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Olympic lore: Black-gloved glory ~ the 1968 Mexico City Games

April 25, 2012

Moot salute: Tommie Smith and John Carlos make a precociously potent point on the podium

The great thing about the Olympics is that if you didn’t go on the last one, you only have to wait four years for the next. Well, in a similar vein, following up the first in my series of Olympic-year blog posts, peeps, here – just five days after the first – is the second. And its subject? Why, the Summer Games of 1968 (12-27 October), of course. Ah, ’68… a year of student protest seemingly everywhere, war in Vietnam, hippie idealism and two dreadfully tragic assassinations of admirably progressive figures in America. Surely, coming in such an already dramatic year, a mere Olympics Games couldn’t offer yet more major incident, could it? Could it eccers like…

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The Magic

After the great success that was Tokyo ’64 (the first Games to be broadcast throughout the world thanks to burgeoning – and, at the time, mind-blowing – satellite technology), expectation for the Mexico City event in ’68 were high. After all, it would boast an important first itself, being the first Games to be held in a developing country. It would also prove to be the first broadcast, at least in the United States, in colour.

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The Mascot

El Jaguar Rojo de Chichen-Itzá ~ yes, this, the first ever Olympic mascot was, er, a throne from an ancient temple. Yup, few images of him exist (which makes him a somewhat elusive cool cat), but based on this rare photographic evidence, it may be fair to assume he was a cuddly pink representation of a feline-esque throne at El Castillo pyramid in Mexico’s Chichen-Itzá. Nice.

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The Moment

In a Games bulging with great moments (more of them below), one perhaps surprisingly stands tall above all. And that’s because it was the first time politics patently entered the post-war Olympics and, in doing so, truly resonated around the world. It happened when the Men’s 200m medalists took to the podium – American Tommie Smith (gold), Australian Peter Norman (silver) and American John Carlos (bronze). As the US national anthem the Star Spangled Banner played, both Smith and Carlos, who were already wearing civil rights badges (as was Norman) and black socks without trainers, raised their black glove-clad fists and performed the ‘Black Power’ salute, which at the time wasn’t just associated with support for improved civil rights for African-Americans but with the militant Black Panther Party.

The moment proved a sensation; unsurprisingly surely, as it occurred in a year that was itself a particularly politically highly charged one of the politically highly charged 1960s. In a controversial move, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) felt the act had demeaned the Games and immediately banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympics for life, while Norman’s support of them saw him left off his nation’s team at the next Games. Many at the time, though, and surely the majority today look on Smith and Carlos for bravely – and smartly – using such a global forum to make a stand on an issue they believed in so strongly, as did so many others.

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One giant leap for mankind?: it may still have been a year before Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon, but Bob Beamon pulled off a truly earth shattering achievement in the Long Jump

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The Main Man

Bob Beamon ~ owing to the particularly high elevation at which Mexico City stands and, thus, at which the Games were held (2,240m above sea level), there was a good chance several records would be broken in different events. And so was sensationally proved in the Men’s Long Jump (see video clip below). The event was won by American Beamon with a leap of 8.9m, a staggering 55cm improvement on the previous world record. Indeed, his effort remained the world record for the next 23 years until broken (twice in one night) by his compatriot Mike Powell.

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The Main Woman

Věra Čáslavská ~ the most successful athlete at the ’68 Games, this cheery Czech gymnast won four gold medals (Individual All-Around, Vault, Uneven Bars and Floor Exercise), as well as two silvers for the Balance Beam and team event – to this day, she remains the only male or female gymnast ever to have won every event (individual) at a single Olympics. Like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, though, she was also politically vocal at the ’68 Games – against Soviet Communism and the USSR’s invasion of her country bringing to an end the ‘Prague Spring’ it enjoyed earlier that year. Moreover, in a further sign of protest, she turned her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet anthem during two of her medal ceremonies. Her actions had consequences, as she wasn’t allowed to travel away from and compete outside of her homeland for several years, effectively forcing her to retire. Happily,  though, today she is rightly revered as an all-time great gymnast and Olympian both at home and throughout the world.

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Mentioned in dispatches

  • This was the Olympics when notoriously the ‘Fosbury Flop‘ first featured (see bottom video clip) – becoming arguably as big a sensation as Bob Beamon’s Long Jump-winning leap. Inevitably named after the man who first adopted it, Dick Fosbury, it saw him sail over the High Jump bar on his back, as opposed to jumping over the bar in a scissor-kick motion. Given it won Fosbury the event, it immediately became the standard High Jump technique
  • For the first time at the Olympics, East and West Germany competed as separate nations, having been forced to do so as one team by the IOC at the previous three Summer Games
  • In another Olympic first, these Games saw the (now utterly standard) all-weather red synthetic ‘Tartan’ surface used for the first time for track and field events, replacing cinders. The surface had originally been intended for horse racing
  • As mentioned above, Mexico City’s high elevation marked out these Olympics in the Long Jump, but also helped ensure long-standing world records were set in the Men’s 100m and Men’s 400m by US competitors Jim Hines and Lee Evans respectively, as well as in other events. Actually, the ’68 Games were promoted in the media with the aid of a small box containing Aire de México that correctly was claimed would prove to be especial para batir records (special for breaking records)
  • Although not having as good a games as it did four years before, Britain enjoyed a genuine highlight when David Hemery won the Men’s 400m Hurdles, setting yet another world record as he did so (see video clip below). In fact, his margin of victory was the largest in the event’s history since the 1924 Games. He would go on not only to be crowned the BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year, but also the  first ever champion of the broadcaster’s popular multi-sport-challenge show Superstars (1973-85) – he won it again three years later
  • A major player in Olympics of the future, drug testing was introduced at this Games and claimed its first ‘victim’, Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, who was disqualified for, er, drinking beer

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For he and she are jolly good fellows: Brit David Hemery races towards a gold medal and a world record-time (left); genius gymnast Věra Čáslavská is heralded by her teammates (right)

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The Memory

Thanks to the plethora of world records it saw broken and its Marmite-like love-it-or-hate-it political dimension, Mexico City ’68 has to be one of the most memorable ever Olympics. For the most part, its memories are certainly positive (the terrific achievements of Beamon, Čáslavská and Fosbury, and Smith and Carlos’s bold but progressive act) and its legacy too was positive, not least because Mexico as a nation would successfully host surely the greatest ever football World Cup just two years later. However, some of its memories are certainly mixed if not negative: Smith and Carlos’s fist-wielding salute, Čáslavská’s protests and especially the ‘Tlatelolco massacre’ (a brutally fatal crackdown on student protest against Mexican government repression that led to 40 civilian deaths just 10 days before the Games and whose media coverage became mixed up with that of the Games) undeniably proved that, for good or bad, the wonderful bearer of global goodwill that was the Olympics was no longer immune from the ugliness of the outside world.

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The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 45 28 34 107
2 Soviet Union 29 32 30 91
3 Japan 11 7 7 25
4 Hungary 10 10 12 32
5 East Germany 9 9 7 25
6 France 7 3 5 15
7 Czechoslovakia 7 2 4 13
8 West Germany 5 11 10 26
9 Australia 5 7 5 17
10 Great Britain & NI 5 5 3 13
15 Mexico 3 3 3 9

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