Every Olympic Games is notable is one way or another, but the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games was a pivotal point in athletics history.
After getting underway on 13 October, during the eight days of athletics in the Mexican capital records tumbled with an astonishing frequency but the Games – and in no sport more so than athletics – also caught the zeitgeist of the era with technical innovations and social changes, many of which have had a lasting impact 50 years later.
The tone was set at the opening ceremony for the Games, which had taken place a day earlier in the 83,700-capacity Estadio Olympico Universitario that was subsequently to play host to the athletics, when the Mexican hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to light the flame in the Olympic cauldron.
It was an occasion that was seen while it happened in many parts of the world and, thanks to developments in satellite technology, much of the Olympics was also transmitted live.
For the first time, athletics at an Olympic Games was also available to an international audience in colour, even though only a fraction of the global population had TV sets capable of receiving such images.
Nevertheless, the pictures transmitted from the athletics events in Mexico City truly captured the world’s imagination in a way that had not been done before.
World records tumble
The fact that an Olympic athletics competition was staged on synthetic all-weather track was also a first and combined with Mexico City’s very helpful altitude – although few people when Mexico City was awarded the Games in 1963 had a true perspective on how big an impact the issue of altitude would have – led to a plethora of outstanding performances, many of which have stood the test of time and still feature highly our sport’s all-time lists.
Bob Beamon’s stunning leap of 8.90m smashed the existing world long jump record by 55cm – nearly two feet in imperial measurement which helped convey the magnitude of his feat to the watching American audience – and it remained as the world record until Mike Powell flew out to 8.95m in 1991.
Beamon’s jump remains the second-best legal performance ever and his feat introduced the phrase ‘Beamon-esque’ into common parlance, not just in athletics circles.
In the men’s events no less than nine world records were set – including in all the track events from 100m-800m, both relays and both horizontal jumps – and Olympic records were set in the rest apart from the endurance events from 3000m upwards.
The US sprinters thrived in the conditions.
Jim Hines became the first man to officially run under 10 seconds for the 100m under legal conditions with electric timing when he won in 9.95, results being published with electronic times for the first time.
Similar barriers were broken when his compatriots Tommie Smith won the 200m in 19.83 – with his medal ceremony being remembered for the Black Power protests – and Lee Evans took the 400m title in 43.86, the pair going under 20 and 44 seconds respectively for the first time with similar criteria to Hines.
In one of the great duels of the track events, which is often overlooked in the avalanche of superlatives generated in Mexico City, Evans just prevailed over him teammate Larry James, who finished second in 43.97.
“Three steps from the finish, Larry dropped his head, I knew I had him then,” Evans later recalled. “Larry ran 395 metres, I ran 401 metres.”
To this day, 50 years later, Evans and James are 12th and 18th on the world all-time list over one lap of the track.
Dick Fosbury revolutionised the high jump with his new technique that earned him a gold medal on the last day of the athletics.
Although having foam strips as a landing material had existed for a number of years, his famous ‘flop’ technique would have been impossible to practice even four years earlier until advances in the composition of landing pits. (A separate story on Dick Fosbury will be published on Saturday 20 October.)
In the triple jump, with USSR’s Viktor Saneyev getting the first of his three Olympic titles with 17.39m, the world record was broken five times by three different jumpers.
Oerter gets fourth gold
The hero of the throws, notwithstanding other magnificent performances, was another American, discus thrower Al Oerter.
Oerter already had three gold medals to his name from Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo but was far from the favourite as Jay Silvester had improved the world record twice earlier in the season, including to 68.40m less than a month before Mexico City, and had also won the US Olympic Trials.
However, Oerter uncorked a throw of 64.78m in the third round, almost two metres better than his previous best to become the first athlete to win gold at four successive Olympic Games.
The women’s events didn’t witness quite such a wholesale revision of the record books, but still five world records and three Olympic records were set.
In the women’s sprints, USA’s Wyomia Tyus won the 100m in 11.08 and Poland’s Irina Szewinska sped to victory over 200m in 22.58, both world records while Romania’s Viorica Viscopoleanu provided a prelude of what was to come in the men’s long jump the following day when she jumped a world record 6.82m in the first round.
Mexico City also saw the start of the Kenyan gold rush at a global level with three victories, including Kip Keino’s audacious gun-to-tape 1500m triumph in an Olympic record of 3:34.9 which defied the conventional logic considering the 2240m altitude. It was to be 1984 before his Olympic record was improved.
At the time the headlines were dominated by the effect Mexico City’s altitude had on the endurance events and the demise of well-known and favoured runners like Australia’s world record holder Ron Clarke in such unfamiliar conditions.
Relatively little credit was given internationally at the time to the feats of Keino and his fellow Kenyan gold medallists Naftali Temu and Amos Biwott – although they were appropriately feted at home – but retrospectively they can be seen as the defining moment when Kenya became an athletics global superpower and their success acted as a catalyst for Africa’s domination of endurance events today.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF