1968 Olympics: The Greatest Ever Games?
1968 Summer Olympics
Host: Mexico City, Mexico
Medal table winner: United States of America
Held between October 12th and 27th, the 1968 Olympics saw the games make their first excursion to Latin America and a Spanish-speaking nation. Mexico’s capital won the rights to host the games at an IOC Session in 1963 with Detroit, Lyon and Buenos Aires being the unsuccessful bidders. The games’ torch relay recreated the route taken by Christopher Columbus during his journey to the New World in 1492 before arriving in Mexico.
After the post-war Olympics had seen a united Germany, the Mexico City games finally saw this remarkable alliance crumble with East and West fielding separate teams. Meanwhile the Bahamas, Belize, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Paraguay and six more nations all made their Olympic debuts.
For the second consecutive Olympic games, the US topped the medal table with an improved tally of 107, 45 of which were gold. Despite no longer being hosts, Japan defied the odds to finish third in the table once again, narrowly behind the USSR. Meanwhile, Mexico took the crown of the worst performing host nation of all time as the home side came a dismal fifteenth with only nine medals.
The Mexico City games were also the first to have its closing ceremony and events broadcast to the world in glorious colour. Moreover, Enriqueta Basilio made history by becoming the first ever woman to light the Olympic flame. An all-weather synthetic athletics track was also used for the first time.
Black Power Salute
One of the most famous and poignant Olympic moments of all time took place in 1968 during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200m. After winning the event in a stunning world record time of 19.83 seconds, Tommie Smith joined his fellow American and bronze medalist John Carlos on the podium. The pair famously wore black socks with no shoes and civil rights badges.
As the American national anthem sounded through the Esatdio Olympico, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads before pointing a black-gloved fist skyward. The gesture regards issues of race discrimination and is better know as the ‘Black Power Salute’. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman also donned a badge but did not mimic his colleagues’ gesture.
The protest engulfed the media the following day and the IOC’s reaction remains controversial to this day. The Olympic committee remained stubborn with their intolerance of political gestures and subsequently banned Smith and Carlos from the games. In response, the pair questioned why they had been punished when German athletes sporting the Nazi salute at the 1936 games were not.
In an Olympic games dominated by incredible stories rooting from track and field, one of the biggest highlights away from the stadium came via American swimmer Debbie Meyer. The Annapolis born super star’s rise to fame was certainly unlikely, as her problems with asthma had plagued her in the past.
Despite the men competing in swimming events as long as a metric mile, the 1968 games only just saw the debut of the 800m freestyle. The news was music to Meyer’s ears as she left Mexico City as the first and still only ever female Olympian to win three individual swimming golds in one Olympics tournament.
Meyer took gold in the 200m freestyle in Olympic record time on an all US podium before bagging top spot in the 400m with another summer games best. The superb hat trick was completed in the first ever staging of the 800m freestyle as Meyer defeated fellow countryman Pam Kruse by nine seconds.
Record breaking air
An astonishing amount of world records flooded the athletics events due to the high altitude of Mexico City at 7,350 ft. above sea level. Whilst such high altitudes can be a huge disadvantage in long distance events, the thin brittle air saw astonishing performances in the field and sprint calendars. As a result, some of the promotional material for the games boasted how ‘The Air of Mexico is special for breaking records’.
In the men’s 100m, Jim Hines made human history with the aid of the sparse air with a barrier-breaking world record. The American’s blistering sprint and time of 9.95 seconds saw him become the first ever human to record a sub-10 second 100m time using fully automatic timing. Lee Evans also became the first athlete to break 44 seconds in the 400m in yet another world record.
Tommie Smith set a greatest ever time in the 200m, Ralph Doubell in the 800m and David Hemery in the 400m hurdles in an avalanche of world records. Moreover, Bob Beamon leaped an astonishing 8.90m in the men’s long jump, shattering the previous world record by over half a metre. Beamon’s super human jump would not be bettered for another 23 years.
The 1968 games saw high jump change forever as America’s Dick Fosbury and his revolutionary technique took Mexico by storm. Previously, athletes would use the less efficient method known as the straddle technique. However, during high school, Fosbury developed what would later be dubbed the ‘Fosbury Flop’. By the mid-Seventies, this would become the dominant technique in the sport.
Fosbury announced this method to the world in Mexico City, at the games that saw him take home a gold medal. The Portland born athlete narrowly defeated his fellow American Ed Caruthers by two centimetres, but Fosbury took the gold nonetheless. Despite his self invented advantageous technique, the US jumper never cracked Valeriy Brumel’s world record of the time.
American athlete Al Oerter confirmed himself as one of the greatest discus throwers of all time as he took gold in the event for the fourth consecutive summer games. Twelve years after bagging first place in Melbourne, Oerter threw an Olympic record distance of 64.78m for gold in Mexico City.
Hungary took a surprise victory in the football tournament, bagging gold after a 4-1 win in the final despite only reaching the quarter finals of the World Cup two years previously. Their opponents in the final Bulgaria only progressed from the last eight by defeating Israel by drawing lots.
The United States’ golden era of boxing continued as another legend of the sport George Foreman took his Olympic title. The future world champion defeated Russia’s Ionas Chepulis by a second round technical knockout to follow in the footsteps of Ali and Frazier.
The triple jump saw one of the most entertaining events in Olympic history as the previous world record was bettered five times by three different athletes. In the end, Soviet jumper Viktor Saneev took his first of three consecutive golds in this discipline.
YJA Senior Sports Correspondent