This is day 8 of the Mexico 1968 Olympic T&F events. This labor of love was written by Mike Fanelli. Like any good historian, Mr. Fanelli has a strong grasp of the facts. But, like the fine historical writers, Mike Fanelli has an affection for the subject and his ability to give us, the readers, insights into the athletic condition.
This is part one of the final day of the 1968 Mexico athletic events.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS…While also the name of a wildly successful George Harrison LP, ‘all things must pass’ has its origins in the King James Bible, Matthew 24: 6-8. For our purposes here on day 8 of the madly successful Mexico City Olympics, it refers to both the closing of said Games and of course, getting the baton safely around the track in the relays. Both the 4 x 100 meters and 400 meters relays took place on this final day, as did a long awaited 1500 meters showdown, the grueling marathon, and the jump that was oddly high.
The high jump final contained thirteen world class competitors including an impressive contingent of Americans, Ed Caruthers, Dick Fosbury, and a 17 year old, Reynoldo Brown. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that as this baker’s dozen performed their gymnastic warmups on the tartan apron, the event’s behatted officials jokingly referred to them as Mexican jumping beans…in actuality, they referred to them in the parlance of the place and so called them Mexican jumping frijoles instead. It was widely recognized in track and field circles that this was the toughest field ever assembled for an Olympic high jump competition. In the early leaping, no one missed a height until 6′ 10 3/4″. A couple more went out at 6′ 11 1/2″ and the field really started to whittle away at 7’1″. A height at which all three Americans surprisingly passed.
Innovation is not widely known as a hallmark of Olympic tradition. But it appeared, thanks to the media attention surrounding the unorthodox approach of the lanky white American, Fosbury, that the entire crowd of 80,000 were all eyes on the Oregonian. The hairbrained style, which one journalist said, “looked like a guy falling off the back of a truck,” was conceived by the then high schooler, Fosbury, while on a bus trip to the big Rotary meet in Grant’s Pass, Oregon circa 1963. The kid, whose personal record was stuck at but 5′ 4″, devised a levitation plan in an effort to get his butt over the bar. At said meet, Fosbury reclined and cleared 5′ 6″. At 5′ 8″ he reclined a few degrees further with the same successful result of lifting his hips over the long metallic obstacle. The engineering work in progress succeeded yet again at 5′ 10″ and the bus ride back to Medford was an elated one for the young Oregon State Beaver-to-be.
Now a much more refined technique, the eponymously named Fosbury flop was still regarded as a sort of circus trick… but one that auspiciously elevated its practitioner to first attempt clearances at every single height all the way up to 7′ 3 3/8″. At that height, just three men remained in the competition. Fosbury, Caruthers, and the Soviet, Valentin Gavrilov. The medalists had been decided, and now it was but a matter of whom would receive which color. Gavrilov missed on all three attempts, Caruthers cleared on his second, Fosbury on his first. The bar for gold was raised yet again, this time to 7′ 4 1/4″, a height that exceeded John Thomas’ American record by one half of an inch. Fosbury missed on his first effort at the new height. It was his very first miss of the entire competition…including both preliminaries and finals. Caruthers also missed on his first shot and then both Americans fouled on their second jumps. Each still had one more chance to clear and Fosbury would go first. He rocked back and forth, and stared at the bar while visualizing a successful clearance for almost two full minutes…then he was off running, driving, lifting, and BOOM, clearing the bar. As he joyously bounded out of the pit, which was nearly adjacent to the stadium tunnel, American teammate and fellow Oregonian, Kenny Moore, was entering the facility with less than one lap to go in the concurrently held marathon. Kenny witnessed Fosbury’s final clearance and threw his hands up in the air as the two made eye contact… he then did a three step jig while the enthusiastic crowd went nuts over the comrades’ happenstance celebration.
The 6 ‘ 4 1/2″, 205 lbs., Edward Julius Caruthers Jr, still had one more opportunity. The stadium hushed as he approached the bar and then groaned in unison as his hip hit it hard on the way up. The big man laid in the pit with eyes closed for but a very brief moment, then popped up and jogged over to congratulate his deliriously happy teammate. The high jump contest was now complete, although Fosbury would take three anti-climactic attempts at a world record height of 7’ 6 1/4…none of which were very close. At three hours long, the high jump had become an endurance event…one which lasted markedly longer for the leapers than the 26.2 miles contested by the marathon racers.
Speaking of which, the 72 marathoner starters began their journey at 3:00 P.M. from a starting line in front of the Plaza de la Constitucion, the government center in downtown Mexico City. All but one of the pre-race prognosticators representing the Bible of the Sport, known as Track & Field News, had selected the two time defending champ and Olympic record holder, Abebe Bikila to repeat…only Bert Nelson dissented, and instead selected the world record holder (2:09:36), Derek Clayton for the win. To set the stage, Bikila had just run 2:16:00 in a time trial…at 7,750 oxygen-less feet. The course, 42 kilometers in length, had a long green line painted for directional purposes and wound its way indirectly south towards the Estadio Olimpico, on some some of the City’s most prominent byways. East German, Jurgen Busch carried the field through 5 kilometers in 16:44. Not one of the eventual medalists appeared within the top ten at this point. Tommie Smith’s Olympic Village roommate, Kenny Moore, reluctantly led at 10 kilometers. He was however possibly already spent before the race had even begun. Along with steeplechase / marathon doubler, George Young, the two had been commissioned by the USOC to stack the massive volumes of Smith and Carlos hate mail that flooded into the Village.
Kenyan, Naftali Temu, the 10,000 meters winner just seven days prior, moved up and ran alongside Moore, and there was a gang of ten others just two seconds back. Not much changed through the next five kilos other than that now, Mexico City resident, Tim Johnston of Great Britian, was your leader at 50:26. Further back in the pack, Abebe Bikila was sidelined at 17,000 meters, with what was diagnosed as a fractured left fibula…ouch. As they hit 20 kilometers, nearly halfway, gritty Belgian, Gaston Roelants, the 1964 Olympic gold medalist in the steeple and current owner of that event’s world record plus the WRs at 20K and the one hour run, led the charge at 1:06:02. The lead pace had picked up noticeably over the second 10,000 meters, and was passed in 32:07.
Once they hit the Chapultepec Park 25 kilometers marker, Temu (1:22:59) and Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde (1;23:07). The chase pack was nearly half a minute back. Wolde (who had first debuted in the Olympic Games in 1956 where he ran on the 4 x 400 meter relay squad), had not finished the 26.2 miler in Tokyo four years prior. He had, however, already collected a silver at these Games, in the 10,000 meters contest. By 30K, Wolde had a six second lead over Temu, who was 59 seconds ahead of Japan’s Kenji Kimihara, while Kiwi, Mike Ryan was running fourth. The top American, Moore, had lost many places when stopping to tear the now rolled up athletic tape off his highly blistered feet. He also peeled away a fair amount of skin while in the process of doing so.
Wolde steadily pulled away from the rest of the field over the long straight uphill stretch from that lasted from mile twenty to twenty-six. He came through the tunnel to the rousing cheers of a jam packed stadium, covered his partial lap of the track, breasted the tape at 2:20:26 and still had time for two tacos before the second place runner even entered the stadium. Kimihara (2:23:31) eventually did and next came Ryan (2:23:45). Moore came home in 14th position, George Young finished 16th, and Minnesota’s ‘Self Made Olympian,’ Ron Daws, crossed the line in 22nd place. Afterwards, Young was heard to mutter, “Anyone that runs more than one of these things, has to have something wrong with him.”
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