A Prelude to Black History Month: Mexico Olympics 1968

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By TSN.ca
Updated: January 26, 2006

CANADA—Mexico City was selected ahead of Detroit, Lyon, France and Buenos Aires to host the 1968 Olympic Games. The choice was a controversial one due to the high altitude of the location, some 2,300 metres above sea level. The lack of oxygen played havoc with many athletes, who arrived early to try and acclimatize themselves – especially in the endurance events

Only 10 days before the games began, government troops fired on a mass protest by striking teachers and students, killing hundreds. The IOC refuses to postpone the Olympics or even consider moving them out of Mexico due to the violence. It would not be the last political event to share the spotlight with the Games.

The rarified air aided in several world records being set. All of the men’s races that were 400 m or shorter as well as the long jump and triple jump saw new standards set. Bob Beamon’s spectacular long jump of 8.90 m would stand as a world record for 22 years.

The Mexico City Olympics were also the first Summer Games to include sex testing for women.

Elaine Tanner captured three medals for Canada in the pool – two silver in the 100 metre and 200 metre backstroke and a bronze as part of the 4X100 metre freestyle relay. Instead of it being a joyous time for Tanner, the results felt like failure after she had been billed as a gold medal certainty by the media and the public. The psychological toll on Tanner included two failed marriages and bouts of depression and anorexia.

Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska would go on to win four gold medals and two silver medals. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia two months before the Olympics, Caslavska went into hiding for three weeks. The 1968 Games also saw the first drug disqualification, as a Swedish entrant in the modern pentathlon – Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall – tested positive for excessive alcohol.

Athletes from the German Democratic Republic competed on their own team under the banner of “East Germany”. The last three Games saw both East and West German athletes compete as a unified team.

African American athletes also made a name for themselves by an act of racial protest. During the medal presentation ceremony, Tommie Smith and John Carlos – gold and bronze medal winners in the 200 m – raised a black-gloved fist and hung their heads when their country’s national anthem was played. In doing this, they were protesting against racial segregation in the United States and were subsequently expelled from the Olympic Village.