing for the first time at Mexico City 1968. In an effort to keep men from competing in women’s events, the IOC began testing athletes in 1968. A chromosome test was conducted after swabbing the inside of the athlete’s cheek. Also, the first Olympic athlete was disqualified under new doping regulations in Mexico 1968. East and West Germany competed for the first time as separate countries.
The Team USA led the medal table with a total of 107 medals – 45G, 28S, 34B, its highest output since 1904 on home soil in St. Louis. More than half of those medals came in the pool where Team USA won a whopping 52 medals in swimming and diving. The track and field team added 28 medals, many of the 15 golds coming in spectacular fashion and certainly, the 1968 Olympic Games made its mark in history. The 1968 Olympics were the first in which a majority of the events – not just the opening and closing ceremonies – were broadcast worldwide in colour. In the US, ABC produced its first summer edition of the Games. Thanks to satellites and a convenient time zone, the live coverage was extended to 43.5 hours.
First female to light the Cauldron
Mexican athlete Enriqueta Basilio made history in these Games not by her sporting brilliance, but by something more symbolic. She became the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron.
She was a 20-year athlete of great promise who competed in 80m hurdles, 400m and 4x100m relay. She received the flame outside the Olympic stadium from a military cadet. She then held the torch and set off through the entrance to the arena, to be greeted euphorically by the 100,000 spectators, as well as the athletes who had gathered inside for the ceremony.
She ran up the long, grand staircase that took her to the top of stadium and then stood on the platform supporting the Olympic cauldron. Basilio held the torch north, east, south and west before lighting the cauldron. Her athletic achievements were not quite so memorable, she failed to get past the first heat in any of her events and never again competed in the Olympics. Yet, it was Enriqueta Basilio who blazed the first trail.
14 World Records in Athletics
At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, 36 athletics events were contested, 24 for men and 12 for women for a total of 108 medals. While the altitude slowed down distance runners, sprinters and jumpers had a field day. They smashed world records in the men’s and women’s 100m and 200m, the men’s 400m, the men’s and women’s 4x100m, the men’s 4x400m, the men’s 400m hurdles, the men’s and women’s long jumps, the men’s triple jump and the women’s shot put. The world record was also tied in the men’s 800m while Olympic records were established in nearly every other event – 26 in total.
The United States won 28 (15G, 6S, 7B). Kenya came second with 3G, 4S, 1B whilst the Soviet Union managed 3G, 2S, 8B. The Games were blessed with many outstanding heroes. The world record was broken in the men’s triple jump five times by three athletes, including the final jump of the event. The African athletes won gold medals for the first time in the 1500m and 3000m steeplechase, as well as in middle and long distance events.
The United States’ Wyomia Tyus became the first athlete, male or female, to win the 100m crown in back-to-back Olympics. She also was the first woman to run a legal time of 11.00 sec. Jim Hines of Team USA was the first man to run under 10.00 sec in the 100m with a time of 9.95 sec in the first all-black final in the event. Madeline Manning triumphed in the 800m to become the only United States woman besides Tyus, to win an individual gold medal.
Little did Willie Davenport know in 1968 that he would go from hurdling down a track to hurtling down a mountain in a bobsled, to become two-sport Olympian. A 1964 Olympian, he was so nervous before the 110m hurdles in Mexico City that he almost fell down while taking off his sweat pants. Davenport went on to run 13.33 sec, equaling the Olympic record. He made Team USA after just three months of training.
Bob Beamon a legendary leap
The high altitude led to many world records in athletics, yet the most memorable achievement was Bob Beamon’s spectacular long jump of 8.90m (29-2¼) – a world record improved upon by an incredible 22 inches or 55 cm. In the rarefied air of Mexico City, Beamon uncorked a legendary leap. The feat was so outstanding it spawned in sports jargon, a new adjective – “Beamonesque,” came into use to describe spectacular feats. First, he drew comparisons to 1936 champion Jesse Owens – but not for the right reasons.
Like Owens, Beamon had two fouls in the preliminaries and only one more chance to post a legal jump. Team USA’s Ralph Boston advised him to jump well before the take-off board, just as Germany’s Luz Long advised Owens. On Beamon’s first jump in the final, he flew incredibly high over the sand. The judges had to use a steel tape because their optical measuring device was not long enough. Beamon was not that familiar with the metric system, so he wasn’t as impressed with 8.90 meters as he should have been. When he saw the converted measurement, he collapsed. Beamon still holds the Olympic record after 52 years.
Dick Fosbury sailing over the bar
Dick Fosbury introduced the “Fosbury Flop” to the high Jump by jumping over backwards, whereas the prevailing methods involved jumping forwards or sideways. Fosbury was desperate to get over the bar and during a meet, he improvised a new technique, which he originally called the “back layout.” He later changed the name to the “Fosbury Flop.” Although he was ridiculed for going over the bar backward, he defied his coaches’ wishes to try a more conventional style. In Mexico City 1968, he cleared 7-4 ¼, a new Olympic record. The crowd was enthralled and the worldwide attention led to a revolution in the sport. All Olympic champions, male or female, starting in 1980 have used the Flop. He shared, “I feel I was blessed to discover this technique and to be able to contribute to the sport and its history. I was the right person at the right time. It changed my life. I’m incredibly fortunate, because I got the naming rights.”
Al Oerter, first to win four successive medals
Al Oerter is the first track and field athlete to win the same event at four successive Olympic Games – Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968. Oerter won his first Olympic gold medal in the discus at age 20 when he was not the favourite by any stretch of imagination in 1956.
Severely injured in a car accident a year later, Oerter was back for the Rome Games, where he defended his title. Though hampered by neck and rib injuries, he fought through the pain to win again. Finally, at age 32, he was the underdog in Mexico City. Rain delayed the final an hour but Oerter was on fire. In the third round, he heaved the discus 212-6, five feet farther than his previous best. He also threw 212-5 and 210-1 to prove that was not a fluke.
Magnificent Gymnasts Caslavska and Voronin Reigns
Vera Caslavska, the Czech gymnast, became a global star at the 1968 Olympics. She was defending her all-around champion title, having won three gold medals in Tokyo 1964. She was on her way to a historic achievement of winning each major all-around title from one Olympic Games to another, through World Championships and European Championships. No other female gymnast, before or since, has managed that. Just two months before the Games, Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia. Having campaigned against Soviet involvement in her country, she was fearful of arrest and went into hiding. Finally, the government assured her participation in Mexico.
She won four golds, two silvers and the adoration of the Mexicans. They gave her a succession of standing ovations and she responded with the Mexican Hat Dance. She retained her all-around champion title – becoming the first woman to do so. What’s more, she got married to the Czech 1500m champion Josef Odlozil in Mexico City just 24 hours after ending her competition. Soviet authorities refused to give her a job, despite her achievements. Years later, she returned to Mexico as coach of the country’s athletics team. Later, became President of the Czech NOC and was voted the country’s second greatest athlete, behind legendary Emil Zatopek.
Many athletes come to the Olympics focused on just one event. A few might take part in two or even three, but a very few get to the stage of being good enough and fit enough, to manage seven medals. The great Soviet gymnast Mikhail Voronin was used to competition and he was used to winning medals. He had won the all-around and rings titles at the World Championships in 1966 and took those titles at the European Championships a year later, during which he also picked up gold medals for the parallel bars and pommel horse.
At Mexico City 1968, Voronin won seven medals: 2G, 4S, 1B, thanks to a consistent display of strength, endurance and versatility. His run started with the individual and team all-around competitions, in which he secured a pair of silver medals.
Next, came the long horse vault, and his first gold. The parallel bars delivered a silver before a mesmerising contest in the horizontal bar in which he clinched the gold. The rings delivered him a silver before he picked up a final bronze, in the pommel horse.
USA’s unprecedented domination in swimming
Mexico City 1968 offered 87 medals for swimming under 29 events – 14 women and 15 men events. Team USA swept the medal table with 52 medals, winning 11 of 14 women’s events and 10 of 15 men’s events. The United States won 21G, 15S, 16B medals and made the podium in every event. This was a complete team effort, with no swimmer winning more than three gold medals. Among the other countries, Australia won 3G, 2S, 3B and East Germany secured 2G, 3S, 1B.
The United States’ 16-year prodigy Debbie Meyer, was the standout becoming the first swimmer to win gold medals in three individual events: 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. The United States swimmers Charlie Hickcox won three gold medals (200 IM, 400 IM, medley relay) and one silver in 100 backstroke and Claudia Kolb won the women’s 200 IM and 400 IM. With such lopsided medal tables, the IOC decided to cut the number of individual entrants per country to two instead of three for the 1980 Games, a restriction that continues today.
Sporting Brilliance and Black Power Protest
On October 16, 1968, at the Olympic stadium in Mexico City, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos joined together to produce one of the most enduring sporting moments of the 20th century. With a massive global platform that only an Olympic Games can provide, the freshly-minted gold and bronze medalists in the 200m chose to use their moment of glory to protest the racial inequality that was ripping their country apart. It was a protest the likes of which had never been witnessed on an international sporting stage – not before and not since.
Smith made it safely to the start-line and then through the exertion of the start itself. At the turn, Carlos was in the lead, but then Smith accelerated dramatically and decisively, overtaking his training partner. He took such a healthy lead that he was able to raise his arm in celebration ten metres from the line as he crossed the line in a magnificent world record time of 19.83 sec. Behind him, Carlos was briefly distracted by Smith’s turn of pace and found himself passed by the fast-finishing Australian Peter Norman, who rose from sixth to second. Carlos took bronze.
Their medal ceremony became one of the iconic images. The Americans wore black socks on the podium with no shoes to symbolize black poverty. Smith tied a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. As they only had one pair of gloves, they each took one glove. At just 24 and 23, respectively, Smith and Carlos became the subjects of an indelible image of a salute that would come to symbolize an era, inspire every generation since and one that would define, in times both bad and good, the rest of their lives. Norman also took part in the protest, pinning a badge on his jacket from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the movement that inspired the protest. He confirmed his full support and for all three of them, it was the final Olympic Games.
The IOC said Smith and Carlos’s actions were “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” Under pressure by the IOC, which threatened to disqualify the entire US track team, the United States Olympic Committee suspended Smith and Carlos and forced them to leave the Olympic Village and Mexico City. Smith and Carlos paid a steep price for their protest. Instead of a hero’s welcome, they were met with death threats and vilification.
Ostracized from their sport, their careers in athletics lasted just two years and decades of personal and professional struggles followed. Their fortunes began to change in the 1980s when both eventually found their calling as successful coaches. By 2005, a seven-metre statue of their podium moment was unveiled at San Jose State University. In 2016, President Barack Obama recognized them.
After 38 years of the episode in Mexico City Victory Podium, Peter Norman died in 2006, both John Carlos and Tommy Smith, flew to Australia, gave eulogies and were pallbearers at the funeral aptly displaying the Olympic values of “Excellence,” “Respect” and “Friendship.”
(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza and spotlight iconic athletes. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)