1968 Olympics, sym­bol of tur­bu­lent times, turn 50

Kuwait Times - - Sports -

MEX­ICO CITY: For­mer Olympic ath­letes lit a com­mem­o­ra­tive caul­dron Fri­day to mark the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1968 Games in Mex­ico City, a sym­bol of a world­wide year of tur­bu­lent times.

At a mo­ment of re­volt and up­heaval, the Mex­ico City Olympics brought the worlds of sport and pol­i­tics crash­ing to­gether-and broad­cast the col­li­sion live around the globe 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 Olympics, it was the year of George Fore­man, Mark Spitz, Dick Fos­bury and his “Fos­bury Flop,” Bob Bea­mon’s “Leap of the Cen­tury,” Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los with their iconic Black Power salute-and so many more.

Fos­bury and Bea­mon re­turned to the Olympic sta­dium Fri­day to take part as vet­er­ans of the 1968 Games marched in for­ma­tion to form the Olympic rings. Mex­i­can sprinter En­ri­queta Basilio, the first woman to light the Olympic caul­dron, then sym­bol­i­cally re-lit the flame to a burst of ap­plause.

The man who or­ga­nized the open­ing cer­e­mony, Luis Ar­mida, re­called the mo­ment five decades ago when Basilio did the same. “This tall, slim girl ap­peared. She wasn’t run­ning, she was fly­ing. Ev­ery step looked like a gazelle’s,” he told AFP.

Now aged 70, Basilio-like all the ath­letes-was a bit less gazelle-like, but gamely waited atop the steps lead­ing to the caul­dron as a suc­ces­sion of torch-bear­ers passed the flame up to her.


The an­niver­sary has brought fraught mem­o­ries for Mex­ico, where the winds of change were also blow­ing in 1968. At the time, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion brought by Latin Amer­ica’s first Games, Mex­i­can stu­dents took to the streets to call for democ­racy af­ter four decades of one-party rule.

On the night of Oc­to­ber 2, 10 days be­fore the open­ing cer­e­mony, army troops opened fire on 8,000 peace­ful demon­stra­tors in Mex­ico City, killing be­tween 300 and 500 peo­ple.


Hushed up by the Mex­i­can govern­ment, the mas­sacre is lit­tle-re­mem­bered abroad. But it was cer­tainly no­ticed by the gen­er­a­tion of young, politi­cized ath­letes mak­ing their way to Mex­ico City. Smith and Car­los cite it as one of the in­flu­ences for their de­fi­ant protest atop the podium on Oc­to­ber 16, 1968, af­ter Smith won gold in the men’s 200m-be­com­ing the first per­son to run the race in un­der 20 sec­onds-as Car­los claimed bronze.

On the podium, the African Amer­i­can ath­letes 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 world­wide.

“I came to Mex­ico City to make a state­ment. Not to win medals,” Car­los said re­cently af­ter re­turn­ing to the sta­dium. 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. — AFP

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