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When the Olympic Games Turned Political
By Tim Weiner
Staff Writer
Days before the 1968 Games opened, Mexican troops fired on students protesting in Mexico City, killing as many as 200.
Courtesy AP

MEXICO CITY — The world was in upheaval in 1968 as Mexico prepared to play host to the Summer Olympics.

In Vietnam, a war that seemed to have no end raged on. In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered during one of the most tumultuous years in the country's history. In Czechoslovakia, Soviet troops crushed a short-lived freedom movement in the streets of Prague.

All that summer in Mexico, a country tightly controlled by one-party rule, hundreds of thousands of students demonstrated for democracy. They were spied on by the government, which was nervous about how it would appear in the glare of the most intense international spotlight of all.

The result was tragic. On Oct. 2, 10 days before the Games began, government troops opened fire on student protesters in the historic plaza in Tlatelolco in Mexico City. Most accounts now say that 200 to 300 demonstrators were killed; the exact number has never been established.

Political statement
Tommie Smith (center), who won the 200 meters, and John Carlos (left), who took bronze in the event, making their political statement on the medal stand.
Courtesy AP

Luis Echeverría, the interior minister in 1968, played a central role overseeing the forces that carried out the Tlatelolco killings. Echeverría, who became the president two years later under the one-party system that controlled Mexico back then, denies ordering the army to shoot civilians at Tlatelolco. He was indicted Friday on charges for the killings of student demonstrators in Mexico City by a government-backed security force on June 10, 1971.

The 1968 Olympics signified an end of innocence and the beginning of a new world in which the Games, once thought to transcend international politics, were instead shaped by them.

At the 1972 Games in Munich, 11 members of the Israeli team were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Many African nations boycotted the 1976 Games in Montreal to protest apartheid in South Africa. The United States did not compete at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Soviets responded by boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

The 1968 Games were the first held in a developing nation. Security was nearly as tight as in Athens today. President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz publicly warned the nation's students that he would not tolerate disruption of the Olympics, which his government viewed as a huge boost to the nation's prestige and a windfall for its budding tourism industry. He placed Mexico City's police under the command of the Mexican army on Aug. 1.

1972 Munich Games
This stamp is in memory of the Munich Olympics Massacre in 1972. 11 Isreali sportsman, coaches, and judges fell victim to Palestinian terrorists during Games.

As the Games approached, the atmosphere was as tense as the air was thin. (The Games were the first held at high altitude, and athletes wondered how their lungs and muscles would work at 7,400 feet, with 30 percent less oxygen than at sea level.)

On Oct. 1, 11 days before the Games were to begin, the Central Intelligence Agency station in Mexico City sent a long cable to Washington assessing the situation.

Student leaders, the station reported, had repeatedly denied having any intention of interfering with the Games. Nonetheless, it noted, President Diaz Ordaz had sent troops and spies to occupy the national university and the Olympic Village.

The president would maintain internal order, the C.I.A. reported in the Oct. 1 cable. In that regard, it said, the Mexican government, in preparing for its role as host to the 19th Olympiad, had accomplished what many skeptics thought impossible. The event was of the utmost importance to the government and to most Mexicans.

The cable concluded that the same degree of dedication that had been demonstrated in creating the Olympic scene would be applied to defending it. It was received and read in Washington on Oct. 2.

That night, in the Plaza of the Three Cultures, in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City, government troops fired on thousands of demonstrators. The full story of what happened that night is still obscured by a veil of official secrecy, but the basic facts are clear. It was a massacre of civilians by government forces. Scores died, and the death toll may have been as high as 300. More than 1,000 were injured.

Tlatelolco Massacre
Student protesters are confronting riot troopers at Tlatelolco in Mexoco City in 1968. Hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed or injured in the brutal suppression by government troops in Mexico's one of the worst tragedies.

For Mexico, it was a pivotal moment that transformed the nation and still resonates today.

Many historians date the beginning of the end of one-party rule in Mexico to the Tlatelolco killings. That end finally came four years ago, in July 2000, with the election of President Vicente Fox.

But in 1968, after the Tlatelolco massacre, the student movement was crushed. The government suppressed the news of the killings as best it could.

The demonstrations died down and the Games went on.

They proved extraordinary for many of the athletes, and from a political perspective as well. The altitude had something to do with it, and the attitude of the athletes mattered too — especially for three black sprinters from the United States: Jim Hines, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans, who respectively shattered Olympic records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races.

On the medals podium after the 200 meters, Smith, who won the gold, and John Carlos, who won the bronze, stood barefoot, lowered their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem in a protest against racism in the United States. They were promptly expelled from the Games by the United States Olympic Committee.

There were other poignant political statements at the 1968 Olympics. Vera Caslavska, a Czech gymnast, made hers simply by showing up.

Vera Caslavska
In April, she signed a manifesto against Soviet domination of her country. In August, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the freedom movement known as Prague Spring. Caslavska was warned by friends that she might be arrested. She fled into the mountains, staying in shape by swinging from tree branches and running through her floor exercise routine in an open field.

Caslavska won four gold medals and two silvers in Mexico City. A last-minute adjustment of scores resulted in a tie for one gold between Caslavska and a Soviet gymnast, Larisa Petrik. Caslavska bowed her head during the Soviet national anthem, a gesture of defiance against Moscow.

That was the end of her competitive career. Her government barred her from foreign travel and from competition in Czechoslovakia and abroad. After the fall of communism, she became an adviser to President Vaclav Havel and president of the Czech Olympic Committee.

More records were broken at Mexico City than in any previous Olympics. The best-remembered breakthrough came from Bob Beamon, a gangly long-jumper from New York City. Beamon was a free-form flyer, often launching his long jumps from the wrong foot and frequently fouling by failing to toe the line.

He had been suspended from the University of Texas at El Paso track team that spring for refusing to compete in a meet against Brigham Young University, as a protest against the racial policies of the Mormon church.

The world record in the long jump at the time was 27 feet 4¾ inches, shared by an American, Ralph Boston, and a Soviet, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. Between 1935 and 1968, the world record had increased by only eight and a half inches.

Bob Beamon
Beamon fouled two of his qualifying jumps, and carefully launched his third and final qualifier from about a foot before the foul line. Then, in the final competition, he took off. The leap was officially announced as 8.90 meters. When Beamon heard that distance converted — to 29-2½, or nearly 2 feet beyond any recorded long jump — he collapsed in joy and disbelief. The record stood for nearly a quarter of a century.

Another revolutionary leap came from Dick Fosbury, who transformed the high jump with the Fosbury Flop, flinging himself backwards over the bar. He was the last man left with the bar at 7-4¼, a height he cleared on his final attempt, winning the gold and setting an Olympic record.

In one sense, the 1968 Olympics set a milestone, the end of an era in which the Games could pretend to stand above politics.

But in another, 1968 was a more innocent time.

The Mexico City Games signified the debut of drug testing at the Olympics. Only one athlete was disqualified, a Swedish contestant in the modern pentathlon. His name was Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall. The drug in question was alcohol.

The above article is from The New York Times.






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