In the days since the Mexico City Olympics ended, a concerted effort has been made to minimize the disabilities suffered by competitors in distance events. For reasons of both historical accuracy and future safety, the actual record must be preserved—and correctly interpreted. It shows that for distance people the games were more of a fiasco than a fiesta. Ron Clarke, the best distance runner in the world, and one of the bravest too, said after his collapse at the end of the 10,000 meters: "This isn't the Olympics—it's a triangular match between Kenya, Ethiopia and Mexico."
In more than 20 years of watching athletics I've only once seen a more harrowing sight than Clarke's collapse. That was Jim Peters' agony in the marathon at Vancouver in 1954. In Mexico, Australia's Clarke battled for more than six miles, not against his fellow competitors but against altitude. That he and many others should have been put in this ridiculous position leaves me frothing with anger. For an important minority, the Games became an embittering and painful experience. I can speak for this minority because, but for an accident of age, I might have run under these conditions myself.
Many athletes collapsed, not just runners but also oarsmen and modern pentathlon competitors. A Swiss oarsman was still convalescing from his ordeal a week after returning to his homeland. Yet the Mexican medical official to the Games issued a statement saying that altitude had presented no problems to the athletes and that there had been fewer casualties than in any previous Olympics. There were in fact 80 collapses in the first two days of the rowing, which prompted one team official to complain, "How can we hold the victory ceremony when our athletes are horizontal?"
Looking back, it is easy to see how it all happened and how it could have been prevented. The Mexicans have several charming characteristics which, as their guest, I could appreciate. But occasionally they fail to tell the whole truth because, sometimes rather delightfully, they think the truth may hurt a little. The truth about Mexico's altitude hurts a lot. It hurt Clarke and 20 more runners in the first few days of the Games—and then I lost count of the number of collapses.
Doubtless the International Olympic Committee halfheartedly queried the Mexicans on the suitability of the site, but they should have known that Mexican pride made all discussions of risk impossible. Dissenting voices were suppressed by a misplaced sense of chivalry. The real fault lay with the IOC and not with the Mexicans. Prompt resignations from the IOC at an early stage could have reversed the decision.
My feelings at the time Mexico was chosen, based on two years of my own researches into the effects of lack of oxygen on running, were so strong that I made several protests through official channels on scientific grounds. These were not heeded. I then wrote to the London Times, whose letter column is the last resort of the indignant Englishman—or someone who hears the first cuckoo in spring or who has a new solution for world peace. My letter appeared in time to be read by the IOC members at breakfast before the Rome meeting that could have changed the site of the Games. Later the Marquis of Exeter replied in the Times using the Brundage argument that "The Olympics belong to the whole world." He also suggested that because altitude runners have a slight advantage at sea level, distance men would compete on more even terms in Mexico. On the contrary, as we saw two weeks ago, their disadvantage was increased.
The effects of altitude on distance runners are quite simple, though the theories of how an athlete should acclimatize are very complicated. Altitude can never be "beaten," despite the pre-Olympics claims of IOC members. Energy for running comes from the breakdown of glycogen, the form in which sugar is stored in muscles. Glycogen can be broken down in two ways. The first is inefficient but immediate and, without using any oxygen, produces lactic acid in the blood—the so-called oxygen debt mechanism. The debt is paid off later.
Sprinters use this mechanism exclusively. The mechanism also accounts for some 80% of the energy required in running 800 meters. It is naturally unaffected by altitude. Thus all shorter distances benefit from the reduced air resistance and may be run faster.
The second way of providing energy is to break down glycogen using oxygen breathed from the air, and in Mexico City this is about 8% less than at sea level. The longer the distance race the more exclusively this mechanism is used, with the result that all athletes in events of over 800 meters run slower than they would at sea level. With insufficient oxygen in the course of distance races, athletes may be forced to use the debt mechanism, and at altitude this may lead to collapse. The body can be driven by the athlete's mind to a point where even the arterial blood contains less oxygen than is normal. Then the brain may falter, the heartbeat become irregular and circulatory collapse occur.
Clarke's collapse at the end of the 10,000 meters had all the features of circulatory failure and lack of oxygen to the brain. He was ashen and did not recover normal consciousness until he had been given oxygen to breathe for 10 minutes. Maurice Herriott, who won a silver medal in the steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics, did not recover normal consciousness until two hours after his race in Mexico. Then he said, "All I can remember of the last four laps is vaguely seeing some black spots on the hurdles." The next day he was still very weak and needed help in walking. He had waited four years since Tokyo for this mockery of a second chance.