Oxygen is odorless, tasteless, colorless, essential to breathers and scarce at high altitudes. Mexico City, which is a mile and a half above the sea, takes your breath away. A long-distance runner with an inconspicuous past, a bachelor named Alvaro Mejia, came to run in Mexico City last week. Unlike everybody else, he came down to run, down 1,200 feet from Bogot�, Colombia. Compared to running in Bogot�, running in Mexico City is like rolling in oxygen. When Alvaro Mejia ran there last week, he did not grunt like a pig or die on the grass when he was through.
The significance of this intelligence as it relates to the 1968 Olympic Games, which will be held in Mexico City despite the worried songs of worried men who think the Mexicans incapable of pulling it off, will be made clear after closer examination of Alvaro Mejia. Se�or Mejia is 26 years old, sells aluminum wares, has curly brown hair, a worthwhile smile, a flourishing nose and a high regard for his freedom. ("In Colombia we have a saying, To marry is to die a little.' ") He would never have become a runner had his bicycle not broken down when he was 17, because runners in Colombia are far beneath cyclists and soccer players on the locker room social ladder. When he did become one he did not become much of one, as prominent runners go. It cost him $1,000 out of his own pocket in 1964 to go to Japan and finish dead last in a qualifying heat for the Olympic 5,000 meters.
Last week Mejia was in Mexico City, still footing most of his bill, to compete in what has mistakenly been called the Little Olympics. The games that were held there for nine days were misnamed, because there was nothing that was really Olympic about them, either in design (the Mexicans put them on as a courtesy to countries interested in taking another investigational crack at the altitude) or in execution (they were grossly mishandled).
First, Mejia ran 5,000 meters in 14 minutes 20 seconds, almost a minute slower than Kipchoge Keino's world record. But he finished first, a gasp ahead of Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, an Olympic silver medal winner. Gammoudi, who had been training in the Alps, spread out on the grass at the finish and moaned, "Tr�s mal." George Young, an American Olympian who had come to the competition on short notice and practically no high-altitude training, finished a painful 15th. "It felt like my chest was going to split right down the middle," said Young.
Two days later, Mejia ran 10,000 meters in 30 minutes, 10.8 seconds, no threat to Ron Clarke's world record. But again he finished first, much stronger this time, sprinting actually well ahead of the Belgian Olympic star, Gaston Roelants. Gammoudi, third, was a non-factor. The same day, the veteran American miler, Jim Grelle, who is usually in shape, dropped out of the 1,500-meter finals on the third lap, unable to coordinate his breathing. Asked if it were the altitude, Grelle snapped, "How would I know? I'm no doctor." But he knew, all right.
If the only thing to be learned from Mejia's startling success in Mexico City is a simple equation (i.e., to win at 7,000 feet, train at 8,000 feet), then a lot of people are wasting their time slogging around places like Albuquerque, N. Mex. (4,943 feet). But more to the point is the fact that the problems of rarefied air are very real. Training cannot be taken lightly or begun late, and never mind those flip remarks of people who would minimize the situation, remarks like, "It is more a problem of attitude than altitude," and this one, by the International Olympic Committee president himself, Avery Brundage, "Well, I have just seen these fellows run 5,000 meters, and none of them dropped over dead."
Some countries are taking it quite seriously indeed. There were about 70 doctors with the 27 teams at Mexico City for the games last week, 21 of whom were Russian (the Russians said they only had 13, but they must have lost count). French swimmers showed up in advance to get acclimated, and made an excellent showing. German bicyclists were tested daily at a hospital. The Dutch had $250,000 in equipment to check respiratory systems, blood chemistry, administer electrocardiograms, check windshield wipers, change oil and rotate tires.
The U.S. team of 23 men and women, patched together and sponsored by the State Department as a goodwill gesture when it became evident the U.S. Olympic Committee was going to skip the competition, did not include any doctors. One dentist came along to watch his daughter swim. U.S. officials explained this away by saying that testing had been done in the same Little Olympics last year and was going on right now at high-altitude places like Albuquerque and the Air Force Academy in Colorado. But for the U.S. it still smelled of missed opportunity.
The Americans were not out in full force, obviously; they were not there to overpower anybody. Sometimes they were there just barely—Al Oerter arrived on Tuesday night, won the discus throw on Wednesday afternoon and took a plane back to the U.S. Wednesday evening. Nevertheless, they won more gold medals than anybody else, principally in events that were least affected by the thin air. On some there was an altitude effect in reverse; winning Broadjumper Ralph Boston said he felt "higher"; winning Pole Vaulter Bob Seagren said he felt "lighter." Harry Hainsworth, who headed the U.S. delegation, concluded that the rush for oxygen became acute in any event that lasted more than 90 seconds. Some of his swimmers complained of headaches and nausea.
Grelle and Young represented America's distance runners, bleakly. "Why am I here? To see Mexico City," said Grelle. "I have certainly not had time to prepare to run at this altitude against guys like Roelants who can train where and when they choose." Both Young and Grelle are family men; neither will compete in 1968 if they feel the advantage is strong toward others whose training programs are "more liberal."