There they were, roughly 350 days before the 19th Olympic Games, and there was supposed to be a lot of dramatic flopping about on the ground and great gasping for breath from all those big athletes. Everybody warned that the Mexican nights would be full of the sound of bursting blood vessels and that, if the altitude did not kill, there were all those intestinal germs lurking inside every ice cube that could.
Well, don't worry about it, not any of it. Just ignore unkind rumor and remember that although Mexico City sits at 7,349 feet—up there in air the color of a warm daiquiri—it is Olympic-bound at a sort of happy runaway pace. Amateur sport has a tendency to take itself too seriously anyway and right now it needs Mexico City. The 1968 Games are going to be just the sort of wild break this tense world deserves.
All last week Mexico ran off the first part of a two-week dress rehearsal, mostly to see what should be polished and replastered for next fall. The Olympic committee put 1,200 athletes from 54 countries through their assorted paces in the wet-paint atmosphere at the various sites around town, and several thousand critics came out to watch, provided an event 1) had girls in it, and 2) did not interfere with lunch and siesta. There were certain fine spurts of confusion, and halfway through one track and field meet in huge University City Stadium the announcer solemnly informed everybody. "The shotput bar has been raised to five meters even," which says a lot about next year.
If it seems indispensable to be very serious about last week, here is the record: the athletes competed in 179 events in 13 locations in Mexico City. Almost nobody but weight lifters broke any world records, but one was tied in track and field. Russia's Igor Ter-Ovanesyan broadjumped 27' 4¾" into a pit of fluffy, chocolate-colored sand, which is as far as American champion Ralph Boston has ever jumped at sea level. And to show how the altitude affects such performances, Igor went to a cocktail party that same night, smoked a few cigarettes, drank a lot of Scotch and jumped about exactly the same distance all over again while doing a wild boogaloo with the hostess.
October 30, 1967
And there were other Olympic coming attractions to keep in mind. A pack of strong men ran 10,000 meters without having their eyeballs pop out of their heads. The race was won by a small, copper-colored man from Tunisia named Mohammed Gammoudi who is an old hand at Olympic Games. His time was 30:16.0, which is roughly three minutes above the world mark and just about right for Mexico. But then, four days later, he won the 5,000 meters so easily that he could have run it with a sack of mangoes under each arm.
Another frisky gentleman, Gaston Roelants of Belgium, did everything but help pour the cement for the new bleachers. Executives of Olympic sports had better resign themselves right now to the startling fact that men like Gammoudi and Roelants actually love that old high altitude. Roelants, who usually masquerades as a 3,000-meter steeplechaser, showed up in the 10,000-meter run for comic relief and finished a surprising third.
"I should have won it." he said, breathing easily. "But my coach told me to go too soon. "Go, go, go," he yelled at me. I did not train at altitude for any of this. I just wanted to try it. Tomorrow, then, I will win the steeplechase."
Caramba! Tomorrow—without any rest? "It is nossing," said Roelants. It was nossing. Roelants beat everybody laughing and then retired to the stands in a souvenir Mexican sombrero and scrape, looking as though he intended to audition to become a bullfighter in addition to everything else. On Sunday, he entered the marathon and—what else?—won in the remarkable time of 2:19.37. Not exhausted in the least, he finished the day with a sightseeing tour.
But what did all this running and jumping and throwing prove? It proved nicely that there will be a real, oldtime Mexican hot-sauce Olympics next year if everyone will just stop worrying and relax. Further, it proved that more world records than expected will be broken when the quality of competition tightens up. For example, Boston was not there to leap into the sand pile against Ter-Ovanesyan: John Carlos, the New York sprinter, did not have any Tommie Smiths to contend with in the 200 meters. The altitude and the new Tartan track will undoubtedly favor dashers, and when all the big boys get into town, faster times also can be expected in distance events.
Meanwhile, getting ready was at least half the fun. Every waiter in town speaks English better than anyone suspects, certainly good enough to know that "on de rochas" means pour it over some ice, and the artistic Latin touch is everywhere. The Del Prado Hotel downtown, for example, has an old Diego Rivera mural in the lobby that is easily worth more than all of the rooms upstairs, and where else in the world are there gorgeously tiled rest rooms where the attendant hovers solicitously while the customer washes his hands in a million-dollar setting—and then is handed a paper towel?
Mexico is spending 500 million pesos getting dressed for the big show, laying in superhighways to all the tracks, fields, stadiums and one big ditch where they row boats. The town is digging a subway and already setting up practice traffic snarls all along the route to the sites.
Everybody tells everybody else that the whole thing will be ready when the Olympic torch arrives from Greece next October 11 at Teotihuacàn, where there is going to be a lot of singing and dancing among the pyramids. Still, the pace of construction had not seemed to pick up any until last week when all those athletes began jogging around town in sweat suits. Suddenly there was this undercurrent of panic, which translated roughly into, "My God. The Olympics. Hurry up, you guys."
When track and field events began in the University City Stadium (soon to be called the Olympic Stadium) crews were called to work around the clock pouring those especially designed cement seats that are going to cause a worldwide wave of mysterious low back pains next year—and the pace of the whole town picked up a new swing.
In a way, the girls did it all. The one ringing truth about the Mexican pre-Olympic mood is that the sight of a lovely girl can cause a three-block traffic accident along the Paseo de la Reforma—and the sight of stunning girls in track minipants can pack more men into one stadium than anybody would believe possible.
This is not an exclusively Mexican attitude, but blondes do have more fun in Mexico City. And any man of any nationality who wouldn't go miles out of his way to see England's Mary Rand or America's Charlotte Cooke sailing along a track with everything moving at once—or the girl gymnasts in their spray-on leotards—would be so far out of his mind he would go and watch the weight lifters. There, the only spectators in the stands are members of the band and the police, and they're idly cleaning their rifles.
"It does make one a bit uncomfortable at first," said La Rand. "I mean, all those thousands of black eyes sort of boring into you from the stands. But one gets used to that sort of thing after a while and one just concentrates on the event."
Mary Rand may be the only girl athlete in the whole world who wears blue eyelashes—let's hear it out there for blue eyelashes, track fans—and one Mexican sportswriter, describing it all, almost choked. "She is a beautiful blonde," he wrote in El Sol de México, "whose eyes are as blue as the sky." The next sentence suffered a bit in translation: "She is a complete athlete and demonstrates it from the moment she takes off her pants. One can see her beautiful figure dressed in white. Many eyes follow her every move."
At the stadium the crowd fell to chanting, "We love you, Mary," and when she won the 80-meter hurdles, winging along on those long, tawny legs, it all got a little emotional.
Charlotte Cooke, who is blonde, 19 and a social worker in Washington, won the 400 meters managing to look just as sexy—which is not exactly the easiest trick in the world. "It is up to girl athletes," she said, "to look as feminine on the track as off."
Far off the track, over at the Auditorio Nacional, the girl gymnasts drove the boys right up the wall. This is a real tribute to spectating because the Auditorio Nacional is a huge, shadowy barn with steeply rising seats that vanish back up into a gray storm cloud at about 13,000 feet. Anyone who gets seats up there next year will need crampons and a rope. Huge plastic banners bearing Olympic pop-art insignia hang down from the ceiling like giant strips of flypaper, and everyone looks way down on three stages in front of the pipe organ. Never mind. The enthusiastic Mexicans packed the place.
There is a touch of vaudeville and a hint of burlesque in gymnastics—which makes it one sport everyone can understand. The men gymnasts are wonderful flying machines in delicate balance, and all the girls are leggy, tiny-waisted creatures who uniformly manage to look strong and helpless at the same time. At last week's events they marched from stage to stage to the accompaniment of a scratchy recording of what sounded a lot like a Yukon saloon piano, and then, facing the audience, unzipped and wriggled out of their sweat suits in unison. And at the conclusion of each series of exercises, they would bounce off the bar and throw up their arms in a sort of "look, Mom" pose.
Good form has it that the audience is supposed to remain absolutely silent while the gymnasts are at work—coughing or vulgar gum-chewing is supposed to rattle them—but Olympic officials had best be prepared for a rowdy session at the real show next year. It is hard to keep Mexicans from clapping rhythmically when they are watching girls in full swing, and they have got to be forgiven an occasional fervent olé.
Japan's squad won 13 out of 18 gymnastic medals, but Russia's Nataliya Kutchinskaya and East Germany's Twiggy sisters, Marianne Noack, 79 pounds, and Karin Janz, 92 pounds, stole the whole show. It is perfectly safe to predict that, against these two tiny Reds, the rest of the world gymnasts are going to be in a whole lot of trouble.
After Karin had won the gold medal in asymmetrical bars and had all Mexico at her feet, she confessed that the attention she was attracting made her slightly faint. Then, checking her name and pictures in all the papers, she said, "I am a lot today." One Mexican police officer was so smitten with her winsome looks that he pulled off his badge and gave it to her in exchange for an autograph and a smile. "Uhhh, don't show it around town," he said. Then the girls, who are 15 and 16, lived it up by eating five ice-cream cones each.
There was still another week to go. which would include boxing, swimming, volleyball and a lot of stuff involving horses. By Sunday night all Mexico City was in the spirit of the thing, and it was clear that the country—which does not usually dig the full schedule of Olympic sports—was looking forward to the Games.
Consider Mexico's President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. Early in last week's program he made an inspection trip to all the Olympic sites. He arrived in a big bus, surrounded by security men in those rumpled J.C. Penney suits and tinted green glasses. Standing in the Olympic stadium, now surrounded by wiggling javelins and an occasional discus or two, he assured the waiting world that "everything required will be ready at the latest by the end of next August."
All right, then. There is no cause to worry. Forget altitude and cares. The beautiful thing about it all is that the 1968 Games will be the wildest, most passionate, emotional ever. Who cares if the sites are ready or not or the cement is still wet? The excitement is building up in that thin, light green air.
President Diaz spotted the new mood right away. He turned to an aide in the crowd and gave a long, complicated-sounding order. Freely translated, it said: "Hey, be sure to get me some tickets to this thing."