1968 Olympic Games, sym­bol of tur­bu­lent times, turn 50

Host Mex­ico wit­nessed merger of sport and pol­i­tics

Global Times - Weekend - - SPORTS -

It was 1968, re­volt and up­heaval were sweep­ing the world, and the Olympic Games could hardly avoid be­ing swept up, too.

Fri­day marks 50 years since the 1968 Olympic Games opened in Mex­ico City, bring­ing the worlds of sport and pol­i­tics crash­ing to­gether – and broad­cast­ing the col­li­sion live around the world on color tele­vi­sion for the first time.

It was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were as­sas­si­nated. A year of stu­dent protests that ex­ploded in Ber­lin and Paris and spread around the world. The year the US be­gan to truly ques­tion the Viet­nam War, and the USSR crushed the Prague Spring in Cze­choslo­vakia.

At the Olympic Games, it was the year of Ge­orge Fore­man, Mark Spitz, Dick Fos­bury and his fa­mous “Fos­bury Flop,” Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los with their iconic Black Power salute – and so many more.

As the Games ap­proached, the winds of change were blow­ing in Mex­ico, too.

Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, stu­dent protesters took to the streets to call for demo­cratic change af­ter four decades of one-party rule.

“We don’t want the Olympic Games, we want a rev­o­lu­tion!” was one of the slo­gans they chanted.

The tur­moil alarmed Pres­i­dent Gus­tavo Diaz Or­daz and the rul­ing In­sti­tu­tional Revo­lu­tion­ary Party (PRI) as they read­ied Latin Amer­ica’s first Games.

On the night of Oc­to­ber 2, 10 days be­fore the open­ing cer­e­mony, army troops opened fire on 8,000 peace­ful demon­stra­tors in the Plaza of Three Cul­tures, in the Tlatelolco neigh­bor­hood of Mex­ico City.

In­de­pen­dent re­ports say any­where from 300 to 500 peo­ple were killed.

Hushed up by the Mex­i­can govern­ment, which put the death toll at just 20, the mas­sacre is lit­tle-re­mem­bered abroad.

But it was cer­tainly no­ticed by the gen­er­a­tion of young, politi­cized ath­letes mak­ing their way to Mex­ico City, in­clud­ing tal­ented African Amer­i­can sprint­ers Smith and Car­los.

They have both cited the bloody crack-down as one of the in­flu­ences for what they did next.

Four days into the Olympic Games, Smith won gold in the men’s 200m, be­com­ing the first per­son to run the race in un­der 20 sec­onds, as Car­los, his com­pa­triot, claimed bronze.

On the podium, the pair thrust their black-gloved fists into the air as the na­tional an­them played, a de­fi­ant protest against racism in the United States and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions ev­ery­where.

“I came to Mex­ico City to make a state­ment. Not to win medals,” Car­los said on a re­cent visit to Mex­ico City.

But the pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, Avery Brundage, saw to it the men paid a heavy price: they were sus­pended from the Olympic team and sent home.

Their for­mer team­mate Wy­omia Tyus, who won gold in the women’s 100m and 4x100m – pub­licly ded­i­cat­ing the lat­ter to Smith and Car­los – said the Olympic Vil­lage was elec­tri­fied by the po­lit­i­cally charged cli­mate of the time.

“There was so much un­rest go­ing on in the world that we all had to pay at­ten­tion to it,” she said af­ter re­cently re­turn­ing to the Olympic sta­dium for the first time.

“The only way to help peo­ple was by speak­ing up or do­ing some­thing. We had a plat­form where that could hap­pen, and the world could see,” added Tyus, who, like Smith and Car­los, was ac­tive in the move­ment known as the Olympic Project for Hu­man Rights.

Other protests in­cluded that by Cze­choslo­vakian gym­nast Vera Caslavska, who won sil­ver in the floor ex­er­cise and de­fi­antly bowed her head as the Soviet an­them played for gold medal­ist Larisa Petrik – re­call­ing how Moscow’s tanks had crushed her coun­try’s nascent open­ing.

They were the first Olympic Games where a woman lit the torch – Mex­i­can sprinter En­ri­queta Basilio – the first where East and West Ger­many com­peted sep­a­rately, the first broad­cast in color.

But the Games were also stun­ning as pure sport.

Mex­ico City’s high al­ti­tude – 2,300 me­ters (7,545 feet) – led to scores of bro­ken records in the thin air: 30 world records and 76 Olympic records.

The most im­pres­sive may be Amer­i­can Bob Bea­mon’s 8.9-me­ter long jump – still an Olympic record.

Or per­haps it was his com­pa­triot Fos­bury’s 2.24-me­ter high jump, us­ing the “back­ward” tech­nique that was mocked at the time – but rev­o­lu­tion­ized the sport.

Photo: AFP

Mex­ico City’s Olimpico Univer­si­tario sta­dium, which hosted the 1968 Sum­mer Olympic Games, is pic­tured on Wed­nes­day.

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