Mexico City Olympics – 1968

By Randy Jackson

There are two iconic, yet paradoxical, images from the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. One is of the torch runner, Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo, running up the stairs of the Olympic Stadium, amid the crowd and photographers, to light the Olympic Cauldron. Enriqueta was the first woman in Olympic history to light the Olympic Cauldron. It is an image of modernity, of hope, and of progress for Mexico and for the world. In the other iconic photo, two African American athletes stand on the medal podium, each holding up a black-gloved fist, shoeless but wearing black socks, with their heads bowed. This image of defiance and protest is emblematic of events in that tumultuous year, 1968.

Mexico won the bid to host the 1968 Olympics over three competing countries: the United States, France, and Argentina. For decades after the Second World War, Mexico had enjoyed what historians now call “The Mexican Miracle.” This was a golden age of capitalism in Mexico. It was a period of strong economic growth, with increases in industrial production, worker wages, and growth in the middle class. It was also a sustained period of internal stability under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). In the 1960s the PRI saw the next step in the economic progress for Mexico was to increase its international profile for investment and tourism. Hosting the Olympics in 1968 was seen as an important way to do this.

The PRI and its president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964 – 70), had grown confident in its own power and the social stability it afforded Mexico. The anti-establishment protests rife in the world leading up to 1968 had not been seen in Mexico. However, that social stability was the result of iron-fisted control over almost all aspects of society, including the state-owned media. It wasn’t that discontent didn’t exist, rather it was repressed.

By 1968, particularly in Mexico City, there was a large and growing middle class who were unhappy with the substantial expenditures on Olympic facilities. This discontent piled onto the resentment directed towards President Ordaz after his heavy handed repression of a doctor’s strike. As the Olympics approached, some student protests began over school-specific issues. These protests were miniscule compared to the student uprisings in France, Germany, and the United States at the time. But President Ordaz repressed the protests with a heavy hand, not wanting any unrest that might disrupt the Olympics.

This resulted in larger and more frequent student protests. As the opening date of the Olympics approached, a student protest was organized to take place on October 2, ten days before the Olympics were to begin. The location was the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Mexico City neighbourhood of Tlatelolco (a former Aztec city state). By 5:00 PM that day a crowd of about 10,000 people had gathered in the square to listen to speeches by student leaders. Around 6:00 PM military helicopters dropped flares over the crowd. There followed some initial shots fired from uncertain origins. This gunfire resulted in some army and police officers firing into the crowd.

Eye witnesses later reported piles of bodies in the square, of hundreds injured, and thousands of people detained. However, the official account, carried by the state-controlled media, said only four people were killed. This event came to be known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. There were no further student protests after that, and the Games of the XIX Olympiad opened as planned on October 12, 1968.

A full account of the October 2nd massacre at Tlatelolco only began to emerge after 2000, when the PRI party was defeated by the PAN (National Action Party), under the presidency of Vicente Fox. President Fox ordered the declassification of military documents related to the October 1968 events. What emerged was the information that personnel from a special military branch had opened fire from nearby apartments on both the police and the crowd. They did this to provoke a response from the army. The crowd panicked and fled while the army responded with force. Killings, beatings, and arrests continued through the night. Power and phone lines were cut to the neighbourhood; 3,000 people were detained and all the student leaders were arrested.

But in October 1968, all that was unknown to most of the world and to the vast majority of people in Mexico. Ten days after the Tlatelolco massacre, Enriqueta Basilio, dressed in white athletic gear, ran up the steep white steps of the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. Smoke trailed the torch in her raised right arm as Enriqueta sprinted the stairs on that calm clear autumn day. Enriqueta, a national champion in athletics, lit the Olympic cauldron, hundreds of white doves were released, the stadium crowd cheered, and the games began.

The 1968 Olympics had more Mexican athletes entered (275) and Mexico won more total medals (9) than in any previous or subsequent Olympics Games. Mexico won three gold medals (two in men’s boxing, one in men’s swimming): three silver medals (men’s speed walking, women’s fencing, and women’s diving); and three bronze medals (two in men’s boxing, one in women’s freestyle swimming).

At these Olympics, a number of world records were set. American Richard Fosbury introduced a new method for the high jump, a backwards flop that won him the world record and a gold medal. His technique, now known as the Fosbury Flop, has been used by all high jumpers since. In the men’s 100-meter dash, American James Hines was the first person in history to break the 10-second barrier. Another world record was set in the men’s 200-meter race by American Tommie Smith, at 19.83 seconds. But it wasn’t that world record, or his gold medal, that made Tommie Smith instantly famous, it was what happened at the awards ceremony on the morning of October 16, 1968.

In a dramatic race, Tommie Smith held a commanding lead early on. That lead narrowed as they approached the finish. John Carlos, Smith’s American team-mate, had moved clearly into second place. Then suddenly, from the athletes further back, the Australian Peter Norman surged forward with phenomenal speed and passed John Carlos 4/100 of a second faster at the finish line. Tommie Smith had earned gold, Peter Norman silver, and John Carlos Bronze.

These three athletes approached the podium displaying numerous symbols. Smith and Carlos were shoeless to bring attention to black poverty in the US; Carlos had his shirt undone as a symbol supporting the working class; and all three athletes wore badges for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (a US organization to protest racial segregation in sports). But none of these symbols had the visual impact of Smith and Carlos who, during the US national anthem, bowed their heads and raised a black gloved fist in the air.

To their credit, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refused the demand by the American IOC president to strip Smith and Carlos of their medals. But they were kicked off the American Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village. They returned home to condemnation by the American press and even death threats. Peter Norman returned to derision and ridicule in Australia for supporting his fellow champions. He was denied all future Olympic entry, despite qualifying.

This iconic image became bigger than any of the athletes on the podium could ever have imagined. Beyond their own life-long consequences from this action, the image came to represent, for the whole world, that tumultuous year – 1968.

As for the torch bearer Enriqueta Basilio, she later became a deputy in the Mexican Congress and a permanent member of the Mexican Olympic Committee. In October 2020, a year after her death, Enriqueta became the first Olympic athlete ever to have a celestial body named after her – Queta is a moon of the Trojan asteroid. Perhaps, of these two Iconic images, it will be Enriqueta’s that stands in the long run to represent the image of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

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