Citius, Altius, Fortius.  Part 1: Mexico City 1968

31st July 2020

Today should have been the first day of the athletics events at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. We must now be patient in waiting for that particular extravaganza, of course: the current plans – coronavirus permitting – have put things on hold for 12 months.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I described my visits to the Olympic Stadiums in Munich (in 1975), Moscow (1980) and Barcelona (2005). (I should have added Melbourne – in 1987 – to that list). I followed this up in Still An Ordinary Spectator by noting trips to the stadiums in Berlin (in 2014) and London (2016). None of these visits were for the Games themselves: Munich, Barcelona and Berlin were to watch football matches and London for a rugby league international. In the case of Moscow, I simply walked in off the street – this was a month after the city had completed hosting the Games – and sat alone (and untroubled) in a seat in one of the open stands. I enjoyed the same casual access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground seven years later.

I have only ever been to two Olympic events, both of them soccer matches in 2012 when Hampden Park in Glasgow hosted some of the group matches of the football tournaments and my sports spectating itinerary took in Belarus versus Egypt (men) and France versus Sweden (women). Both were enjoyable occasions, as I recall.

In a recent blog – “The Rest of the World”, 17th June 2020 – I mentioned how thrilled I had been, as a 15 year-old, to watch some of the world’s best cricketers take part in the 1970 “test” match series between England and the Rest of the World, either on television or (for one of the matches) in the flesh at Headingley. It is perhaps not surprising that it is from the impressionable teenage years that there remain many of the strongest memories of sports spectating. In this essay and the one that follows, therefore, I shall reflect on the two Summer Olympic Games that took place during this period of my life: Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972. (A third blog will recall my visit to Moscow in 1980).

It is perhaps relevant to note that it is from these times that the modern politicisation of the Olympic Games really took hold. This was not a new phenomenon, of course – the Berlin Games of 1936 were testimony to that – but it is probably the case that the Tokyo Games of 1964 were the last to enjoy the post-war innocence that had been a characteristic of the Olympiads from 1948 onwards.

The 1968 Summer Olympics were prefaced – a few weeks earlier – by the Mexican military authorities’ massacre of students and other protesters against the Games in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Cultura; Wikipedia refers to the death toll as “an indeterminant number, in the hundreds”. Fifty-plus years on, the most powerful image of the Games themselves is probably that of the Black Power salutes at a medal ceremony by the American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (As far as I am aware, it has gone largely unremarked that it was the salute given by Smith and Carlos – the single raised fist in a tight-fitting black glove – that was exactly replicated by the West Indies cricket team prior to this month’s test matches against England at Southampton and Old Trafford. See “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020).

I shall focus here on my recollections of a few of the sporting achievements from the athletics arena in 1968. At least, I think they are my recollections from seeing the events at the time – on television, of course , and in black and white – rather than in any subsequent repeat showings. For the purposes of this blog, however, I must confess to having supplemented the memory bank by also checking out the wealth of material now available on YouTube.

* Men’s 400 metres hurdles final

Great Britain’s only gold medal on the athletics track in Mexico City was won by David Hemery. The YouTube excerpt captures my memory of his brilliant performance – a stunning combination of grace, power and technique – which yielded a new world record. Unfortunately, it also includes the crass television commentary by David Coleman as Hemery sprinted down the final straight: “It’s Hemery, Great Britain. It’s Hemery. Great Britain [with
a gasp in the voice]… David Hemery wins for Great Britain. In second place is Hennige [Gerhard Hennige of West Germany]. And who cares who’s third? It doesn’t matter”.

Well, we cared actually, David, because it did matter. In third place – and therefore a bronze medal winner in the Olympic Games – was the Yorkshireman, John Sherwood, running for Great Britain.

* Women’s 400 metres final

Lillian Board was the Golden Girl of British athletics in the late 1960s: talented, attractive and successful. She was the favourite to win the single-lap race in Mexico City, even though she was unfavourably placed on the inside lane in the final.

Jarvis Scott of the USA went into a commanding lead down the back straight – “She’s really going for the gold”, proclaimed Coleman helpfully – but, as the runners came off the final bend, it was Board who had edged to the front and had looked to have paced her race to perfection. It was in the last 30 metres or so that she faded and was beaten into second place. “And Lillian Board is struggling. Lillian Board is struggling. And she’s lost it, shouted Coleman into his microphone as she crossed the line. The winner was a French athlete – Colette Besson – whose name has stuck in the back of my mind ever since.

My recollection is that there was a general sense of anti-climax in the media reporting of Lillian Board’s race – almost one of failure – as if following Coleman’s lead. I thought at the time how unjust this was. Like John Sherwood, she was an Olympic medallist: how could that simply be dismissed?

Lillian Board was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in September 1970. She died three months later at the age of 22.

* Men’s long jump final

The men’s long jump in Mexico City was a keenly anticipated event. The field included the gold medal winner at the previous Games in Tokyo (Lynn Davies of Great Britain) and the joint world record holders (Ralph Boston of the USA and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the Soviet Union, who had set the mark at 27 ft 4¾ins).

The event was effectively over after another American, Bob Beamon, had taken his first jump. Beamon simply bypassed the 28 feet range in setting the new world’s best, which was eventually recorded at 29 ft 2½ ins. It took the officials some time to confirm the distance, as they had to do this manually with a tape measure, the optical device that had been installed for the event apparently having not been designed to measure a jump of such length.

The footage of Beamon’s leap remains astonishing viewing: the driving rhythm of his arms and shoulders on the runway, the stretching of the neck to keep his head upright and his eyes looking forward, the acceleration of his sprint to reach its maximum speed as his foot hit the departure board, the synchronised sweep of the arms in mid-air, the two kangaroo jumps forward after his initial landing, the final bounce upwards into a standing position prior to exiting the sand pit…

The Olympic record for the men’s long jump still dates from 1968 (though the world record was eclipsed in 1991 by another American, Mike Powell). At the time – and subsequently – much was made of the favourable effect that Mexico City’s high altitude might have on explosive events such as the short sprints and the long jump. I ignore all that. Instead, I prefer to picture Bob Beamon sprinting from left to right across the television screen and jumping into history.

* Men’s high jump final.

I was fairly hopeless at the high jump at school. In our PE classes – a couple of times a year, if the weather were conducive – we might venture across the rugby field to the high jump pit, where we would attempt our versions of the “straddle” technique. This involved a diagonal approach to the barrier – an iron bar – before taking off from the inside leg, thrusting up with the arms to rotate the torso and clear the bar horizontally, and landing on the side of the body. At least, I think this was how it was supposed to be done. For me, it was an engagement invariably marked by painfully clattering into the bar and landing in a solid bed of damp sand.

Dick Fosbury of the USA introduced the world to the “Fosbury Flop” at the Mexico Games. He had been developing the technique for some time, but this was its theatrical premier in front of a global audience.

Fosbury also had a diagonal approach but at the end of it, instead of facing the bar and propelling himself upwards with his arms and legs, he turned the other way and arched his back as he pushed off from the ground and, like a worm climbing over a pencil, contorted his body so that all its parts cleared the hurdle, the last of which – with a final kick – were his legs. Has there ever been a more radical – indeed, revolutionary – change in an athletics technique?

And yet? Check out the YouTube footage of the action from the 1896 Olympic games in Athens. There are a few seconds of film of the high jump which, at that time, did not permit any run-up to the bar at all, but rather simply comprised a leap upwards from a standing position. One of the competitors is clearly seen to half-turn his body and clear the hurdle backwards.

Wikipedia reports that, by the time of the next Olympiad in Munich in 1972, 28 of the 40 competitors in the high jump were employing Dick Fosbury’s new technique, although the winner at those Games – the Estonian Jüri Tarmak, representing the Soviet Union – was an old-fashioned straddler. He was the last of his kind to win Olympic gold.

It did occur to me, when seeing Dick Fosbury attempt the high jump in 1968, that a necessary condition for the Flop was to have the sort of soft-landing area that was the standard at major athletics events by that time. Or, to put at another way, the technique could not have been attempted at the school’s high jump pit. One’s first attempt would have been the last, complete with broken neck or fractured skull.

In “Citius, Altius, Fortius: Part 2” – to follow – my recollections of the athletics events in the Munich Games of 1972.

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