1968 Mexico City, Mexico

The 1968 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XIX Olympiad, were an international multi-sport event held in Mexico City, Mexico in October 1968. The 1968 Games were the first Olympic Games hosted by a developing country, and the first Games hosted by a Spanish-speaking country (followed in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain). It is the first Games ever held in Latin America, and it was the second after 1964 Summer Olympics to be hosted outside of Europe, Australia, or the United States. It was also the third Olympic Games to be held in autumn, then followed by the 1988 Summer Olympics.The Mexican Student Movement of 1968 happened concurrently and the Olympic Games were correlated to the government’s response.

Highlights of the Mexico Olympics

At the ceremony for the men’s 200 meter race, African-American athletes Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) took a stand for human rights by raising their black-gloved fists and wearing black socks in lieu of shoes. The Australian Peter Norman, who had run second, wore an American “civil rights” badge as support to them on the podium. As punishment, the IOC banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Games for life, and Norman was left off of Australia’s Olympic team in 1972.

ñThe high elevation of Mexico City, at 2,240 m (7,350 ft) above sea level, influenced many of the events, particularly in track and field. No Summer Olympic Games before or since have been held at high elevation. Although a performance reducer for endurance athletes, the thin air contributed to many record-setting jumps, leaps, vaults, and throws, as well as all of the men’s track events of 400 meters and less. As a reminder of this fact, one of the promotional articles of these Olympics was a small metallic box labeled “Aire de México” (Air of Mexico), that was “Especial para batir records” (Special for breaking records).

ñIn addition to high elevation, this was the first Olympics to use a synthetic all-weather surface for track and field events; the “Tartan” surface was originally developed by 3M for horse racing, but didn’t catch on. The tracks at previous Olympics were conventional cinder.

ñFor the first time, East and West Germany competed as separate teams, after being forced by the IOC to compete as a combined German team in 1956, 1960, and 1964. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was played when East and West Germany arrived in the stadium.

ñAl Oerter of the U.S. won his fourth consecutive gold medal in the discus to become only the second athlete to achieve this feat in an individual event, and the first in track & field (athletics).

ñBob Beamon of the U.S. lept 8.90 m (29.2 ft) in the long jump, an incredible 55 cm (22 in) improvement over the previous world record. It remains the Olympic record and stood as the world record for 23 years, until broken by American Mike Powell in 1991. American athletes Jim Hines and Lee Evans also set long-standing world records in the 100 m and 400 m, respectively.

ñIn the triple jump, the previous world record was improved five times by three different athletes.

ñDick Fosbury of the U.S. won the gold medal in the high jump using his unconventional Fosbury flop technique, which quickly became the dominant technique in the event.

ñVěra Čñáslavská of Czechoslovakia won four gold medals in gymnastics.

ñDebbie Meyer of the U.S. became the first swimmer to win three individual gold medals, in the 200, 400 and 800 m freestyle events. The 800 m was a new long-distance event for women. Meyer was only 16 years old, a student at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, California.

ñAmerican swimmer Charles Hickcox won three gold medals (200m IM, 400m IM, 4x100m medley relay) and one silver medal (100m backstroke).

ñThe introduction of doping tests resulted in the first disqualification because of doping: Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was disqualified for alcohol use (he drank several beers just prior to competing).

ñJohn Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania became internationally famous after finishing the marathon, in last place, despite a dislocated knee.

ñThis was the first of three Olympic participations by Jacques Rogge. He competed in yachting and would later become the eighth president of the IOC.

ñNorma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo of Mexico became the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron with the Olympic flame.

ñIt was the first games at which there was a significant African presence in men’s distance running. Africans won at least one medal in all running events from 800 meters to the marathon, and in so doing they set a trend for future games. Most of these runners came from high-altitude areas of countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, and they were well-prepared for the 2240 m elevation of Mexico City.

ñIt was the first games where the closing ceremony was transmitted in color to all the world.

East Germany and West Germany competed as separate entities for the first time in at a Summer Olympiad, and would remain so through 1988. Barbados competed for the first time as an independent country.

Also competing for the first time in a Summer Olympiad were British Honduras (now Belize), Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (as Congo-Kinshasa), El Salvador, Guinea, Honduras, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, and the United States Virgin Islands. Singapore returned to the Games as an independent country after competing as part of the Malaysian team in 1964.

Controversies at the Mexico Olympics

On October 2, 1968, ten days before the start of the 1968 Summer Olympics the Plaza de las Tres Culturas was the scene of the Tlatelolco massacre. Kate Doyle had confirmed the death of forty four people including a soldier named Pedro Gustavo López Hernández. Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, decided not to cancel the games. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre most prominent Mexicans, with the exception of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, condemned the violence but blamed the students for the massacre. As a response, during the opening ceremony, students flew a bird-shaped kite over the presidential box to shape a black dove as a silent protest for the repression.

On October 16, 1968, an action by two African-American sprinters at the Mexico City Olympics shook the sporting world.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the men’s 200-meter race, took their places on the podium for the medal ceremony wearing black socks without shoes and civil rights badges, lowered their heads and each defiantly raised a black-gloved fist as the Star Spangled Banner was played. Both of them were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Some people (particularly IOC president Avery Brundage) felt that a political statement had no place in the international forum of the Olympic Games. In an immediate response to their actions, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team by Brundage and banned from the Olympic Village. Those who opposed the protest said the actions disgraced all Americans. Supporters, on the other hand, praised the men for their bravery.

Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who came second in the 200 m race, and Martin Jellinghaus, a member of the German bronze medal-winning 4×400-meter relay team, also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges at the games to show support for the suspended American sprinters.
In another incident, while standing on the medal podium after the balance beam event final, Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská quietly turned her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.

The action was Čáslavská’s silent protest against the recent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and was repeated when she accepted her medal for her floor exercise routine. While Čáslavská’s countrymen supported her actions and her outspoken opposition to Communism (she had publicly signed and supported Ludvik Vaculik’s “Two Thousand Words” manifesto), the new regime responded by banning her from both sporting events and international travel for many years.