1968: a turbulent year

The 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which the PRI government of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz hoped would showcase Mexico to the world, also revealed deep fissures within Mexican society as those elements seeking change ran into resistance.

Although the Tlatelolco Massacre looms large in the Mexican psyche, for many around the world it barely registered, as their own countries were being riven by the same pressures.

The old order in the United States was in the process of being turned on its ear by the Civil Rights movement. For some, this represented an intolerable threat to the status quo, and in addition to political resistance, the Civil Rights movement was met with violence. Ironically, the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4th spurred President Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act into law just one week later.

Race wasn’t the only issue facing the US: the war in Vietnam mobilized a generation who objected to what they saw as an immoral foreign intervention and a sad waste of promising young lives. Troubling news coming from the conflict in 1968 included reports of American soldiers massacring civilians in the village of My Lai, and a startling photograph showing a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Viet Cong guerilla at pistol point, developments which further polarized US public opinion about this controversial war.

Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was seen by many as representing new hope for the nation, but these hopes were dashed by an assassin’s bullets on June 5th. The Democratic Party’s national convention, held in August in Chicago, was characterized by antiwar protests and police brutality, heightening the turmoil in the year’s American politics.

Since January that year, Alexander Dubcek’s government in Czechoslovakia had gradually been loosening that country’s post-Second World War Stalinist society. This caused grave alarm in the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, and on the night of August 20th over 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks rolled into the country to remove Dubcek and reinstate hardline Communist rule.

In May, France was brought to a standstill as a series of student protests against class and economic disparities at universities in Paris grew into a nationwide strike. At its peak over ten million workers, representing two-thirds of the country’s total workforce, walked off the job (or just as likely took over their factory). President De Gaulle went into hiding before finally dissolving the government and calling elections in June.

In the United Kingdom, Catholics in Northern Ireland were beginning to demand equal treatment before the law, but their protests were met by increasing violence from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Protestant hardliners. Widespread rioting in 1968 eventually led to the formation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and thirty years of sectarian violence, known simply as “the Troubles.”

While Mexico did a good job of papering over (and burying) its internal divisions for the 1968 Olympics, much of the worldwide unrest was on display.

Most famous was the Black Power salute given by black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they received their gold and bronze medals (respectively) for the 200-meter sprint. While an innocuous gesture to modern eyes, the International Olympic Committee (then headed by an American) forced the US track and field team to send them home, and they ultimately received lifetime Olympic bans. That event’s silver medallist, Australian Peter Norman, wore a badge supporting the Americans and also spoke out against his own country’s “White Australia” immigration policy, leading to his own ostracism.

Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Cáslavská, who had won three gold medals and one silver at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, was a vocal supporter of the Prague Spring reforms, and had been in hiding since the Soviet tanks rumbled into the Czech capital. She reappeared to triumph at the Mexico City Games, winning four golds and two silvers, but provoked the ire of the newly-installed puppet government in Prague when she staged a silent protest by looking away during the playing of the Soviet anthem. She earned the affection of her hosts, however, when she married countryman runner Josef Odlozil at the Catedral Metropolitana in the Zócalo, as thousands of Mexicans looked on and wished them well.

 

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