1968 Olympics, symbol of turbulent times, turns 50

Friday marks 50 years since the 1968 Olympics opened in Mexico City, bringing the worlds of sport and politics crashing together.

On the podium, Tommie Smith (R) and John Carlos (M) thrusted 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.   -  AP

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 Olympics opened in Mexico City, bringing the worlds of sport and politics crashing together — and broadcasting the collision live around the world on colour 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 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.

View of the Olimpico Universitario stadium, owned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and which hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.   -  AFP

 

“We don't want the Olympics, 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 it readied Latin America's first Olympics.

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 neighbourhood of Mexico City. Independent reports say anywhere from 300 to 500 people were killed.

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Powerful platform

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 Olympics, 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.

Demonstrators gesture during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre at the Zocalo square, where Mexican troops opened fire on student demonstrators, killing hundreds just days before Mexico City hosted the 1968 Olympics.   -  AFP

 

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.

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Records shattered

Their former teammate Wyomia Tyus, who won gold in the women's 100m and 4x100m — publicly dedicating the latter to Smith and Carlos — said that 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.

At the 1968 Olympics, Mexican sprinter Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to light the Olympic torch.   -  AP

 

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.

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It was the first Olympics where a woman lit the torch — Mexican sprinter Enriqueta Basilio — the first where East and West Germany competed separately, the first broadcast in colour.

But, the Games was 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.