There are many things that make the XIX Olympiad the most intriguing of modern Olympic Games, and some of them are good. For openers, the Mexicans offer a stimulating approach to food and drink (gastroenteritis is a worthwhile risk for tourists) and a brassy architecture that seems to bring everything in Mexico City into particularly sharp focus. Olympic visitors—150,000 are expected to occupy in shifts the 67,000 available beds—will find Mexico City a wildly beautiful place with a traffic pattern that resists man's Euclidean designs. The closest thing to a square in downtown Mexico City is a trapezoid. This increases the excitement when the bus drivers race each other through the streets. Whole families sit on the curbs of Mexico City to watch the traffic.
It is not true that Mexicans are lazy, but they do have great patience in getting things done. Conservative Mexican thieves are known to risk capture by taking the time to remove the radio without stealing the car. But the Mexicans can also strike with inspirational fire when there is a chance to do something bold and fresh.
The Olympics have given the Mexicans this chance to let loose their inspiration. For the first time in the history of the Games, runners will run on a synthetic track (Tartan) that is impervious to rain, heat and after-race excuses, and platform divers will be able to conserve energy as they rise to the occasion on a hydraulic elevator. A pretty Mexican girl (Se√±orita Enriqueta Basilio) instead of a muscular boy will run the Olympic torch into the opening ceremonies on October 12. Mexico City barbers will feature at regular prices a sweeping Olympic style for men and a five-ringlet coif for women, dangling from each ringlet a ribbon to match the colors of the five rings of the Olympic insignia.
Most inspired of the new ideas is the return to the Greek practice of putting culture on the same program with sport. Ancient Athens had its Euripides and Pindar; Mexico City's Cultural Olympiad is featuring Duke Ellington, Maurice Chevalier, the Bolshoi Opera and Astronaut Gordon Cooper. The English poet Robert Graves is offering a special Olympic ode in Spanish. Salvador Dali has created a discus thrower, a mass of rippling oils that will be the most expensive athlete at the Games ($28,570, insured). An African ballet group is performing topless.
September 29, 1968
This will be Mexico's first Olympics and the first ever for Latin America, just as the 1964 Games in Tokyo were the first for the Orient. Though XIX is the official designation, there were no VI, XII or XIII Olympics, those giving way to world wars. Unfortunately for the Mexicans, old XIX staggers (see cover) into the starting blocks as though it had already been through a war, and it is a good bet that it will not reach the closing ceremonies on October 27 without further suffering. The Tokyo Olympics, devoid of inter-and intranational strife, handled with tact and calm by the Japanese, were known as the Happy Games. Everybody went home smiling. The Japanese were lucky. We may never see another Olympiad like it. The Mexicans will be host to 7,226 athletes from 119 countries, and their games are sure to be the biggest in history—roughly 7,000 athletes and 110 countries enlarged from Olympiad I. They could also be the worst, as they are already the most troubled, through no fault of the Mexicans.
To better understand the situation, it must be remembered that there never was an Olympiad that entirely lived up to Olympic ideals. Believers and apologists go into a quadrennial agony in search of the True Meaning of the Games, but as long as man has had a hand in them the Games have fallen short of Olympus. The original Olympics were dispensed with in 393 A.D. because they had, under Roman influence, attained a peak of paganism and crookedness (Nero fell out of a chariot race once and declared himself the winner; Olympic champions were set up for life, losers were left to be scorned like dogs). The modern Olympics were born in 1896, more a credit to the promotional pluck of a tiny little French baron named Pierre de Coubertin than to any kind of international bent for brotherhood through sport. De Coubertin spoke with a straight tongue: he said the "foundation of real human morality lies in human respect, and to respect one another it is necessary to know one another." With that humbling exhortation, the Games have progressed to the point (the surest thing you can say about them is that they endure) where knowing one another has made it possible to predict a regular slate of exercises in Olympic dubiety: just what is an amateur, anyway? How can you separate the Olympics from politics? How can you guard them against exploitation? National self-interest? International incidents? Sexless women? Moral turpitude? Professionalism? Bad feeling? Nicotine and tars?
Mexico's particular troubles begin with geography. Mexico City is 7,349 feet above the sea and places such demands on a man's lung capacity that at least one alarmist has predicted runners will die during the Games. That, happily, is an extremely remote likelihood, but the thin air seems certain to keep any of the superb sea-level runners from emulating the multigold-medal feats of past Olympics. Jim Ryun, for prime example, had his heart set on an 800-1,500 double, but at the exhausting high-altitude U.S. Trials at Lake Tahoe, Ryun could not make it in the 800 and had to prove himself all over again in the 1,500.
Troubles move from there to the stereotype of the Mexican peasant, slumped against the wall, sombrero down to shield his eyes from the work left undone. The Japanese, miffed that they had not been consulted on how to shape up Mexico City construction, predicted an Olympic doomsday. A European said flatly, "These people [the Mexicans] can't do it." Hardly anyone was willing to believe that the Mexicans were actually working around the clock, by sun and by floodlight, to beat the deadline.
Then there was the question of Mexico's smoldering young activists. They don't like President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz' government, and they are trying to bring it down. As activists they are no different from the young at Berkeley or Columbia. That is to say, some of them are true idealists, and some are what Daniel J. Boorstin has termed the New Barbarians. They are unable to see any long-range good—economic stimulation, national pride—coming from a $150 million Olympic expenditure. There has already been rioting and gunplay in the streets of Mexico City. The rioters are clearly anxious to do their thing in front of plenty of witnesses (the Games will be carried for 42 hours in all on American television and for an average of 11 hours a day on Mexican television). Estimates of what they will do range from demonstrating (waving placards), to genuine acts of sabotage, to the provocation of street warfare.
But subverting the Olympic theme has never been just a local project, it is an international undertaking. It can happen anywhere, even in Dallas. Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, says that the Olympics give to mankind more than they receive, and a Dallas girl named Joyce Ann Dobson (described as "short, seductive, well-built") took him at his word. She collected $72,000 or more for the U.S. Olympic Fund. She began wearing furs and riding around in fancy cars. When members of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which prides itself in never taking a penny from the government and never leaving a runner home because of the shorts, tried to find out where the money went Miss Dobson gave them a blank look.
It must seem to Chicago millionaire Brundage that most of his 80 years have been spent in the struggle to disinvolve the Olympic Games from politics, to keep amateurs and professionals distinguishable, to uphold the glory of sport over the self-service of nations. Often he has stood against the odds. Brundage was against a U.S. move to boycott the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the threat of Olympic boycott is not new with Harry Edwards) even when it was obvious that Adolf Hitler intended to make Aryan hay out of the Games. Brundage prevailed; there was no boycott, and an American Negro named Jesse Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, made chitlings of Hitler's theories right before his very eyes. Furthermore, Owens and the German long jumper, Lutz Long, struck up a close personal friendship—Long's advice helped Owens win one of his four gold medals—the implications of which give Brundage a warm feeling to this day.
"In an imperfect world," Brundage said, "if participation in sport is to be stopped every time laws of humanity are violated, there will never be any international contests." Close on the heels of politics, he blamed professionalism (the word is a terrible big bone in his tired old throat) for the ills of sport, and characterized sportswriters as the devil's advocates. Unfortunately, Brundage does not always win, and as often as not he is made to appear naive and foolish. Professionalism? A Russian can support his family on the money he does not make as an amateur. An American track star can travel around the world with the money he does not receive from hard-dealing international promoters, and when he wins his gold medal he can go off to play for the Chicago Bears with nary a hitch though there are Olympic by-laws that would forbid it.
Last April, in Lausanne, Brundage emerged from a meeting of the International Olympic Committee shaken and trembling with rage. South Africa, which had been banned from the Games in 1963 but voted back in last February, was being kicked out again at the behest of 40 or so other nations (and a quaking Mexican delegation) who, in their continuing effort to crystallize world opinion against South African apartheid, threatened to boycott. The Russian representative tried to get South Africa out of the IOC altogether for "violating Olympic ideals." Who will we hurt? Brundage argued. Certainly not South Africa's political determination to work out its own salvation, he said. There are other countries, he added, which are not exactly models of Olympic rectitude.
So whom did they hurt? In a name or two, a world class sprinter (Paul Nash), a record-breaking swimmer (Karen Muir) and a black half-miler (Humphrey Khosi), whose offense against the world was having been born in a country that sees life with tunnel vision. "We were full of enthusiasm," said Khosi. "Now a lot of people will lose heart."
The irony is impossible to escape. In 1956 Russian tanks plunged into Hungary and put a death grip on that country's try for independence. The Russians competed in Melbourne that year anyway—only the Dutch refused to join them—and if blood colored the water in the Russian-Hungarian water-polo match, who was to complain? Last August the Russians consummated another exercise in their special brand of idealism. Their tanks took up parking space in downtown Prague. The call for an Olympic boycott against the Russians was feeble, and one can imagine the grim laughter in Johannesburg over the apparent double standards of the International Olympic Committee.
There were other matters to unsettle the Mexicans, of course, closest to home being the proposed boycott by a group of American Negroes led by an assistant professor at San Jose State, Harry Edwards. Edwards used to throw the discus. He never made an Olympic team, but he made enough heat around this one and issued enough hairy ultimatums (Avery Brundage must go; Muhammad Ali must be restored as heavyweight champion) to cause genuine concern for his more realistic objectives. These ultimately were fully aired, and when they did not draw wide support, the boycott was abandoned. It is still possible, however, that those with a carry-over sentiment will try something embarrassing once they get to Mexico City. The Mexicans can only watch and pray.
The moral lost in all this is that the Olympics, the instrument of international uplift, sometimes go far to debase the brotherhood of man. A second special project of late has been the effort to disprove the womanhood of some women. These, as well as efforts to curtail drug taking, will be closely pursued in Mexico City, where certificates will be granted to those who pass certain tests. The certificate will entitle the bearer to call herself a girl. It is not enough anymore for a woman athlete to pass a visual checkup. She must pass the buccal smear and the karyotype (chromosome patterns) examination. If she fails, as did Olympic bronze-medal winner Ewa Klobukowska of Poland, for her next medal she will have to outrun Charlie Greene.
Ewa was tested in Kiev by six gynecologists. She turned up with one too many chromosomes and now she is in hiding in Poland, reported to be in great despair and near suicide. Her disgrace started a wave of not-so-casual excuses by women competitors dropping out of international events, most notable being the Press sisters of Russia, Irina and Tamara. They said their mother was ill, has been ever since, and apparently will be for some time.
The cruelty in this is plain. Ewa Klobukowska passed the physical characteristics test, and doctors say she may even be capable of normal sexual activity. She was, said one Hungarian doctor, "the victim of medical escalation." (How many medal winners before her would have failed the same test?) The doctor called her a "genetic mosaic." He did not call her a man. An article in the journal of the American Medical Association, meanwhile, discounts the reliability of the buccal and karyotype tests. They are not foolproof, it says. "No single index or criterion can signify an individual's sex." Where does that leave Ewa Klobukowska? Somewhere in Poland, hiding her shame.
What, then, do the Olympics prove if they cannot prove anything as elementary as the sex of their contestants? They do not, in actual fact, prove anything beyond the obvious: that one man can run 100 meters faster than another. They do not prove the righteousness of causes, the supremacy of race or the ascendancy of the socialist order over the democratic. They do prove that the United States and Russia can summon up more cash (the U.S. budget to prepare and transport its team is $2 million, compared, say, with the Philippines' $63,000) to send more athletes to accumulate more medals than anybody else. Which is what they will do in Mexico City—the Americans will be better than ever in track and field and swimming, the Russians will have a medal harvest in the so-called minor sports. About the only extraordinary thing you can expect is the first Olympic defeat ever for an American basketball team.
The real glory of the Games, from ancient days to now, remains in the individual Olympian, and as long as he is not too far obscured by the issues the Games have a chance. What is an Olympian? He is Everyman. He is an Ethiopian palace guard named Abebe Bikila, who lives in a mud house and runs (and wins) marathons with the casual air of a man going for the bus; she is Debbie Meyer, a 16-year-old California girl who lives on peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and breaks the monotony of her incredibly fast long swims by singing to herself; he is 28-year-old Alvaro Mejia, who sells aluminum ware in his native Colombia and became a long-distance runner only when his bicycle broke down (cyclists are the thing in Colombia), a headstrong man willing to spend $800 traveling to distant track meets to gain the right to go to the Olympics in Tokyo, where he finished dead last in a 5,000-meter heat, his only race.
The Olympian is a man of varied philosophies ("We have a saying in Colombia, 'To marry is to die a little,' " says Alvaro Mejia. "We are a very pampered generation," says Don Schollander, the four-gold-medal swimmer). The Olympian can take his sport seriously, or not so seriously ("What have I done?" said Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1948 as she was being driven through the cheering crowds of Amsterdam in an open coach drawn by four white horses. "All I have done is run fast. I do not see why people should make such a fuss").
For all his excellence, the Olympian is not necessarily the epitome of style and grace. Czechoslovakia's Emil Zàtopek ran "as a man who has just been stabbed in the chest," head rolling, eyes glazed, teeth bared, his every step an expression of pain. Zàtopek won gold medals at 10,000 meters, 5,000 meters and the marathon in 1952. "The marathon," he said, "is a very boring race." Johnny Hayes, the last American to win the marathon, in 1908, had legs that were so short he appeared to be running in a trench. The American sprint champion Charlie Paddock made flying leaps at the finish line. Bob Hayes did not run a race so much as beat it to death, his great black body seeming to come apart in a series of small explosions. This year an American high jumper named Dick Fosbury goes over the bar backward, as one who would rather see where he has been than where he is going.
The real hope of the Games remains in this medley of individual courage and ability, faults and foibles, skill and strength, as if the synthesizing of so varied a collection will promote the human respect, the "real morality," that Baron de Coubertin dreamed of 72 years ago. When it is all over, Olympians go about the business of becoming Congressmen (Bob Mathias), cereal pushers (Bob Richards), Tarzan of the Apes (Johnny Weissmuller). They become heavyweight champions of the world, pro football stars, pro basketball stars. An Olympic rower named Benjamin Spock became a baby doctor. Parry O'Brien runs tours to Mexico and expertises on track on American television. Emil Zàtopek is hiding from the Russians in Czechoslovakia. The last time Don Bragg was seen he was running down Walnut Street in Philadelphia with his vaulting pole, hell-bent toward a make-do box nailed down in the street, about to demonstrate for a live television audience. It was obviously a dangerous stunt, said Bragg, "but when the camera came on, it was show biz, so I did it."
Some of the greatest die broke and alone, like the Sac and Fox Indian Jim Thorpe, who had his Olympic medals taken away from him because as a boy he had played baseball for $15 a game. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who by her own estimates excelled at everything but dolls, died fighting cancer at 42. An American 400-meter hurdler named Richard Howard was arrested for pushing narcotics and died of an overdose in a seedy hotel room. The first Mexican gold-medal winner, General Humberto Mariles, the equestrian, languishes in Lecumberri Prison. He shot a man over a traffic incident.
What is it, finally, that drives the Olympian toward Olympus, or whatever it is he seeks? Consider Hayes Jones. Hayes Jones was a hurdler. In 1962, while preparing for the Games, he got married and his coach told him he had just traded a gold medal for a bride. Jones says, "I began to lose, and I wanted to quit. I would have quit. My wife would not let me. She kept me going. But when I got to Tokyo I realized my training had not been right, that I had not done enough speed work. I was not fast enough between the hurdles.
"I finished second in the semifinals, and I remember on the last day running up and down in the tunnel under the stadium, trying somehow to develop speed at the last minute. My wife was sitting in the stands with Jesse Owens, and she began to cry because she was convinced I was going to lose. In that tunnel a coaching friend, Ed Temple, came up to me and said, 'Listen, Hayes, forget about your speed. Don't worry about it. Just run between the hurdles. Just run.'
"There were three of us right together at the tape in the finals—a Russian, Anatoli Mikhailov, Blaine Lindgren and myself. At first I thought the Russian had won because his coach came out and was hugging him and congratulating him. An Indian coach with a turban was congratulating his runner, who had finished fifth. My coach was just standing there with a cigarette in his mouth. It seemed like 45 minutes before the pictures were in and the lights began to flash on the scoreboard. Then it came: 'First Place, J...O...N...E...S...' I can't tell you the feeling, the thrill of it. I gave my medal to the kids of Pontiac, Michigan, and it's there now in Pontiac City Hall. It wasn't the medal that mattered, don't you see? It was the experience.
"When I think of the Olympic Games today I don't think of the medal. I think of my wife and Jesse Owens, sitting in the stands and crying, and me in that tunnel trying to get something I did not have, and I think of that scoreboard lighting up, 'J...O...N...E...S....' "