There was an intense amount of athletic thrashing around in Mexico City last week in a program that could best be called the Cardiac Olympics. These games introduced such new events as freestyle blood-sampling and medicine-taking and are not to be confused with the real Olympics, which will be staged at the same location in 1968. This timing is a break for our side because the next three years are roughly the amount of time it is going to take for everyone to stop arguing about what happened last week.
One thing that did happen was that the U.S. and 16 other countries sent their first-string doctors and, for the most part, their second-string athletes to Mexico to determine—in a setting of splendid Latin concern—what becomes of people who pedal, run, jump, swim and throw things at the mile-and-a-half-high altitude of Mexico City. The worldwide worry over this situation began to develop about the time everyone was leaving the stadiums of Tokyo last year and has been growing steadily more grim. "There will be those who will die in Mexico," said one trainer not usually given to such enthusiasm, and other predictions went definitely downhill from that point.
There was so much international gasping for air that Mexico finally invited prospective participants to stop fretting and come on up and try the place. The Mexicans called the noble experiment the Little Olympics, but it was nothing of the sort. It was a week of pure science. Or almost pure. At its heady best, the Cuban boxers trained by lolling in the sun on the velvety green lawns along Avenida de los Insurgentes. "What altitude problem?" asked one of them, yawning widely. Swedes and Finns came down with dysentery. The French—who, after all, conquered Annapurna and ride bicycles over the Alps—studied the altitude with Gallic disdain, and Team Doctor Jacques Thiebault said, "We don't care if Mexico City is up or down." The Russians, who clearly liked Mexico better than wherever they had just been, indicated they will come back next year for still more tests. And in Chapultepec Park, where American Champions Billy Mills and Marie Mulder were running against a backdrop of statuary and taco carts, there was a doctor behind every tree with stethoscope and syringe.
Never mind who won what in the Little Olympics. Our doctors are coming home in triumph, carrying data that will dictate the course the nation will follow in preparing competitors for 1968. In the next several months you will see, read and hear a mass of scientific, semiscientific and pseudoscientific doubletalk. Boiled down it will say this: in 1968, when all the countries reassemble in Mexico City for the real thing, the U.S. will perform just about as well in some events and just about as poorly in others as it always has in the Olympics. The altitude will have an effect, but it won't make any significant difference.
October 24, 1965
If it did, then it follows that the native Mexicans and athletes from other lofty lands would win all the gold medals. But the Mexicans and the Peruvians and the Ethiopians are not—with the usual handful of exceptions—going to dominate the Games. The medals are going to go to the same old Russians and Americans and Germans and Japanese and Scandinavians and Italians and English who usually win them.
As far as performances are concerned, the magic number to remember is three. Any athletic effort requiring less than three minutes will have normal results. Anything requiring more than three minutes will have less impressive results than one might normally expect, and the longer the event the progressively less impressive the performance will be. In track and field, for example, times in the short races up to 800 meters will be as fast as ever; beyond that they will be progressively slower. Moreover, the participants in longer events will experience far more exhaustion than they would at a more congenial altitude—like sea level. Still, the world's superathletes who are expected to win will win as expected, or, as sometimes happens, they will be upset. In other words, form generally will hold. Some of the times won't be as good as they were in Tokyo, four years before, but as one Mexican coach said last week, shrugging and spreading his hands eloquently, "What is so terrible about this?"
Of course, the altitude problem should not be oversimplified. Dr. Daniel F. Hanley, head of the U.S. medical survey squad, gathered up his bottles of test blood and said, "This thing is full of tricky medical pitfalls. Certainly sustained maximum effort will affect our athletes, but it will vary with each one. We know that a respiratory thermostat in the body will readjust itself to the altitude in time. The problem is to find out how long this readjustment will take."
"We put these kids through all these crazy tests," said Dr. Hanley. "We worked them to exhaustion, pulled blood out of them like mad, and still they tugged at our sleeves and wanted to talk about what was happening to them."
What was happening was wild enough. Billy Mills's stomach hurt so much one night that he got Dr. Hanley out of bed and was given a dose of phenobarbital to calm it and him down. "I find it pretty hard breathing here," said Mills, who won the 10,000-meter run in Tokyo. "There is this awful sensation of breathing deeply and not being able to pull enough air into your lungs. When you run, you feel like you've never run before. I'm cruising along on the practice track and I get ready to give it the final kick and I turn on that last big burst—and that last big burst isn't there. I don't know where it went, but it isn't there."
In the Mexico City dawn, heavy-eyed and cold, Mills ran steadily and stiffly with Marie Mulder, whose forte is 800 meters instead of 10,000 but who skipped alongside Billy as though Mexico City was as low as Death Valley. "I guess altitude has its effect," Marie said, "but not on me. I had a little trouble breathing at first, but not now. My only trouble is that when I'm training there's this gang of Mexican boys who pace me, and when I stop they stop, and it gets a little worrisome."
"I think the altitude is getting to Marie," said Mills.
Though the Little Olympics passed relatively unnoticed in Mexico City, enough interest was generated to bring 9,000 spectators out to University Stadium last Saturday. Two things seemed to attract the crowd: the sight of pretty girls running around in shorts, a prospect that arouses the track fan hidden deep in the Latin temperament, and the chance to see Mills and Australia's Ron Clarke go at each other in the 5,000 meters. Clarke, wearing a faded green shirt emblazoned with a boomerang, was more concerned with testing his reaction to the altitude than with winning. "When I was training earlier this week," he said, "I didn't feel anything at first. Ahh, but the second time was absolutely shocking. As a matter of fact, I didn't even finish what I started out to do. All this is a matter of time, isn't it?"
"You begin to acclimate," explained Dr. Hanley, "by first burning off the excess bicarbonate in your system. Then you start building more blood cells and hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying factor in red blood cells."
Mills, like Clarke, had slight interest in the outcome of the race. "I shouldn't run unless I feel fit," he said, "but, after all, this is part of an experiment. So I guess the thing to do is stick to it."
It was more a display of gallantry than a race. Mahomed Gammoudi of Tunisia, in a final, tired burst, beat Clarke and finished first in 14:40.6, which was a huge minute and 15 seconds off Clarke's world record. Mills, gasping for air, fell farther and farther behind with each lap and finished fifth in 15:10.2.
"This guy is a real man," Dr. Hanley said as he waited to take Mills's pulse. "He's genuinely sick, yet he's running."
"There'll be other days," Mills said. "I hate to lose a race. Oh, how I hate to lose one. But this was for the doctors."
Doctors are fine, but when the athletes reassemble in Mexico City in 1968 there will be no substitute for the adrenalin that actual competition will pump into those blood streams. Mario Tovar, the Mexican swimming team's trainer, sitting in his little poolside office last week with his feet on the desk, summed it up. "Aww, I don't know," he mused. "If everybody was the same, then everybody would be—the same, you see? And then we wouldn't have to hold the Olympics, no?"