Playing for Power: the political importance of the 1968 Olympic Games

The 1968 Mexico Olympic Games was arguably one of the most historically significant
sporting events of the twentieth century. Frequently compared to the 1936 Berlin Olympics,
Mexico ’68 is often perceived as another key politically charged Olympics. The domestic and
international tensions that had been building over the past two decades ultimately
amounted to an event in which sport wasn’t the only area of contention.

Many have viewed Mexico ’68 as an Olympics of firsts. It was the first to be hosted by a
Latin American country, have East and West Germany compete as separate nations, be
televised in colour instead of black and white, have a woman light the Olympic flame, and
test for drug misuse (to name merely a few). Mexico City also held a ten-month Cultural
Olympiad and was really the first host nation to emphasise this aspect of the Games.
Though these Olympic firsts are extremely significant and reflect the new technology and
attitudes of the 1960s, it is vital that they do not over-shadow the political tensions that
persisted throughout these Games.

Protests against the Mexico 1968 Olympics (Image from Radio Diaries)

In Olympic history, contemporary local issues have defined the success of any host country.
In Mexico City, tensions had been brewing since the announcement that the Olympics were
to be held in the capital. Ten days prior to the Opening Ceremony, extensive student
protests against the government’s financial prioritisation of the Games resulted in the death
of around two-hundred protesters at the hands of the army. More than a thousand
demonstrators were also injured, making spectators, officials and athletes uncomfortable in
the lead up to the first set of sporting events.

Throughout the 1960s, Mexican society was heavily impacted by rampant inequality, which
especially affected the lives of urban workers as well as of those in rural communities. The
Mexican government contributed $150 million in order to fund the Games, which for many
seemed unnecessary and insensitive given the prevalence of social inequalities and
discontent.

Though the Mexican government attempted to hide local unease with impressive logos and
colourful television images, it was apparent that the Mexico Olympics would prove distinctly
different from its predecessors. One of the most famous moments from the Games came in
the form of a silent but immensely profound protest against racial discrimination.

Resulting in arguably one of the most famous photographs of the 1960s, the 200-meter
medal ceremony saw the African American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise
their fists in support of Black Power in order to highlight the numerous social issues in the
USA. In light of the recent assassination of Martin Luther King alongside growing protests
against the Vietnam War, this act of solidarity became a symbolic moment within the Civil
Rights movement.

Tommie Smith, photographed in 2009 (image found on Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to the Games, Carlos and Smith had been central in organising the Olympic Project for
Human Rights, which had the key goal of raising social awareness and improving the
treatment of black athletes. With the initial intention of boycotting the Games, Carlos and
Smith ultimately chose to compete, believing it would provide greater opportunities for
activism on an international level. The protests that occurred amongst Mexico’s student
population ten days before the Games resonated deeply with both athletes, with Smith later
stating in a 2008 interview that “it was a cry for freedom and for human rights”. All athletes
on the podium, including the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, wore a badge for the
Olympic Project for Human Rights as Carlos and Smith also wore black gloves, socks and
beads.

The reaction of the US Olympic Team is perhaps most telling of American attitudes during
this period. Both Carlos and Smith were suspended and quickly removed from the Olympic
Village as a result of their actions. The necessity of their protest is clear given such a
response. The photograph ultimately became symbolic of the political discourse that
permeated Mexico ’68, but also of the broader social tensions in both 1960s America and
Mexico.

The continued significance of this example of sporting activism demonstrates the
importance of such actions and their profound international impact. For this reason, the
1968 Mexico Olympics can evidently still be viewed as one of the most politically
noteworthy Games of the century, symbolically encompassing the pertinent social issues of
the 1960s.

Title image available at history.com

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