Oxygen is odorless, tasteless, colorless, essential to breathers and scarce at high altitudes. Mexico City, which is a mile and a half above the sea, takes your breath away. A long-distance runner with an inconspicuous past, a bachelor named Alvaro Mejia, came to run in Mexico City last week. Unlike everybody else, he came down to run, down 1,200 feet from Bogotà, Colombia. Compared to running in Bogotà, running in Mexico City is like rolling in oxygen. When Alvaro Mejia ran there last week, he did not grunt like a pig or die on the grass when he was through.
The significance of this intelligence as it relates to the 1968 Olympic Games, which will be held in Mexico City despite the worried songs of worried men who think the Mexicans incapable of pulling it off, will be made clear after closer examination of Alvaro Mejia. Se√±or Mejia is 26 years old, sells aluminum wares, has curly brown hair, a worthwhile smile, a flourishing nose and a high regard for his freedom. ("In Colombia we have a saying, To marry is to die a little.' ") He would never have become a runner had his bicycle not broken down when he was 17, because runners in Colombia are far beneath cyclists and soccer players on the locker room social ladder. When he did become one he did not become much of one, as prominent runners go. It cost him $1,000 out of his own pocket in 1964 to go to Japan and finish dead last in a qualifying heat for the Olympic 5,000 meters.
Last week Mejia was in Mexico City, still footing most of his bill, to compete in what has mistakenly been called the Little Olympics. The games that were held there for nine days were misnamed, because there was nothing that was really Olympic about them, either in design (the Mexicans put them on as a courtesy to countries interested in taking another investigational crack at the altitude) or in execution (they were grossly mishandled).
First, Mejia ran 5,000 meters in 14 minutes 20 seconds, almost a minute slower than Kipchoge Keino's world record. But he finished first, a gasp ahead of Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, an Olympic silver medal winner. Gammoudi, who had been training in the Alps, spread out on the grass at the finish and moaned, "Tr√®s mal." George Young, an American Olympian who had come to the competition on short notice and practically no high-altitude training, finished a painful 15th. "It felt like my chest was going to split right down the middle," said Young.
October 31, 1966
Two days later, Mejia ran 10,000 meters in 30 minutes, 10.8 seconds, no threat to Ron Clarke's world record. But again he finished first, much stronger this time, sprinting actually well ahead of the Belgian Olympic star, Gaston Roelants. Gammoudi, third, was a non-factor. The same day, the veteran American miler, Jim Grelle, who is usually in shape, dropped out of the 1,500-meter finals on the third lap, unable to coordinate his breathing. Asked if it were the altitude, Grelle snapped, "How would I know? I'm no doctor." But he knew, all right.
If the only thing to be learned from Mejia's startling success in Mexico City is a simple equation (i.e., to win at 7,000 feet, train at 8,000 feet), then a lot of people are wasting their time slogging around places like Albuquerque, N. Mex. (4,943 feet). But more to the point is the fact that the problems of rarefied air are very real. Training cannot be taken lightly or begun late, and never mind those flip remarks of people who would minimize the situation, remarks like, "It is more a problem of attitude than altitude," and this one, by the International Olympic Committee president himself, Avery Brundage, "Well, I have just seen these fellows run 5,000 meters, and none of them dropped over dead."
Some countries are taking it quite seriously indeed. There were about 70 doctors with the 27 teams at Mexico City for the games last week, 21 of whom were Russian (the Russians said they only had 13, but they must have lost count). French swimmers showed up in advance to get acclimated, and made an excellent showing. German bicyclists were tested daily at a hospital. The Dutch had $250,000 in equipment to check respiratory systems, blood chemistry, administer electrocardiograms, check windshield wipers, change oil and rotate tires.
The U.S. team of 23 men and women, patched together and sponsored by the State Department as a goodwill gesture when it became evident the U.S. Olympic Committee was going to skip the competition, did not include any doctors. One dentist came along to watch his daughter swim. U.S. officials explained this away by saying that testing had been done in the same Little Olympics last year and was going on right now at high-altitude places like Albuquerque and the Air Force Academy in Colorado. But for the U.S. it still smelled of missed opportunity.
The Americans were not out in full force, obviously; they were not there to overpower anybody. Sometimes they were there just barely—Al Oerter arrived on Tuesday night, won the discus throw on Wednesday afternoon and took a plane back to the U.S. Wednesday evening. Nevertheless, they won more gold medals than anybody else, principally in events that were least affected by the thin air. On some there was an altitude effect in reverse; winning Broadjumper Ralph Boston said he felt "higher"; winning Pole Vaulter Bob Seagren said he felt "lighter." Harry Hainsworth, who headed the U.S. delegation, concluded that the rush for oxygen became acute in any event that lasted more than 90 seconds. Some of his swimmers complained of headaches and nausea.
Grelle and Young represented America's distance runners, bleakly. "Why am I here? To see Mexico City," said Grelle. "I have certainly not had time to prepare to run at this altitude against guys like Roelants who can train where and when they choose." Both Young and Grelle are family men; neither will compete in 1968 if they feel the advantage is strong toward others whose training programs are "more liberal."
"Nothing could prevent me from going to live on Mount Hood and train there," says Grelle, "except money. I've got to earn a living. And I am not interested in making the Olympic team just to get a sweat suit."
Grelle and Young believe that the American effort may already be lagging and, in Young's words, if provisions are not made pretty quick "there will be some more of those black Wednesdays and black Fridays and black Tuesdays that the press complained about in Rome in 1960." Grelle thinks that some of the younger, better American distance runners who are now in college—Ryun, Lindgren, Nelson, Riley, etc.—ought to be sent to the mountains in the summer to prepare.
The Russians, who were under such close scrutiny at Mexico City last week, had trained in three groups: one stayed in Moscow, one spent half the time in the Caucasians, the third was in the mountains full-time. The Japanese sent only distance runners.
The Little Olympics, if they must be called that, suffered from an interminable series of blunders and a heavy-fisted press that began with an AP report: "All is chaos," and ended with a front-page cartoon in a Mexican newspaper that depicted "Disorganization" on the platform winning the gold medal. Bearing in mind the history of such trial-run events (they never go smoothly), the criticism was not fair. But if it serves to remind the Mexicans of the logistical truth that you should be able to handle 800 athletes now if you expect to handle 8,000 later, then it will be a lesson well learned. There is still another year to smooth and tidy. A full Olympic dress rehearsal is scheduled for 1967.
There were the little things that could mean a lot if they happened at the Olympics proper. Lights fail during gymnastics competition. Opening flag ceremony ditched, because East Germans do not want to be called East Germans. East Germans go home in huff. Boxers and gymnasts compete in same arena at same time. Mexican Navy refuses to release boating results. Wrong Czech cyclist announced as winner. Program schedules suddenly changed. Mexican boxer awarded half a gold medal even though he is unable to fight in final bout because of an earlier injury. TV cameraman given spot to shoot his pictures behind chainlink fence. Americans, uninformed, have no representation in track and field parade.
Sometimes even the translations needed explanation: salto de garrocha (for pole vault) means literally "goad-stick jump." The director of the Italian cycling team said kindly of the officials: "They do well as long as they don't have to move around too much." He said this right after the official automobile escort for the cyclists got together for a three-car pileup.
There was a time, too, as there always is two years before an Olympiad, for long-range criticism and foul weather forecasting. The head of the Japanese sports promotion committee wanted to know why work had not begun on the Olympic Village (which must house 10,000) and why the Mexicans had not bothered to consult with the Japanese. Did the Mexicans realize the magnitude of the games, the scope of the games? One European said flat out that he feared "These people cannot do it." Where was the money coming from? Would it be enough? And where are they going to put all those people who are sure to pour south across the Rio Grande in October of 1968?
Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand quit his $14,000-a-year job as coach of the Mexican distance runners, claiming politics ("I failed as a politician"), predicting disaster and wondering out loud why the Mexicans did not make better use of Bill Easton, the American coach who is also there helping as a paid adviser (there are five U.S. coaches working with the Mexican national teams and 14 coaches from Communist bloc countries, although none from Russia itself). "Easton just sits in the stands, watching the chaos in front of him," says Lydiard over his shoulder.
If there is cause for alarm, it is far too early to be sure. These are old refrains, heard two years before almost any Olympiad. Sometimes IOC President Brundage steps in and tells the dawdling parties to shape up or watch out, as he told the Australians in 1953. Told them, in fact, that the 1956 Olympics would be transferred if they did not get moving. He said in Mexico City last week that he has seen the Mexican timetable for construction and that he had no doubt they would keep the schedule. "They see no reason to put up structures in advance and let them lie idle. I am inclined to agree."
A visit with Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, who heads up the Olympic organizing committee and is himself an architect who was one of the designers of Mexico City's magnificent anthropological museum, is sure to calm the waters and quiet jittery nerves. Vàzquez' answers are straight, his demeanor unruffled; he says the Mexicans are "absolutely not behind" and the only money problem is the problem of being able to spend it all—300 million pesos—intelligently. He says that by Dec. 31 ground will be broken and progress underway on the remaining venues: the 22,000-seat sports palace for boxing and basketball, the 15,000-seat Olympic swimming pool, the 15,000 seat velodrome (for bicycle racing) and the Olympic Village, which will be able to handle 10,000 athletes.
Already the Mexicans have a vast edge on the Japanese in seating capacity, with the 80,000-seat University of Mexico Stadium being altered and improved and the breathtaking Aztec (soccer) stadium already built to hold 105,000.
As for not consulting the Japanese, says Vàzquez, it was not necessary, because they had already talked things over with the Italians. "'Rome's problems were similar to ours. Besides, they are Latin. They have the same temperament. They understand us better."
A traveling member of the U.S. State Department, Nick Rodis, is more vocal on the subject. "These petty gripes burn me up," says Rodis, getting burned up. "All this baloney about these guys being ma√±ana. These aren't plumbers down here, you know. I don't care what anybody says, the Mexicans are doing a damn good job."
In Mexico City, that beautiful place, high and mighty, whole families sit on curbs watching the traffic go by. The traffic leaps and spurts and dribbles and rips. There are 19,000 taxis in Mexico City, some flying the skull and cross-bones. Who blows first goes first. There are 8,000 buses. Last week the chief of traffic issued a warning that bus drivers would have to stop racing each other in the street.
There is a recklessness, too, about the architecture in Mexico City, and the way Mexicans handle colors, but that is a kind of deliberate recklessness that makes the beauty of the place. Important things take time in Mexico City. They are forever sweeping the streets there. A shoeshine is a work of art. Alex Cardini of Cardini's restaurant builds his Caesar salad—he is the son of its inventor, Caesar Cardini—with deft, deliberate strokes.
"People in New York," says the Mexican, "they are always roomh-roomh, going like mad and drinking martinis like mad. We are not like that. There is complaining that we are not getting ready for the Olympics soon enough. We are not like the Saxons and the Germans. The Germans are getting ready for 1976 already. We say tomorrow, tomorrow, then in 1968 we will work like mad and get everything done. We will scare hell out of you, but we will get everything done."