For five years Mexico had rejoiced in the knowledge that it would be host to the 1968 Olympics, but last week, with the Games at hand, the country must have felt dubious about the quality of the prize. Here was Mexico City all prettied up, all painted, all swept and set for this big show that has cost the country $150 million so far. There were Olympic-theme posters—a white dove of peace on a blue background—all around town. There were billboards everywhere saying that "Anything Is Possible With Peace." But just when all seemed perfect, just when the only thing left was for that pretty young girl to run the torch into the stadium, the whole structure began to teeter back and forth and make ominous noises.
Apparently there was to be no going back—although in one tight period last week that prospect was carefully considered. But one cannot hang an out-to-lunch sign on an Olympiad, nor can one call the Games on account of tension. Instead one must, as Mexico is doing, hold on for dear life, perhaps pray to an ancient Aztec god or two, and make a run for it.
It will be a wild race despite the official calm of Avery Brundage. After an emergency session of the International Olympic Committee, President Brundage announced, "We have consulted with the Mexican authorities, who have assured us that there will be no interference upon the entry of the Olympic flame into the stadium on October 12, nor in any of the events until the closing of the Games." With unintended irony he called the Games "a true oasis in this troubled world" and added. "Mexico City is a huge metropolis of more than six million people and none of the demonstrations or violence here has at any time been directed against the Olympic Games."
What Brundage was talking about, of course, was the fact that thousands of Mexican students—with that keen sense of timing of the young—were in a revolt against the government, putting up a backdrop of violence. A demonstration had erupted into terrible fighting and President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was moving to hold off any further struggles until after the Games. Tensions were going higher on all sides, with the Olympic Village as a sort of island of calm in the middle. And, more than anything else, the scene began to shape up as the Generation Gap Olympics.
October 13, 1968
For all its schizophrenic air, Mexico has whipped up the most improbably beautiful setting of any Olympics, the sort of thing that will leave its artistic stamp on the world, no matter what else might happen. The city comes on in a burst of color, with flowers and flags and bright new statuary spotted along the boulevards leading to the venues. Pretty se√±oritas wearing official, dresses that spell Mexico—if you look closely enough—are on hand to greet visitors. Along the highways, gardens spell out "XIX Olympiad" in tiny cactus plants. And the Olympic Village, lying in the second-summer sun under huge tethered balloons, is like a dolce-sports-vita resort scene.
By last weekend 7,261 athletes had unpacked their sweat socks and were settling down to training: running, jumping, throwing things, hunching low over bicycles and pedaling off into the city's traffic—which could be the most dangerous thing they will do in all their competitive lives. By rough count, 1,221 sturdy hopefuls from 89 countries had signed in for track and field events alone. There were 83 men in the line for the 26-mile marathon, making for the biggest potential walkout—or runout—in Olympic history.
The Americans came down from Denver in blazers and confident looks and the Russians were vivid in that sort of plugged-in red. There were splashes of color from well over 100 countries in all and, on all sides, crowds of Mexicans, who have been totally turned on since the first flag went up.
The Olympic Village sprawls over a scenic lava-bed valley roughly the size of Texas. There are enough training fields and tracks to run off the entire show without ever sending anyone up to the big stadium on the hill. The competitors settled down in a hurry to test: 1) The 7,349-foot altitude, which they grew more and more to feel they could live in, and 2) each other. And things got going right away.
First off, while some of the late nations were still waving hello at customs and dragging their suitcases off the bus, the Italian cycling team staged an off-the-cuff pursuit event—and broke its own world and Olympic team records with a 4:24.6 run over 4,000 meters. So much for altitude problems.
Next day the 1964 Olympic soccer champion, Hungary, took on Nigeria in a pickup match that drew a crowd of 15,000. If Nigeria's 1-1 tie was indicative of things to come, then the Olympics are going to end up on their ear, because Nigeria was not good enough even to field a soccer team at the Tokyo Games.
Then along came Russian and Cuban relay teams, breathing easily in the no-calorie air, and tugged on their track shoes. Before anyone could say, "You can't expect to run fast in Mexico," the girls of both teams equaled the world mark of 43.6 seconds in the 400-meter relay, and the Cuban men's team ran just close enough to the world record—38.8 seconds—to make it look easy.
In that same practice meet Mexico's Juan Martínez loped along for 5,000 meters in 13:59.8, the best ever run at that altitude, and then Kenya's Wilson Kiprugut whizzed 800 meters in 1:45.9, another startling time. By Saturday athletes were taking bigger breaths, and little Doris Brown, recently of the Los Alamos Browns, got off the bus from the airport and ran a test 800 meters. She clocked it in 2:06.6, beating Abby Hoffman of Canada, and then went back to the Village to finish unpacking.
"The altitude, it bothered us for five days," said a Belgian field-hockey player named André Musch, "but after that it is finished."
Understand, all that was inside the Olympics. On the outside, a few blocks away at the 90,000-student National University, and a few miles away in Tlatelolco, which is the Levittown of Mexico, the division grew sharp, tense and more tragic.
The students and the army had been feuding for weeks before the Olympians started arriving, and by the time the Games were pulling together the crisis had worsened to the point of explosion. There had been rioting, gunplay and a general smashing-up of things on the university city campus. President Díaz had appealed for all sides to calm down while the strangers were in town—citing such items as image, the fact that visitors could get hurt, Mexico's big investment in tourism and, finally, motherhood ("Please keep your boys and girls off the streets").
But inside the medical center on campus, surrounded by smashed windows, barricades of classroom chairs and splashed paint slogans saying NO VOLVEREMOS, which means, "We will not turn back," members of the student strike committee took a different view.
"We like the Olympic Games," one of the leaders said, "but we feel our cause is more important. These should not be related, because Mexico has spent a lot of money on the Games. But that is the way it is. The generation gap everyone speaks of has grown to worldwide proportions now. It is everywhere. Your way of life, with your mechanism and your Olympics, does not suit us."
That was Wednesday. The students would rally that evening, he said, on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. From there they would march on a nearby school—still occupied by police—and liberate it. They came by the thousands. The plaza sits in the center of Tlatelolco, a condominium housing project. Several of the marchers had made special signs for the occasion—brightly colored posters, many of them showing the Olympic ringed emblem in the foreground—with drawings of police bayoneting students in the background. There were grim invitations for the world to come to these bloody Olympics and other invitations to stay away.
After a while the belligerent scene became almost festive; it might have been a student pep rally on the campus of the University of Kansas, seeking free love. A strike leader, speaking from a balcony, had called off the proposed march. Too many soldiers waiting with guns, he said. And then, while students and spectators milled around, came the scene that was to leave its mark on the 1968 Olympics.
It was dark. A green flare suddenly arched high overhead to light the scene and the plaza exploded with machine-gun fire and students running in panic. Soldiers had them surrounded and for three hours and more the place rang with gunfire.
By Thursday the size of the tragedy was determined: more than 25 had been killed, hundreds were wounded, jails were full. By the end of the week the toll had gone up to 34 dead and would go higher. Police closed off the housing area. Foreigners were urged to stay away and, in effect, to take their Olympic business elsewhere. And across town, in the luxurious Camino Real Hotel, the IOC went into emergency session.
Next day Mexico City's The News headlined THE SHOW WILL GO ON and printed Brundage's statement. And, for all its tension, the show began, slowly, to go on. In the hotel's presidential suite Brundage paced back and forth like a well-tailored old blue bear and admitted that news accounts of the disorders were alarming. "But," he said, "I was at the ballet last night and we heard nothing of the riots. You wouldn't know it in a city of this size. After all, you think of the precautions taken to protect the President of the United States, and yet he is murdered. We live in that kind of world."
And, on the inside with the athletes, it was a different sort of world. There were the Games to get ready for and no time to spare. In the Village, all was calm. At the venues spotted around town, such as the Auditorio Nacional near Chapultepec Park, where the gymnasts will perform, soldiers strolled in groups of three, each carrying rifle and bayonet and looking fixedly at all strangers until he was sure of their intent. "We sort of noticed when we went to play a warmup game," said U.S. Water Poloist Dean Willeford, "that there were soldiers all around us. But you just learn to live with it."
Hectic days lay ahead. On several of the pop-art statues around town night riders were scrawling Victoria O Muerte, spoiling the beauty of the scene—and as a final grim touch, someone was getting to those white doves. All across town small blobs of red paint were being dotted in the center of the dove images, creating the effect of a bird shot through the heart, blood dripping down.
There was talk of more demonstrations coming up—that bands of students would strike at various Olympic sites. It was clear that when the big show moves into the stadium on opening day there will be almost as large a crowd of soldiers outside the place—guarding it.
On Saturday morning the IOC and 124 national committees put out a statement. It called upon all of Mexico to declare a spiritual truce and unite for the Games. The only thing anyone could do was wait and see. The stage was set, still all prettied up, and Mexico was making a run for it.