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article image1968 Olympics, symbol of turbulent times, turn 50

By Yussel GONZALEZ (AFP)     Oct 12, 2018 in Sports

Former Olympic athletes lit a commemorative cauldron Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Games in Mexico City, a symbol of a worldwide year of turbulent times.

In a year of revolt and upheaval, the Mexico City Olympics brought the worlds of sport and politics crashing together -- and broadcast the collision live around the globe on color 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," Bob Beamon's "Leap of the Century," Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their iconic Black Power salute -- and so many more.

Delegations parade during the opening ceremony of the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games  which brought the w...
Delegations parade during the opening ceremony of the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games, which brought the worlds of sport and politics crashing together
-, EPU/AFP/File

Fosbury and Beamon returned to the Olympic stadium Friday to take part in a procession where veterans of the 1968 Games marched in formation to form the Olympic rings.

Mexican sprinter Enriqueta Basilio, who became the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron at those Games, then symbolically re-lit the flame to a burst of applause.

Luis Armida, who organized the opening ceremony, recalled that moment five decades ago.

"This tall, slim girl appeared. She wasn't running, she was flying. Every step looked like a gazelle's," he told AFP.

Now aged 70, Basilio -- like all the athletes -- was a bit less gazelle-like, but gamely waited atop the steps leading to the cauldron as a succession of torch-bearers passed the flame up to her.

- Fraught memories -

US athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute ...
US athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute against racism during their national anthem, after receiving their first and third place medals in the men's 200m event at the 1968 Mexico Olympics
STR, EPU/AFP

The anniversary has brought fraught memories for Mexico, where the winds of change were also blowing in 1968.

At the time, capitalizing on the international attention brought by Latin America's first Games, Mexican students took to the streets to call for democratic change after four decades of one-party rule.

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 neighborhood of Mexico City.

Independent reports say anywhere from 300 to 500 people were killed.

- Powerful platform -

Hushed up by the Mexican government, the massacre is little-remembered abroad.

But it was certainly noticed by the generation of young, politicized athletes making their way to Mexico City, including talented African American sprinters Smith and Carlos.

Mexican former Olympic track and field athlete  Enriqueta Basilio  symbolically lights the Olympic c...
Mexican former Olympic track and field athlete, Enriqueta Basilio, symbolically lights the Olympic cauldron during the 50th anniversary ceremony of Mexico's 1968 Summer Olympics, where she became the first woman to light the flame
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

They have both cited the crackdown as one of the influences for their defiant protest atop the podium on October 16, 1968, after Smith won gold in the men's 200m -- becoming the first person to run the race in under 20 seconds -- as Carlos 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 worldwide.

"I came to Mexico City to make a statement. Not to win medals," Carlos said on a recent visit to Mexico City.

- Records shattered -

Their former teammate Wyomia Tyus, who won gold in the women's 100m and 4x100m -- publicly dedicating the latter to Smith and Carlos -- said the Olympic Village was electrified by the politically charged climate of the time.

"There was so much unrest going on in the world that we all had to pay attention to it," she said recently.

Other protests included that by Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska, who won silver in the floor exercise and defiantly bowed her head as the Soviet anthem played for gold medalist Larisa Petrik -- recalling how Moscow's tanks had crushed her country's nascent opening.

But the Games were also stunning as pure sport.

A commemorative city Metro ticket seen during a ceremony for the 1968 Olympic Games' 50th anniv...
A commemorative city Metro ticket seen during a ceremony for the 1968 Olympic Games' 50th anniversary, in Mexico City
PEDRO PARDO, AFP

Mexico City's high altitude -- 2,300 meters (7,545 feet) -- led to scores of broken records in the thin air: 30 world records and 76 Olympic records.

The most impressive may be American Beamon's 8.9-meter long jump -- still an Olympic record.

Or perhaps it was his compatriot Fosbury's 2.24-meter high jump, using the "backward" technique that was mocked at the time -- but revolutionized the sport.

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