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Mexico City 1968

FACTS

  • Participating nations: 112
  • Number of athletes: 5,530 (4,750 men - 780 women)
  • Time of year: October 12 - October 27
  • Number of events: 172

Mexico City got the Games in 1963 and it was a controversial decision in many ways. One of the problems was that the Games would take place on high altitudes (2,300 meters - 7,550 feet). But the IOC president Brundage constantly tried to downplay the difficulties the athletes would have in performing at the best of their ability in the thin air of Mexico City. According to the Olympic amateur rules it was forbidden to spend long periods of time at training camps to adjust before the Olympic Games. But this time, the head of the IOC had to fold and allow four weeks of acclimatization. The whole thing sounds a bit odd considering that during the ancient Olympic Games, the contestants were forced to spend a month in Olympia before the Games to train and show that they were qualified for the competitions. The Swedish Olympic Committee (SOC) sent a number of athletes to Mexico City in 1967 to participate in pre-Olympic competitions, even if they were not called that officially.

But there were constant reminders of the high altitudes. There were oxygen tubes, medical tents and people carrying gurneys around the areas of the competitions in order to quickly get to the athletes who had collapsed in the thin air.
 

Swedish "Tourists"?


The Swedish team in Mexico City was big. Too big according to some and the SOC was harshly criticized for sending to many “tourists", both athletes and team officials.

Demands for stricter qualifying rules were raised once again - and it wasn´t for the last time.
The SOC was also criticized for how things worked out during the stay in the Olympic host city. Many complained about the poor conditions - the exceptions were the successful athletes.

1968 was also a turbulent year internationally. Student uprisings and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia were what people were talking about at the international level. And when the African-Americans demonstrated so openly with their “Black Power" salutes, the conflicts became visible.

At the opening ceremony, the 100,000 people in the audience in Estadio Olimpico stood up in silent support for the occupied Czechoslovakia. The opening ceremony, by the way, was the most colorful in Olympic history, so far.
 

The Record-Breaking Jump


The one thing that remains in our memory from the Olympic Games in Mexico City is American long jumper Bob Beamon´s incredible jump of 8.90 meters. A result that wasn´t beaten until 23 years later, in 1991, when Mike Powell jumped five centimeters longer.

Beamon´s jump was the first in the competition and shocked, not only the audience, but all the TV and radio commentators. Everyone agreed that it was a long jump, but no one could imagine that it was close to nine meters. Not even the officials, who didn´t realize the historical significance of what they had just seen until they took out the old-fashioned tape-measure to check the result. The competition was over after one jump and it wasn´t easy being the next one to jump. After Beamon, it was Swedish Lars-Olov Höök´s turn to jump. With a jump that was more than two meters shorter (!), Höök finally ended up in 14th place.
Another American revolutionized high jumping with his brand new style. Dick Fosbury won the gold medal after jumping 2.24 meters and he changed high jumping forever. Then - in 1968 - people were saying that the “Fosbury flop" might make it possible to jump 2.40 meters in the future.

There have been many great Olympians through the years, and one of the biggest now took his fourth straight Olympic gold medal - American discus thrower Al Oerter.

The African runners, who already in Tokyo in 1964 had shown that thy were on the move, now got their definitive breakthrough in the thin air.

One of the most sensational winners was Amos Biwott on the 3,000 m steeplechase. The 21-year-old Kenyan hadn´t run many steeplechase races before the Olympics, only three or four of them, and his technique and tactics were not the best. He was at least the only runner who made it across the finish line with completely dry feet in both the qualifying heat and the final!

In the final he was only in ninth place at the beginning of the final lap, but managed to beat all the top names after a phenomenal 200-meter spurt.

In the marathon, Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia was on the starting line to defend his two straight gold medals. But he didn´t succeed and had to quit after 17 kilometers. This could be explained by an injury that had ruined his season as well as by the fact that he had a cold at the time. Now his countryman Mamo Wolde made sure that the marathon gold stayed in Ethiopia. Wolde, who had also taken the silver medal on the 10,000 meters, won by over three minutes after having run solo for the last twelve kilometers. When he reached the finish line he seemed totally unaffected by the long distance he had just covered.
 

No tactics


The 1,500 meters were, as usual, one of the highlights of the Games, and Mexico City was no exception.

The events of the final were totally unexpected. No one tried to run tactically, instead they ran at top speed from the beginning to the surprise of both the audience and the experts.
Kipchoge Keino from Kenya had a couple of chances to win the gold medal during the Games. On the 10,000 m he had to quit the race because of stomach pain, on the 5,000 m he was beaten during the spurt and had to settle for silver. Now he had one last chance to take the gold medal in what looked like the toughest final.

Keino took over the race after 800 meters from his countryman Ben Jipcho who had started off at a very high speed. Keino could run across the finish line alone on the time 3:34.9, almost three seconds before the silver-medallist, despite being haunted by stomach pains on the last lap.

Anders Gärderud made his Olympic debut on the 800 and 1,500 meters. He was ranked as sixth in the world on the 1,500 meters but didn´t make it past the qualifying heat after a run which failed tactically. He finished on the time 3:54.2

The final on 200 meters has become historic - for two reasons. First of all because it was the then best final on the distance in terms of the quality of the line-up, and also because of the gold and silver-medallists´, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, demonstration on the winners´ stand when they put their gloved fists in the air.

The demonstration caught the IOC by surprise and after a couple of days of contemplation they were kicked off the American team. The American officials got indications that if they didn´t do anything there was a risk that the whole team would be excluded from the Games.
 

Debut for the GDR


1968 was also the year that the GDR, East Germany, became its own nation in the Olympic family. East Germany immediately took third place in the ranking right behind the giants, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Sweden´s performance in Mexico was nothing to brag about. Two gold, one silver and one bronze medal was all the Swedes managed to take home and that result was only enough for a modest 18th place in the nation ranking-list.

The Swedes were heavily criticized, which isn´t hard to understand when one of the athletes chose to go shopping instead of showing up for the start!

There were many attempts to make excuses for the unsatisfactory Swedish performance, but the lists of final results were painfully clear: overall, the Swedish participation had been a huge fiasco. But there were exceptions, in cycling, yachting and modern pentathlon. The sports in which the Swedish team won its medals.

In the cycling, the Pettersson family took the silver in the team pursuit. But they weren´t going for the silver. The brothers were after the gold and you don´t often get to see sadder medallists.

W eere aiming for the gold and nothing else, they said having a hard time hiding their disappointment.

In the road race, Gösta, the oldest of the three brothers took the bronze.
It is interesting that when the media asked the brothers what they thought about their living arrangements, they said:

 We´ve never lived better!

Others in the Olympic team had many times tried to blame their failures on the living conditions. It looks like there are always two sides to every story.

The cycling brothers didn´t get their Olympic gold medals. Gold medals which people both in and outside the sport felt that they deserved. At the World Championships, right after the Olympics, they won the gold and got to show everyone that they were the best team there. It was at least a small comfort.
 

Gold For Yachting Brothers


One Olympic gold medal went instead to another set of brothers. The yachtsmen Jörgen, Ulf and Peter Sundelin mastered the difficult waters outside the luxurious resort of Acapulco.
In their new 5.5, they won a superior victory. They were number one in five of the seven stages!

This was the last time this type of boat was on the Olympic program.

The Swedish yachtsmen were responsible for an overall satisfactory performance, taking second place in the yachting´s separate nation ranking.

The other Swedish gold came in the “Swedish event" of modern pentathlon. The Swedish gold traditions were carried on by Björn Ferm. The last gold medal before 1968 came in 1956, the winner that time was Lasse Hall. Now it was time for Sweden again in a sport which had resulted in a total of eight Swedish gold medals.

The competition didn´t lack in drama. The favorite, the Hungarian Balczo, was normally able to beat Björn Ferm by about 40 seconds in the final cross-country race. But in the heat of Mexico City, Balczo was unable to follow through on his strong opening and almost collapsed toward the end, thus beating the Swede by only 18 seconds. This meant that Ferm had won by only three seconds overall.

In the team competition, Sweden took third place, which was a result that was valid for a long time after the Games. But the Swedes had to give their bronze medals back when it became known that Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall had taken two beers before the shooting. It was common at that time for the modern pentathletes to take a beer or two to still the nerves before the shooting. All the things that went on regarding the testing caused the Swedes to fight for a long time to keep the bronze in Sweden.

So, what happened in the favorite Swedish events, wrestling, canoeing and swimming? Well, the wrestling resulted in two fourth places. In the canoeing there was one fourth place and in the swimming one fifth place.

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