By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
The 2020 summer Olympic Games was one of the strangest in modern history. They were played in 2021 in Tokyo after a year’s delay due to the raging coronavirus, with spectators banned from the events and Japanese residents outside the venues loudly protesting the games. The demanding circumstances took their toll on many athletes; the Olympians from Mexico were not exceptions.
Mexico’s athletes seem to thrive on crowds cheering them on. The best previous Mexican Olympic performances occurred in their own Mexico City in 1964, with stands packed with their screaming fans; they reaped 9 medals, three gold, three silver and three bronze. The next best was in 1984 in Los Angeles, a city rich with people with Mexican roots cheering in Spanish; they won six medals, two gold, three silver and one bronze.
Tokyo 2020 was, for the Mexican Olympians, at best “average.” Lacking fans rooting them on, they brought home four medals, all bronze. Only one medal was in a sport that ranks high in Mexico, football, or as those north of the border say, soccer.
Soccer is more a part of life than just a game in Mexico. It’s common to see boys, still toddlers unsteady on their feet, kicking balls all over the country. Fans are fiercely loyal to their teams and the clubs supporting them.
Although Mexico has competed in soccer in just five Olympic Games, they have brought home two medals, a gold from London and the bronze this year. Perhaps the lack of spectators worked in favor of the Mexico team in Tokyo, since they faced off against the Japanese team for the bronze. If the stadium had been packed with fans from Japan, the results might have been different from the win by Mexico with a 3-0 score.
More surprising than Team Mexico’s medal in soccer was the bronze taken by Alejandra Valencia and Luis Alvarez in the mixed doubles archery competition. To bring home the bronze, the team bested first Germany, 6-2, then shut out Britain (6-0). They lost to South Korea (which has won the gold 14 times). But in their final round, competing with the team from Turkey, they scored 6–2.
Although archery is hardly a major sport in Mexico, individual archers on Team Mexico had previously won a silver medal and two bronze at the summer games. However, this was the first competition in archery involving a team of two, a man and a woman, in which Mexico medaled. Of course, archery etiquette demands silence during key competition moments. So the absence of Alejandra’s hometown rooters from Hermosillo and Luis’s from Mexicali may have aided their focus – although the fans were no doubt missed after the win.
Aremi Fuentes Zavala’s bronze medal in the women’s 76 kilogram (167 lb) weightlifting competition may help blow away the film industry stereotype of Mexican women as beautiful adornments clinging to the men in their lives. From Chiapas, a state where whole villages of women are the wage-earners and men are responsible for home and hearth, Fuentes, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall, also took the silver in women’s 76 kilo weightlifting in the 2019 Pan American games in Lima. In interviews she exudes pride in being a strong woman.
Two other women Olympians from Mexico brought home the fourth bronze medal. Their event was synchronized diving from the 10 meter platform. For Alejandra Orozco, this was her second Olympic medal in the summer sport; her teammate, Gabriela Agúndez García was competing in her first Olympics. Both women are Armed Forces athletes stationed in Guadalajara. Both began as gymnasts at very early ages, which is evident in their performance both on the platform and while airborne.
Although at age 24, Orozco is two years older than Agúndez Garcia and at 1.58 meters high (5 feet 2 inches) is 0.02 meters (1 inch) taller, during their dives they appear to be almost identical twins. From the second their toes left the platform to the second their toes, gracefully pointed to the ceiling, disappeared into the water with minimal splash, they were so coordinated it was like seeing one diver and her mirror image piking and summersaulting.
Although all these splendid Olympians missed having in-person cheering spectators, people around the world and especially in Mexico were watching them via new technologies and applauding. And when the Summer Olympics will once again be held in Los Angeles in 2028, we can hope the cheering in Spanish will once again spur the Olympians from Mexico to more medals – perhaps even bringing home the gold.