Just when things looked darkest, when Mexico City was about ready to ask the world to kindly go away somewhere on the other side of the Rio Bravo, along came the second week, and sane and predictable things began to happen. The swimmers, who had already moved into their stadium, began to ply the water in earnest. Farther downtown there were gymnastics—especially women's gymnastics, the girlie show of sport. In other sections of the city other competitors were also doing things—sensible things that people could identify with, like boxing and stabbing at each other with foils. And there was basketball, an especially dandy sport, because everybody really knew who would win after all. Finally the week took on such a well-ordered look that one International Olympic Committeeman was stirred to say these Games were the cleanest in history, which indicates he must have spent most of his time going out for tacos.
Even though swimming in particular, and lesser sports in general, helped settle down the Olympics, it was hardly a well-ordered week by ordinary standards. It was suggested that the reason why many of those track and field athletes had limped out of the stadium after the first week was that large sums of money had been stuffed into their track shoes by track shoe manufacturers. One athlete, unidentified, tried to cash a $1,440 shoe-company check right at the Olympic Village, which must have left his shoe man shaking in his striped spikes. There was a hasty move to sweep much of this news under the Tartan track, but a full investigation had to be launched. By way of explanation, Bob Paul, in his almost insoluble job as press-relations man for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said, in two breaths, "Do not pay any attention to all these rumors," and, "We have a private investigator working on the case."
As if the shoe scandal, following the glove shindy, was not enough, a band of crusty officials decided to invalidate the bronze medal won by the Swedish modern pentathlon team. The culprit was a Swede who allegedly drank too many beers to steady his hand before the pistol shooting event. He managed to get his hand so steady, doctors said, that it was almost stiff. They found more than the minimum allowable amount of alcohol in his blood—and would Sweden please send back the medal? Well, the pentathlon shooters have always had a few belts to brace themselves, and the alcohol rule is indicative only of the depths of purity to which modern pentathlon has sunk. Back in the old days Russian Igor Novikov, who won a silver medal in Tokyo, occasionally got so rock-steady that he had to be carried to the shooting line, and at the 1963 world championships in Bern, Switzerland one competitor showed up sloshed, sang a few old drinking songs and waved his pistol at the crowd for special effect.
These were not the only troubles. The masseur of the Dutch cycling team was packed on a plane and sent home after unauthorized vitamins and medicines were found in his room and, presumably, in his athletes; Tom Evans, head coach of the U.S. freestyle wrestling squad, which picked up two silver medals, charged angrily that other nations were conspiring to throw certain matches; and five referees were withdrawn from the boxing ring because they "allowed contestants to take too much punishment."
November 4, 1968
As a final touch, officials got to worrying about maintaining a certain dignity in the closing ceremonies (in Tokyo one team marched in wearing suits, shirts, ties, coats, shoes and socks—and carrying their pants over their arms). The committee in charge revised the program, specifying blandly that each nation would be limited to just seven sober marchers, thus raising a howl from hundreds of athletes whose only reason for staying in town was to parade in that grand finale. Slews of people marched anyway.
But just as the whole thing seemed to be lurching out of control, the American swim kids, who do not compete in track shoes or shoot pistols, put the 1968 Olympiad back together again. For all those peripheral troubles, for all the talk of scandal, they made the Games more than worthwhile. "We are up to here in heroes and heroines," rasped that emotional wreck, Sherman Chavoor, the U.S. girls' team coach. "I mean, look at Debbie Meyer. Look at Mike Burton. Kids like this make America great. They are a dream team."
They were all of that. By Saturday night the dream swim team had swept five events, set four world and 17 Olympic records and had taken 58 medals—leaving 41 for the rest of the world to split up. From the start the swimmers had fought successive waves of stomach cramps and what 22-year-old Douglas Russell called The Altitude Monkey. "You get in that ol' pool, you start thinking about 7,349 feet—and suddenly that monkey jumps right in there on top of you," he said. They were also competing in what was by American standards a slow pool, with the water level just far enough below the gutters to create everything but whitecaps whenever swimmers competed. On the night of the storm-tossed men's 400-meter freestyle relay Ken Walsh climbed out of the water, looked at the pool and murmured, "It's murder in there. You make the turn and suddenly you're going bump, bump, bump over the waves. Almost enough to make you seasick." Still, the team had bumped its way through the course in 3:31.7, ahead of the Russians and Australians, for both world and Olympic records.
Then, of course, there were the performances of Debbie Meyer, who deserves a ticker-tape parade through her home town of Sacramento, Calif. Miss Meyer is 16, about to be beautiful, not old enough to wear makeup—well, maybe just a tiny hint of eyeshadow—with a businesslike tawny haircut and the posture of a coiled spring. "After this," she said last week, "I am going to go home and stuff myself."
Debbie won her event—and broke an Olympic record—every time she sprang into the pool and peeked over at her competitors from beneath her dripping bangs. On Sunday night she churned her way through the 400-meter freestyle in 4:31.8 and said, "I felt real easy all the way." On Tuesday she swam the 200-meter freestyle in 2:10.5 and shrugged, "I'll still swim one year more. Oh, well, maybe four." And on Thursday, after winning the 800-meter freestyle, she ran up to Coach Chavoor and hung her third gold medal around his neck. "Here," she said, "this one is for you." Then she thought it over for a while. "I'd like to swim in Munich in 1972," she said. "Of course, it depends on whether I make the team or not." Coach Chavoor simply gurgled.
Thus, through 33 events, did the swimmers and divers carry this stamp of marvelous purity. It was a sort of Gidget Goes Olympian quality that prevailed over all outside influences. Each night, as the events splashed on and the swimming stadium grew progressively more hysterical, there would be performances to make strong coaches wilt, highlights that left audiences weak. Claudia Kolb of Santa Clara, Calif., for one example, took two individual golds, setting two Olympic records in the 200- and 400-meter medleys, winning the latter from here to Guadalajara.
There were prices to pay: the terrible oxygen debt that swimming in Mexico City demanded, the drug test that often kept swimmers waiting for hours backstage, guarded by medical authorities waiting for them to calm down enough to provide a urine sample. "After each event," said Charlie Hickcox, who won three gold and one silver medal, "we would have to go and lie down on a cot in some little back room while a Mexican medical guy sprinkled sugar into our open mouths. It was supposed to make you bounce back quickly or something. But mostly he sprinkled sugar into our eyes."
Early in the week, after Hickcox had led an American sweep of the 200-meter individual medley, 19-year-old John Ferris, who had finished third, could not rally quickly enough for the award ceremonies, a rite upon which Olympic officials place great store, sugar or no sugar. Ferris wobbled as he marched around the pool toward the victory stand with Hickcox and teammate Greg Buckingham, clutching his stomach as he went. He tried manfully to stand at attention during The Star-Spangled Banner, but about the time they got to "bombs bursting in air" he leaned toward Hickcox, whispered, "Look out, here I go," and fainted. Hickcox patriotically held Ferris at semi-attention through the last few bars, then let him slump gently away.
Next night Doug Russell beat 18-year-old Mark Spitz in the 100-meter butterfly dropping that overscheduled, haunted, upset young man from his expected gold medal to a silver and out of the medley relay. And the night after that a marvelous young Mexican named Felipe Mu√±oz churned his way through 200 meters of furious breast-stroking to whip the most surprised Russian in the world, Vladimir Kosinsky, who had held the world record in the event. The triumph set off what must have been one of the loudest, happiest, most sustained ovations in Olympic history—it was Mexico's first swimming gold medal ever—and there was hardly a person in the house who would argue that Mu√±oz should not have been awarded Kosinsky's ears and tail for the kill.
The rest of the swimming belonged to California's Mike Burton, who moves with the power of a pocket battleship. On Wednesday night he set an Olympic record in the 400-meter freestyle, an event that is just a warmup for his specialty, which is swimming at fantastic, untiring speed for 1,500 meters. At the start of the Games Burton had gone over to watch the 10,000-meter run, an event that is not unlike swimming's 1,500 meters. "After four laps a guy dropped out," he said, "and it really scared me to see it."
He was kidding. Burton has never been scared in his life, and last Saturday night, in the climactic event of a watery week, he destroyed his top rival, Mexico's Guillermo Echeverría, who finished a stunned sixth. Burton won by almost 20 seconds, in 16:38.9, for another Olympic record. After the race he turned a pair of tired pink eyes on the press and said, "The thing to do is go out fast and hang on."
Even in defeat there was a touch of elegance about the swimmers. Don Schollander, hero of Tokyo four years ago, lost the 200-meter freestyle to the young Australian, Michael Wenden, who also won the 100 and who is described by his coach as "that basher." A few moments after the meet Schollander sat looking at his silver medal, with his mother sitting beside him, occasionally patting him on the knee. He said it was his last competitive swim. It was all over and he was glad. And what would he do now? He shrugged. "I am going to write a book," he said. "About my philosophy of swimming, what made me go. That sort of thing."
As the hot-sauce Olympics drew to an end, it was time for two other emotion-wreckers—the finals in basketball and boxing. In a spectacular copper-roofed Sports Palace out near the airport on the outskirts of town nightly crowds of up to 22,000 had watched the basketball eliminations come down to the inevitable pairing: the United States against somebody for a gold medal. It turned out to be Yugoslavia, a team that had beaten Russia 63-62, an event that was followed by a great deal of manly kissing and hugging, rolling around on the floor and general Slavic dramatics. On Friday night, although a stunning Czech dish, Vera Caslavska, was putting on a gold-medal gymnastic-show at the other end of Mexico City (she won four in all, to thunderous applause, even from her competitors, who tossed her triumphantly in the air), everybody else in town, it seemed, was jammed cheek to mustache into the Sports Palace to see the showdown—Hank Iba and his boys against Ranko Zeravica and his gang.
There was a lot at stake. The U.S. had never lost a game in Olympic basketball and had run up 74 consecutive victories. Further, the Americans had come into the Olympics haunted by the specter of players who were not there. For one reason or another that list of absentees included Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes and Westley Unseld. The American press insisted on calling the team ragtag or patchwork, labels that stung the players, all of whom can read quite well. And what many had overlooked was the fact that the gravel-voiced old (64) Iba was coaching at Oklahoma State about the same time Zeravica was born, and he somehow manages to pump his players up to roughly 100 pounds beyond their normal pressure.
Still, in the final confrontation, the U.S. team started slowly enough to scare everybody on the bench—especially Coach Iba, who kept yelling, "Cut that out!" It was obvious the players had closing-night jitters. Through the first half they had trouble holding as much as a three-point lead, while the Mexican spectators cheerfully whistled—which is booing in Mexico City, as in much of the world. When the half mercifully ended, at 32-29 for the U.S., Iba took his boys somewhere underneath the stands to talk about fundamentals.
"He just told us to forget about the first half," said Jo Jo White, the superb playmaker who in calmer times picks defenses apart for the University of Kansas. No team ever followed orders better. When the second half began, White and company started a fire-wagon, steal-the-ball offense that ran off 17 straight points while the Yugoslavs remained scoreless. The burst gave the U.S. a 49-29 lead, with White getting eight points and 19-year-old Spencer Haywood, who would like to be an actor but who is first destined to become a Bill Russell for a few years, getting another eight. After that, Iba played everybody except the team doctor, who was not feeling too well, and the usual visiting movie actor, who crowded onto the bench in a tight tuxedo. The game ended 65-50 U.S., and the most un-ragtag team of them all got gold medals all around while the Yugoslavs cut down the net for a souvenir.
It was easy enough to explain. "The Americans," said Coach Zeravica, "take in their hands the, uhhh, the activities. After that, with our morale coming down, it is difficult to do anything with these Americans."
Then came Saturday night on the town—boxing finals at Sunnyside Arena South, an Olympic venue whose main concession to the Games was to hang white sheets over the A Cerveza Màs Fina beer signs. All week long the fans had been building for the occasion, yelling "rateros!" (bandits) at the officials and showering coins, oranges and Mexican bric-a-brac into the ring. After one spirited fight a photographer jumped in and pounded the referee with his newspaper. Mexican fight fans, Olympics or no Olympics, take the show seriously.
The U.S. squad, with four lefthanders, was not, by Coach Pappy Gault's standards, as talented as the 1964 team that won only one gold medal (Joe Frazier's), but each man knew the complex international rules and all were determined to the point of dedication. None of the boxers left the Olympic Village for two weeks except to fight. They did not go for "that demonstration stuff," as Gault termed it, because they were proud to represent the United States. Of the 11 who started in the eliminations seven made it into the semifinals. Harlan Marbley, 25, a light flyweight from Washington, D.C.; James Wallington Jr., 24, a light welterweight from Philadelphia; John Baldwin, 19, a light middleweight from Detroit; and Alfred Jones, 22, a Detroit middleweight, came away from the semis a bit sadder (they lost their bouts) but still wearing bronze medals.
Featherweight Albert Robinson, 21, on leave from the U.S. Naval Air Station at Alameda, Calif., for a while came away with nothing at all—although he was, in his bout, walloping the frijoles out of Mexico's Antonio Roldan. Suddenly the blood came gushing from Roldan's forehead. Robinson had butted, the Russian referee said, although he made the call when Robinson was pounding merrily away on Roldan's head at arm's length. Robinson was disqualified, which cost him the gold and almost the silver. At first, that was denied him, as was the bronze. Fortunately, an appeal was upheld the next day and Robinson was decked in silver.
Lightweight Ronnie Harris, a 20-year-old Ohioan, won a gold medal and later noted that he had been both sick and scared but that he had prayed to God and that his faith had pulled him through. From ringside it looked like faith and good counterpunching, but no matter. The stage was now set for the heavyweight finale.
George Foreman, the lyrical 19-year-old 218-pounder from Houston, ruined Russia's balding 29-year-old Iones Chepulis with approximately 200 left jabs that caused Chepulis' nose to bleed quite a lot and eventually led to a halt in the second round. After the fight Foreman received a cluster of roses from someone at ringside and promptly presented the bouquet to the Russian—they matched his nose nicely—and then grabbed up a little U.S. flag from Pappy Gault and kissed it for the crowd.
It was, for all the touch of corn, a fitting tribute to a surprising U.S. Olympic team. In all sports, the Americans won 107 medals, 45 of them gold. The sailors won two gold medals, Bill Steinkraus won a gold in Grand Prix horse jumping and Gary Anderson, the rifle shot, won a gold. And in sports where Americans have never been strong—like gymnastics and cycling—while they did not score this time they gave plenty of evidence that in the next Olympiad they might just do that. The Mexican Olympics, like most of the ones before them, had their problems, but a lot of people found a lot of wonderful ways of overcoming them.