On October 12, 1968 the Mexico Olympics started against a backdrop of bloody protests. As the 50th anniversary approaches, PHILIP BARKER (right) looks back at one of the most controversial Games and recalls the part The Guardian’s John Rodda played in reporting the truth.
There had been demonstrations all over the world in 1968 but there was an additional and localised edge to those which took place in Mexico.
Shortly before the Games began, security forces turned their guns on students, killing more than 300, but had it not been for a small group of journalists, including John Rodda, it would have gone unreported. Rodda had been sent early to cover the unrest, caused because many at home and abroad were deeply disturbed that in a land of such obvious poverty, so many millions were spent on a sporting event.
The Mexican president was the authoritarian Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who was determined nothing should come in the way of the Olympics. The biggest protest was to take place in Plaza de Tres Culturas (square of the three cultures) less than a fortnight before the Games were to open. Rodda was there to watch.
His account was headlined “Trapped at gunpoint in the middle of fighting” and described how the firing had begun at the symbol of a green flare and the presence of a sinister Olympic force identified by the wearing of a single white glove.
“Hardly had I reached the floor than the air was filled with gunfire, the staccato of machine guns and rifles. It was horrifying.”
The Mexican government initially claimed that only four people died. Much later it was established that the casualty figure was more like 300, thanks to Rodda’s account, that of Paul L Montgomery in the New York Times, and reports from UPI who were also present. Italian journalist Oriana Pallaci suffered shrapnel wounds from a grenade.
Rodda sent a note to the executive board of the International Olympic Committee informing them of the violence, but the Mexican member General Jesus Clark was dismissive and IOC president Avery Brundage appeared to take Mexican government statements blaming agitators at face value.
In a statement Brundage said: “We have been assured that nothing will interfere with the entry of the Olympic flame into the stadium nor with the competitions that follow.”
There was a famous protest during the Games but it came on the medal podium. Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood heads bowed while giving the Black Power salute. The pair were summarily expelled from the US team but immediately snapped up by BBC television
There were no further demonstrations of that kind. As future IOC President Lord Killanin, a former journalist, wrote later: “The battle in the square had squeezed the very life, not only out of its many victims but out of the spirit of the students.”
However, there was a famous protest during the Games but it came on the medal podium. Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood heads bowed while giving the Black Power salute.
The pair were summarily expelled from the US team but immediately snapped up by BBC television.
For BBC supremo Peter Dimmock, Mexico 68 was “our biggest ever sports operation”. It was also in colour for the first time.
A consortium comprising ABC (USA), the European Broadcasting Union, NHK (Japan) and Mexican tv combined to provide the pictures. Yet the broadcasts nearly did not happen because early in September Intelsat 3 crashed. It was to have beamed the live pictures.
The ATS satellite was used instead. In orbit 22,000 miles over the Atlantic, it sent pictures from Mexico in a third of a second.The original images were in the American format NTSC, which many in tv had decided stood for Never Twice the Same Colour. Once converted into European format PAL, pictures were sent from BBC Television Centre around Europe.
In the Daily Telegraph, the splendidly named but rather unenlightened Leonard Marsland Gander wrote: “BBC and ITV have recognised that there are many viewers particularly women who may quickly have had their fill of the Olympics.”
Even so the BBC scheduled 200 hours across two channels, much of it linked from a studio in London by Frank Bough.
With only one channel, ITV nonetheless offered 86 hours of coverage although they showed Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea while the opening ceremony was beamed back on the BBC.
Many felt the thin air of high altitude would help in the explosive events. BBC commentator Ron Pickering introduced American long jumper Bob Beamon as “the man most feared by every competitor. Erratic but incredibly talented”.
Beamon soared to over 29 feet. It was a new world record which made him an instant star but also propelled photographer Tony Duffy into the limelight. On the back of his photo, the agency Allsport was founded. Today it forms the sports arm of Getty Images.
High jumper Dick Fosbury’s new style was so unfamiliar, Norris McWhirter described it as the Fosbury flip instead of the Fosbury flop. The technique was questioned when he attended an SJA Awards dinner many years later by Dorothy Odam Tyler, Britain’s silver medallist in 1936 and 1948. A beaming Fosbury found it hilarious.
The first British success came from David Hemery, who blistered his way to 400m hurdles gold in a world record, called home by a memorable commentary from David Coleman.
His payoff “Who cares who’s third, it doesn’t matter” drew some reproach, not least from the man who was third, Sheffield’s John Sherwood.
Boxer Chris Finnegan was rushed to the BBC studio accompanied by doping officials after winning gold. He was finally able to provide a sample midway through interview by Harry Carpenter – which is why the BBC showed an unscheduled re-run of his entire bout.
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