Sun, Oct 14, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Mexico City Games, symbol of turbulent times, celebrates their 50th anniversary


Enriqueta Basilio, the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron, holds the Olympic torch at the University Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Olympic Games.

Photo: Reuters

Former Olympic athletes on Friday lit a commemorative cauldron to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Games in Mexico City, a symbol of a worldwide year of turbulent times.

At a moment of revolt and upheaval, the Mexico City Olympics brought the worlds of sport and politics crashing together — and broadcast the collision live around the globe on color 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 “Fosbury Flop,” Bob Beamon’s “leap of the century,” Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their iconic Black Power salute — and many more.

Fosbury and Beamon on Friday returned to the Olympic stadium to take part as veterans of the 1968 Games marched in formation to form the Olympic rings.

Mexican sprinter Enriqueta Basilio, the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron, then symbolically relit the flame to a burst of applause.

The person who organized the opening ceremony, Luis Armida, recalled the moment five decades ago when Basilio did the same.

“This tall, slim girl appeared. She wasn’t running, she was flying. Every step looked like a gazelle’s,” he said.

Now 70, Basilio — like all the athletes — was a bit less gazelle-like, but gamely waited atop the steps leading to the cauldron as a succession of torchbearers passed the flame up to her.

The anniversary has brought fraught memories for Mexico, where the winds of change were also blowing in 1968.

At the time, capitalizing on the international attention brought by Latin America’s first Games, Mexican students took to the streets to call for democracy after four decades of one-party rule.

On the night of Oct. 2, 10 days before the opening ceremony, army troops opened fire on 8,000 peaceful demonstrators in Mexico City, killing 300 to 500 people.

Hushed up by the Mexican government, the massacre is little-remembered abroad, but it was certainly noticed by the generation of young, politicized athletes making their way to Mexico City.

Smith and Carlos cite it as one of the influences for their defiant protest atop the podium on Oct. 16, 1968, after Smith won gold in the men’s 200m — becoming the first person to run the race in less than 20 seconds — as Carlos claimed bronze.

“I came to Mexico City to make a statement. Not to win medals,” Carlos said recently after returning to the stadium.

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 nation’s nascent opening.

However, the Games were also stunning as pure sport.

Mexico City’s high altitude of 2,300m led to scores of broken records in the thin air: 30 world records and 76 Olympic records.

The most impressive might be American Beamon’s 8.9m long jump — still an Olympic record.

Or perhaps it was his compatriot Fosbury’s 2.24m high jump, using the “backward” technique that was mocked at the time, but revolutionized the sport.

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