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There are many things that make the XIX Olympiad the most intriguing of modern Olympic Games, and some of them are good. For openers, the Mexicans offer a stimulating approach to food and drink (gastroenteritis is a worthwhile risk for tourists) and a brassy architecture that seems to bring everything in Mexico City into particularly sharp focus. Olympic visitors—150,000 are expected to occupy in shifts the 67,000 available beds—will find Mexico City a wildly beautiful place with a traffic pattern that resists man's Euclidean designs. The closest thing to a square in downtown Mexico City is a trapezoid. This increases the excitement when the bus drivers race each other through the streets. Whole families sit on the curbs of Mexico City to watch the traffic.
It is not true that Mexicans are lazy, but they do have great patience in getting things done. Conservative Mexican thieves are known to risk capture by taking the time to remove the radio without stealing the car. But the Mexicans can also strike with inspirational fire when there is a chance to do something bold and fresh.
The Olympics have given the Mexicans this chance to let loose their inspiration. For the first time in the history of the Games, runners will run on a synthetic track (Tartan) that is impervious to rain, heat and after-race excuses, and platform divers will be able to conserve energy as they rise to the occasion on a hydraulic elevator. A pretty Mexican girl (Se�orita Enriqueta Basilio) instead of a muscular boy will run the Olympic torch into the opening ceremonies on October 12. Mexico City barbers will feature at regular prices a sweeping Olympic style for men and a five-ringlet coif for women, dangling from each ringlet a ribbon to match the colors of the five rings of the Olympic insignia.
Most inspired of the new ideas is the return to the Greek practice of putting culture on the same program with sport. Ancient Athens had its Euripides and Pindar; Mexico City's Cultural Olympiad is featuring Duke Ellington, Maurice Chevalier, the Bolshoi Opera and Astronaut Gordon Cooper. The English poet Robert Graves is offering a special Olympic ode in Spanish. Salvador Dali has created a discus thrower, a mass of rippling oils that will be the most expensive athlete at the Games ($28,570, insured). An African ballet group is performing topless.
This will be Mexico's first Olympics and the first ever for Latin America, just as the 1964 Games in Tokyo were the first for the Orient. Though XIX is the official designation, there were no VI, XII or XIII Olympics, those giving way to world wars. Unfortunately for the Mexicans, old XIX staggers (see cover) into the starting blocks as though it had already been through a war, and it is a good bet that it will not reach the closing ceremonies on October 27 without further suffering. The Tokyo Olympics, devoid of inter-and intranational strife, handled with tact and calm by the Japanese, were known as the Happy Games. Everybody went home smiling. The Japanese were lucky. We may never see another Olympiad like it. The Mexicans will be host to 7,226 athletes from 119 countries, and their games are sure to be the biggest in history—roughly 7,000 athletes and 110 countries enlarged from Olympiad I. They could also be the worst, as they are already the most troubled, through no fault of the Mexicans.
To better understand the situation, it must be remembered that there never was an Olympiad that entirely lived up to Olympic ideals. Believers and apologists go into a quadrennial agony in search of the True Meaning of the Games, but as long as man has had a hand in them the Games have fallen short of Olympus. The original Olympics were dispensed with in 393 A.D. because they had, under Roman influence, attained a peak of paganism and crookedness (Nero fell out of a chariot race once and declared himself the winner; Olympic champions were set up for life, losers were left to be scorned like dogs). The modern Olympics were born in 1896, more a credit to the promotional pluck of a tiny little French baron named Pierre de Coubertin than to any kind of international bent for brotherhood through sport. De Coubertin spoke with a straight tongue: he said the "foundation of real human morality lies in human respect, and to respect one another it is necessary to know one another." With that humbling exhortation, the Games have progressed to the point (the surest thing you can say about them is that they endure) where knowing one another has made it possible to predict a regular slate of exercises in Olympic dubiety: just what is an amateur, anyway? How can you separate the Olympics from politics? How can you guard them against exploitation? National self-interest? International incidents? Sexless women? Moral turpitude? Professionalism? Bad feeling? Nicotine and tars?
Mexico's particular troubles begin with geography. Mexico City is 7,349 feet above the sea and places such demands on a man's lung capacity that at least one alarmist has predicted runners will die during the Games. That, happily, is an extremely remote likelihood, but the thin air seems certain to keep any of the superb sea-level runners from emulating the multigold-medal feats of past Olympics. Jim Ryun, for prime example, had his heart set on an 800-1,500 double, but at the exhausting high-altitude U.S. Trials at Lake Tahoe, Ryun could not make it in the 800 and had to prove himself all over again in the 1,500.
Troubles move from there to the stereotype of the Mexican peasant, slumped against the wall, sombrero down to shield his eyes from the work left undone. The Japanese, miffed that they had not been consulted on how to shape up Mexico City construction, predicted an Olympic doomsday. A European said flatly, "These people [the Mexicans] can't do it." Hardly anyone was willing to believe that the Mexicans were actually working around the clock, by sun and by floodlight, to beat the deadline.
Then there was the question of Mexico's smoldering young activists. They don't like President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz' government, and they are trying to bring it down. As activists they are no different from the young at Berkeley or Columbia. That is to say, some of them are true idealists, and some are what Daniel J. Boorstin has termed the New Barbarians. They are unable to see any long-range good—economic stimulation, national pride—coming from a $150 million Olympic expenditure. There has already been rioting and gunplay in the streets of Mexico City. The rioters are clearly anxious to do their thing in front of plenty of witnesses (the Games will be carried for 42 hours in all on American television and for an average of 11 hours a day on Mexican television). Estimates of what they will do range from demonstrating (waving placards), to genuine acts of sabotage, to the provocation of street warfare.
But subverting the Olympic theme has never been just a local project, it is an international undertaking. It can happen anywhere, even in Dallas. Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, says that the Olympics give to mankind more than they receive, and a Dallas girl named Joyce Ann Dobson (described as "short, seductive, well-built") took him at his word. She collected $72,000 or more for the U.S. Olympic Fund. She began wearing furs and riding around in fancy cars. When members of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which prides itself in never taking a penny from the government and never leaving a runner home because of the shorts, tried to find out where the money went Miss Dobson gave them a blank look.