The story of one of the most unique summer Olympics ever
After a hugely successful Olympic Games in Tokyo, the quadrennial event has come to Mexico City. After 36 years, the Olympic Games were back on the American continents. This was the first edition to be held in Latin America. The Olympics were also the first to revolutionize equipment for athletics.
For the first time, all-weather synthetic tracks have been introduced. Not only were they more practical, but they induced more speed. An instantaneous effect was observed at 100m, where for the first time, the 10-second barrier was broken. Jim Hines broke the mark, and it wasn’t until 1984 that his record was challenged by anyone.
The Mexico City Olympics were also the first Games where proprietary electronic timing and foam-based landing systems were used for athletes. It was the same edition where we saw the rise of Dick Fosbury, an unconventional high jumper who invented the legendary ‘Fosbury Flop’. Since then, the high jump has never been the same.
In the same Olympics, we also saw Bob Beamon’s high jump. Not exactly one of the favorites for the gold medal, Bob was the fourth jumper in the final. He jumped a very long time, and for a while the officials were unable to digest his mark. When it was finally recorded, Bob couldn’t believe it. It was 8.90 m. He broke the world record by a huge margin.
The Mexico City Olympics also marked the beginning of Indian hockey’s downfall. The Tokyo Olympics brought back the sunny days in style. However, neither had anticipated the rise of a new villain in the game – domestic politics. Some of the best players, including Shankar Lakshman, have had no luck.
In the meantime, in order to appease the warring factions, Prithipal Singh and Gurbux Singh were sent as joint captains. Neither plan worked and for the first time India finished outside the final. Although they did not come back empty-handed, for the first time, India had to endure the ignominy of returning without the coveted gold medal.
Here are some of the most interesting facts about the 1968 Mexico City Olympics:
First Olympics with weatherproof material and athletic safety gear
The Mexico Games were the first edition with safety equipment for athletics. They were also part of the first edition, where all-weather synthetic tracks were introduced for running. However, that was not the original goal. The initial goal was to make a good surface for equestrian events. The plan, unfortunately, did not work.
Before the Olympic Games in Mexico, the race tracks were ashes. They were a mixture of ash, a partially burnt form of ash, clay, and loam. They were more difficult to ride and could also be affected by the weather. However, from the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, ashy tracks were the norm.
But not at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. For the first time, all-weather synthetic tracks were introduced. It avoided heavy and slippery trails. Apart from that, the synthetic tracks also gave runners some extra speed. This was clearly visible in the men’s 100m, when Jim Hines shocked the world with a time of 9.95 seconds. Even though it was aided by the wind, for the first time a man ran 100m in less than 10 seconds.
First Olympics where Germany competed as East and West Germany
After World War II, Germany did not compete for some time. However, the International Olympic Committee brought them back in 1956, as United Germany. Until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Germany competed as one team, although the nation was split in two. Even if West Germany had won a gold medal for example, the medal would be awarded to Germany as a whole.
However, at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, for the first time, Germany competed as separate teams – East Germany and West Germany. Until the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Germany competed in this way. The separation became official at the Munich Olympics, where the two nations competed under separate flags, separate anthems, etc.
East Germany had prowess in athletics, which was shown at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. They reached a fifth overall, due to their nine gold medals, although they won fewer medals overall than West Germany. Due to its proximity to the Communist bloc, East Germany has won more medals than West Germany, especially in athletics. However, the tradition ended with the unification of Germany in 1990.
The invention of Fosbury Flop and the flying jump of Bob Beamon
But if this is something that is always remembered from the Olympic Games in Mexico, it is two things – “Flying Leap” by Bob Beamon and “Fosbury Flop” by Dick Fosbury.
Bob Beamon wasn’t exactly a conventional athlete. However, he had a knack for jumping. He was inspired by the exploits of American horseman Ralph Boston, who also became his unofficial mentor. Ralph had won a gold medal in Rome and maintained his position on the podium with a silver medal in Tokyo in 1964.
However, when Bob jumped the long jump on October 18, he set a new world long jump record with a first jump of 8.90m, improving the existing record of 55cm.
However, Bob was not the only prodigy of these Olympics. Another American athlete, Richard Fosbury, did something no one imagined. He invented a whole new technique that completely changed the definition of high jump.
How did the Fosbury Flop come about? To quote Fosbury himself:
“When I started, I first had to change my body position, start it started the revolution, and over the next two years, the evolution.”
Initially, he tried using the straight scissors method. In this method, a jumper runs straight to the bar, facing forward, and during his jump lifts his outstretched legs one by one over the bar. However, he was not satisfied and started to innovate. As he began to experiment with this technique, he gradually adapted it to get more comfortable and gain more height from it.
Gradually, Fosbury altered his position during the jump, so that in his final year he had started to cross the bar back, head first, curving his body over the bar and lifting legs in the air at the end of the jump. . This required him to land on his back, but before his junior year, his high school had replaced its woodchip landing pit with a softer material, so he was able to land safely. It was his iconic ‘Fosbury Flop’.
The beginning of the fall of Indian hockey
Few would believe it, but somehow the groundwork for the downfall of Indian hockey was laid during the Mexico City Olympics themselves.
It was 1968. India was the undisputed champion. They had regained their honor at the Tokyo Olympics in style. They even won their first ever gold at the Asian Games in 1966, beating Pakistan 1-0 in the last minute of extra time.
However, neither had anticipated the entry of a new villain – politics. Internal politics, which was somehow avoided by the president of the Indian Hockey Federation, Ashwini Kumar, an influential BSF officer, went unchecked. Factions have grown within the team. Unity is lacking. Instead of team spirit, individualism reigned supreme.
Even two captains were sent instead of one. Worst of all, the hero of the Tokyo Olympics, Shankar Lakshman, was not even chosen for this edition, although he was perfectly fit and available. Although the federation gave in after the protests, an injured Shankar called for resignation.
The signs of internal politics dominating Indian hockey are reflected in the performance. New Zealand surprised the world by beating India by a 2-1 margin in the group stage. However, India bounced back and easily advanced to the semi-finals. But the flaws were exposed by Australia, who beat them in overtime. India beat West Germany to win a bronze medal. But the damage was already done.
Beginnings of Praveen Kumar Sobti, the Indian ‘Bheem’
Not many people know this, but before Praveen Kumar Sobti rose to fame as “Bheem” from “Mahabharata” by BR Chopra, he was once a promising athlete, who represented India at the Olympics.
Praveen was barely 19 when he joined the Border Security Force as a sepoy. He was also good at discus and hammer throws. Praveen won a gold medal at the 1966 Asian Games in the discus throw and a bronze medal in the hammer throw.
Before becoming famous as an actor, Praveen Kumar was famous as a champion athlete. He first competed in the hammer throw event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as a 21-year-old Asian mainstay. Although he was not very successful, he returned as a discus thrower at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Ultimately, it was as a television actor that he found his true fame. He became famous for playing the role of Bheem in the movie Mahabharata directed by BR Chopra.