There they were, roughly 350 days before the 19th Olympic Games, and there was supposed to be a lot of dramatic flopping about on the ground and great gasping for breath from all those big athletes. Everybody warned that the Mexican nights would be full of the sound of bursting blood vessels and that, if the altitude did not kill, there were all those intestinal germs lurking inside every ice cube that could.
Well, don't worry about it, not any of it. Just ignore unkind rumor and remember that although Mexico City sits at 7,349 feet—up there in air the color of a warm daiquiri—it is Olympic-bound at a sort of happy runaway pace. Amateur sport has a tendency to take itself too seriously anyway and right now it needs Mexico City. The 1968 Games are going to be just the sort of wild break this tense world deserves.
All last week Mexico ran off the first part of a two-week dress rehearsal, mostly to see what should be polished and replastered for next fall. The Olympic committee put 1,200 athletes from 54 countries through their assorted paces in the wet-paint atmosphere at the various sites around town, and several thousand critics came out to watch, provided an event 1) had girls in it, and 2) did not interfere with lunch and siesta. There were certain fine spurts of confusion, and halfway through one track and field meet in huge University City Stadium the announcer solemnly informed everybody. "The shotput bar has been raised to five meters even," which says a lot about next year.
If it seems indispensable to be very serious about last week, here is the record: the athletes competed in 179 events in 13 locations in Mexico City. Almost nobody but weight lifters broke any world records, but one was tied in track and field. Russia's Igor Ter-Ovanesyan broadjumped 27' 4¾" into a pit of fluffy, chocolate-colored sand, which is as far as American champion Ralph Boston has ever jumped at sea level. And to show how the altitude affects such performances, Igor went to a cocktail party that same night, smoked a few cigarettes, drank a lot of Scotch and jumped about exactly the same distance all over again while doing a wild boogaloo with the hostess.
And there were other Olympic coming attractions to keep in mind. A pack of strong men ran 10,000 meters without having their eyeballs pop out of their heads. The race was won by a small, copper-colored man from Tunisia named Mohammed Gammoudi who is an old hand at Olympic Games. His time was 30:16.0, which is roughly three minutes above the world mark and just about right for Mexico. But then, four days later, he won the 5,000 meters so easily that he could have run it with a sack of mangoes under each arm.
Another frisky gentleman, Gaston Roelants of Belgium, did everything but help pour the cement for the new bleachers. Executives of Olympic sports had better resign themselves right now to the startling fact that men like Gammoudi and Roelants actually love that old high altitude. Roelants, who usually masquerades as a 3,000-meter steeplechaser, showed up in the 10,000-meter run for comic relief and finished a surprising third.
"I should have won it." he said, breathing easily. "But my coach told me to go too soon. "Go, go, go," he yelled at me. I did not train at altitude for any of this. I just wanted to try it. Tomorrow, then, I will win the steeplechase."
Caramba! Tomorrow—without any rest? "It is nossing," said Roelants. It was nossing. Roelants beat everybody laughing and then retired to the stands in a souvenir Mexican sombrero and scrape, looking as though he intended to audition to become a bullfighter in addition to everything else. On Sunday, he entered the marathon and—what else?—won in the remarkable time of 2:19.37. Not exhausted in the least, he finished the day with a sightseeing tour.
But what did all this running and jumping and throwing prove? It proved nicely that there will be a real, oldtime Mexican hot-sauce Olympics next year if everyone will just stop worrying and relax. Further, it proved that more world records than expected will be broken when the quality of competition tightens up. For example, Boston was not there to leap into the sand pile against Ter-Ovanesyan: John Carlos, the New York sprinter, did not have any Tommie Smiths to contend with in the 200 meters. The altitude and the new Tartan track will undoubtedly favor dashers, and when all the big boys get into town, faster times also can be expected in distance events.
Meanwhile, getting ready was at least half the fun. Every waiter in town speaks English better than anyone suspects, certainly good enough to know that "on de rochas" means pour it over some ice, and the artistic Latin touch is everywhere. The Del Prado Hotel downtown, for example, has an old Diego Rivera mural in the lobby that is easily worth more than all of the rooms upstairs, and where else in the world are there gorgeously tiled rest rooms where the attendant hovers solicitously while the customer washes his hands in a million-dollar setting—and then is handed a paper towel?