Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, had come back from the Little Olympics, a fact-finding meet in Mexico City in 1966, and proclaimed the site of the '68 Summer Games safe. "I have seen the runners at high altitude," he announced, "and no one fell down dead." As reassuring as this was, members of the U.S. Olympic Committee decided on a program of altitude acclimation closer to the actual Games.
And so male track and field athletes were gathered at South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in early September 1968 and asked to breathe air at a Mexico City--like elevation of 7,370 feet. Some of the men who showed up thought it might as well have been for the scenery, maybe a little tuning up, but certainly not to make the team. They had done that in the last week of June, when they qualified at the Olympic trials in Los Angeles. According to the rules, at least as far as anyone understood them, the top 10 or 12 from each event in Los Angeles went to the high-altitude camp for further winnowing, but the winner had automatically qualified for the Olympic team. So they thought.
After winning the NCAA championship in mid-June, Fosbury had gone 7'1" to win the high jump at the trials. He had returned to Oregon, goofed off a bit, then packed his bags and set forth for Lake Tahoe in his Chevy II, no hurry. But upon checking in he learned that his spot on the U.S. team was up for grabs after all. The USOC had decided that the sea-level trials at Los Angeles might be a poor predictor of success in Mexico City. Even the winners would have to qualify anew. Fosbury felt a panic rising in him.
He was jumping erratically—"Hit-and-miss," he said—and the competition was bunching up around him. Fosbury needed all three tries to make 7'2", at which he joined Olympic veteran Ed Caruthers, high schooler Reynaldo Brown and John Hartfield. But because of his misses, Fosbury was in fourth place. Hartfield, without any misses, was in first. Since none of the four had ever jumped 7'3", it was unlikely that the standings would change. Hartfield could not lose, and Fosbury could not qualify.
The bar was lifted an inch, which might have been a foot as far as they were concerned. But the weather was warm, and the juices were flowing. Caruthers, running ever so slowly, straddled the bar, just ticking it, but making it over safely. Brown likewise touched the bar on his attempt but also made it. Hartfield missed. Fosbury corkscrewed over the bar cleanly and came up out of the foam pit grinning madly.
But he hadn't made the team yet. Hartfield could still close him out on misses if he made the height. As Hartfield lined up, though, Fosbury's coach had a sudden inspiration. Since 7'3" would have been an Oregon State record, Wagner asked to remeasure, so that it would qualify. Hartfield didn't notice this and started for the bar, stopping only when he saw the congestion of officials under the standards. It shook him up.
After the officials finally cleared out, Hartfield missed his remaining jumps. It was over. His sure trip to Olympic glory had just been canceled, and he ran into the woods, disappearing into a thick stand of Ponderosa pines. It was years before Fosbury saw him again.
Gary Stenlund was a good man to know at an Olympics. He'd arranged for friends to bring his VW bus down to Mexico City. It was a 1965 camper, a cream-colored pop-top beauty, perfect for the escapades he had in mind. When Stenlund and Fosbury toured the city, beer cans rattling in the back, it was usually in the company of two young women—former swimming gold medalists, as a matter of fact. Stenlund had laid that groundwork back in South Lake Tahoe. He was basically a one-stop party, Stenlund, anticipating all the requirements of fun.
Fosbury was not in Stenlund's league when it came to partying, wasn't even in the same sport. Stenlund's event was the javelin, but he liked to boast he was a decathlete when it came to the consumption of spirits. He was 28 and had been hitting them hard for 10 years, even while competing at an elite level. He could drink a case of beer, or a gallon of wine, or a fifth of whiskey, and throw the javelin 260 feet the next day. Often, anyway. When it mattered, he could cut back. The night before finals qualifying in Mexico City he held himself to only four beers, although as it turned out—he finished 17th—he might as well have drunk his full schedule.
But the days leading up to the Games were a good time to have wheels and women. There was plenty to explore, and the people were so hospitable, so friendly. Mexico City was dedicating itself to the amusement and amazement of its visitors, and you would have been a very poor guest to ignore such an offer.