1968 Olympics, symbol of turbulent times, turn 50


It was 1968, revolt and upheaval were sweeping the world, and the Olympic Games could hardly avoid being swept up, too.
Friday marks 50 years since the 1968 Olympics opened in Mexico City, bringing the worlds of sport and politics crashing together — and broadcasting the collision live around the world on colour 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 famous “Fosbury Flop,” Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their iconic Black Power salute — and so many more.
As the Games approached, the winds of change were blowing in Mexico, too.
Capitalising on the international attention, student protesters took to the streets to call for democratic change after four decades of one-party rule.
“We don’t want the Olympics, we want a revolution!” was one of the slogans they chanted.
The turmoil alarmed President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as they readied Latin America’s first Olympics.
On the night of October 2, 10 days before the opening ceremony, army troops opened fire on 8,000 peaceful demonstrators in the Plaza of Three Cultures, in the Tlatelolco neighbourhood of Mexico City.
Independent reports say anywhere from 300 to 500 people were killed.
Powerful platform
Hushed up by the Mexican government, which put the death toll at just 20, the massacre is little-remembered abroad.
But it was certainly noticed by the generation of young, politicised athletes making their way to Mexico City, including talented African American sprinters Smith and Carlos.
They have both cited the bloody crack-down as one of the influences for what they did next.
Four days into the Olympics, Smith won gold in the men’s 200m, becoming the first person to run the race in under 20 seconds, as Carlos, his compatriot, claimed bronze.
On the podium, the pair thrust their black-gloved fists into the air as the national anthem played, a defiant protest against racism in the United States and human rights violations everywhere.
“I came to Mexico City to make a statement. Not to win medals,” Carlos said on a recent visit to Mexico City.

But the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, saw to it the men paid a heavy price: they were suspended from the Olympic team and sent home.


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