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Bob Ottum
October 14, 1968
Mexico City was vibrant with warmth and color for arriving Olympic athletes, but behind the extraordinary pageantry there was alarm that tragic battles between students and troops might disrupt the Games
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October 14, 1968

Grim Countdown To The Games

Mexico City was vibrant with warmth and color for arriving Olympic athletes, but behind the extraordinary pageantry there was alarm that tragic battles between students and troops might disrupt the Games

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For five years Mexico had rejoiced in the knowledge that it would be host to the 1968 Olympics, but last week, with the Games at hand, the country must have felt dubious about the quality of the prize. Here was Mexico City all prettied up, all painted, all swept and set for this big show that has cost the country $150 million so far. There were Olympic-theme posters—a white dove of peace on a blue background—all around town. There were billboards everywhere saying that "Anything Is Possible With Peace." But just when all seemed perfect, just when the only thing left was for that pretty young girl to run the torch into the stadium, the whole structure began to teeter back and forth and make ominous noises.

Apparently there was to be no going back—although in one tight period last week that prospect was carefully considered. But one cannot hang an out-to-lunch sign on an Olympiad, nor can one call the Games on account of tension. Instead one must, as Mexico is doing, hold on for dear life, perhaps pray to an ancient Aztec god or two, and make a run for it.

It will be a wild race despite the official calm of Avery Brundage. After an emergency session of the International Olympic Committee, President Brundage announced, "We have consulted with the Mexican authorities, who have assured us that there will be no interference upon the entry of the Olympic flame into the stadium on October 12, nor in any of the events until the closing of the Games." With unintended irony he called the Games "a true oasis in this troubled world" and added. " Mexico City is a huge metropolis of more than six million people and none of the demonstrations or violence here has at any time been directed against the Olympic Games."

What Brundage was talking about, of course, was the fact that thousands of Mexican students—with that keen sense of timing of the young—were in a revolt against the government, putting up a backdrop of violence. A demonstration had erupted into terrible fighting and President Gustavo D�az Ordaz was moving to hold off any further struggles until after the Games. Tensions were going higher on all sides, with the Olympic Village as a sort of island of calm in the middle. And, more than anything else, the scene began to shape up as the Generation Gap Olympics.

For all its schizophrenic air, Mexico has whipped up the most improbably beautiful setting of any Olympics, the sort of thing that will leave its artistic stamp on the world, no matter what else might happen. The city comes on in a burst of color, with flowers and flags and bright new statuary spotted along the boulevards leading to the venues. Pretty se�oritas wearing official, dresses that spell Mexico—if you look closely enough—are on hand to greet visitors. Along the highways, gardens spell out "XIX Olympiad" in tiny cactus plants. And the Olympic Village, lying in the second-summer sun under huge tethered balloons, is like a dolce-sports-vita resort scene.

By last weekend 7,261 athletes had unpacked their sweat socks and were settling down to training: running, jumping, throwing things, hunching low over bicycles and pedaling off into the city's traffic—which could be the most dangerous thing they will do in all their competitive lives. By rough count, 1,221 sturdy hopefuls from 89 countries had signed in for track and field events alone. There were 83 men in the line for the 26-mile marathon, making for the biggest potential walkout—or runout—in Olympic history.

The Americans came down from Denver in blazers and confident looks and the Russians were vivid in that sort of plugged-in red. There were splashes of color from well over 100 countries in all and, on all sides, crowds of Mexicans, who have been totally turned on since the first flag went up.

The Olympic Village sprawls over a scenic lava-bed valley roughly the size of Texas. There are enough training fields and tracks to run off the entire show without ever sending anyone up to the big stadium on the hill. The competitors settled down in a hurry to test: 1) The 7,349-foot altitude, which they grew more and more to feel they could live in, and 2) each other. And things got going right away.

First off, while some of the late nations were still waving hello at customs and dragging their suitcases off the bus, the Italian cycling team staged an off-the-cuff pursuit event—and broke its own world and Olympic team records with a 4:24.6 run over 4,000 meters. So much for altitude problems.

Next day the 1964 Olympic soccer champion, Hungary, took on Nigeria in a pickup match that drew a crowd of 15,000. If Nigeria's 1-1 tie was indicative of things to come, then the Olympics are going to end up on their ear, because Nigeria was not good enough even to field a soccer team at the Tokyo Games.

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