This is day 4 of the series, The 1968 Mexico Olympics Reconsidered, by Mike Fanelli. We are reposting on the 54th anniversary of the Mexico Olympics.
This is the fourth day of athletics, compiled by Mike Fanelli, fifty years ago to the very day. Mike loves the 1968 Olympics and writes about the Mexico Games with the love of a romance writer and the authenticity of a fine historian. Enjoy day 4, and remember, check out Mike Fanelli on his Facebook page daily!
CITIUS ALTIUS FORTIUS...even my limited recollection of high school Latin recognizes that the aforementioned Olympic motto stands for ‘faster, higher, stronger. It’d prove to be the perfect maxim on day four of the XIX Olympic Games, which featured key finals in the men’s 200, pole vault, steeplechase, and javelin. And speaking of high schools, while Mark Murro would be the lone American in the spear-throwing contest, he was not even the sole ’68 Olympics athlete from his very own high school. Instead, he shared that distinction with Marty Liquori, who’d be racing the metric mile in just two days’ time. Murro and Liquori were Eagle schoolboy teammates while attending Essex Catholic in the Garden State (exit 15W).
While the Latvian world record holder, Janis Lusis, utterly decimated the entire javelin field and the Olympic record to boot, the 19-year-old Jersey boy, Murro, had a sub-par outing and managed just 9th place…a spot for which there are no precious metals nor medals.
Meanwhile, over at the pole vault pit, nearly every single prognosticator worth their sombrero had picked the recent USC grad, Bob Seagren, for gold. After all, he had set the PV world record at 17′ 10 3/4″ just a month prior and looked to be a good candidate in the race to become the galaxy’s first man ever to break 18 feet. In what would be one of the most electric head-to-head competitions of these Games, all three medalists cleared the exact same height (17′ 10 1/2″), but the American champ got the nod due to fewer misses…just what the pundits predicted.
The highly anticipated Speed City meets Mexico City event would not disappoint back on the track. Well, unless you were one of the six frustrated Track & Field News panelists, none of whom picked the man in the middle of the medals to even place in the top six…zero.
In the discipline that is more famous for its award ceremony than the footrace that preceded it, John Carlos, in lane four, blasted away early. He led by a full yard and a half when he emerged from the turn. The instant that Tommie Smith hit the straightaway, he shifted into overdrive…turned on the ‘Tommie Jets’ if you will. At the 140, the former SJSU Spartan motored past Carlos and powered convincingly down lane three. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting Australian, Peter Norman, who had been sixth with 80 meters remaining, was barnstorming the home stretch. In what may have been the sprint rendition of Landy v. Bannister, the now slightly fading Carlos glanced left (at Smith) while Norman, two lanes to his right, pulled even and then ever so slightly nudged ahead at the wire. According to the US coach, Stan Wright, “This probably lost him second to Norman”.
Smith, who went all celebratory ‘hands high’ five meters before the line, was awarded with a world record 19.8 (Carlos’ 19.7 at Echo Summit was disallowed due to the 64-pronged Pumas that he wore there) and a new Olympic record too. Both Norman in second and Carlos in third received identical 20.0 marks. Norman’s twenty flat remains the oldest Australian national record to this very day…surely worth its weight in Vegemite!
The only other track final this Wednesday was the 3,000-meter steeplechase contest held under the lights on a downright balmy Mexican eve. One false start (yes, a STEEPLEchase false start), and the field was off…slowly. Upon completion of a molasses-inspired first go-around, the world record holder and reigning Olympic champ, Gaston Roelants of Belgium, pulled the pair of Kenyan competitors along at the front. The African entrants were Benjamin Kogo, who owned a speedy 8:31.6 PB, and a neophyte named Amos Biwott. The tallish (5’11 3/4″) Biwott had greatly entertained the spectating crowd to no end during the heats two days prior. As if terrified of the barriers, he’d step on top, come to a pause, thrust sky-high vertically, and then land on the same foot that had touched the hurdle first. It was almost comically inefficient. At the water jumps, he was clearly hydrophobic as his landing point was oh so noticeably out beyond the puddle…he did not dampen a single shoe throughout. Oh, and he unnecessarily raced his own shadow to an 11-second victory in said qualifying heat (8:49.4).
The kilo was passed in a pedestrian 3:04.2, and the great American hope, George Young, bopped along in next to last. At the conclusion of three complete laps, Biwott was falling off the pace precipitously and so now ran in seventh, whereas Young had improved to sixth. Up front, ‘Gaston the Great’ led Kogo through a sub-three minute kilometer to record 6:03.2 at the two-thirds post.
When there were just two laps remaining, Roelants still governed the race. However, Kogo and Young nipped not at all tentatively at his heels. Alexander Morozov (the Russian) and Kerry O’Brien (the thunder from Down Under) were still very much right in the mix…Biwott, who appeared to be loafing, was the better part of twenty yards in arrears, way back now in 9th place. He’d have clearly missed the train if this had been Grand Central Station.
Once the bell clanged, all players simultaneously upped their game. Kogo and Young briskly overtook Roelants while the ‘Commie’ and the ‘Aussie’ chased convincingly. Just out of the penultimate curve, with merely 300 meters to go, the Arizonan attacked; Young let loose with his entire arsenal, and O’Brien responded instantaneously…Kogo was now relinquished to third. But this here skirmish was far from over. Kogo retaliated with flawless mechanics over the final water jump, propelling him past Young. Just behind them, a frantic Biwott had closed considerable ground, and his ballistic style over the scary pond had put him back in contact. He charged forth like a maddened locomotive run amok. Halfway between the final barrier and the goal line, Biwott blew by O’Brien, Young, and Kogo. and Amos the Invincible scored Kenya’s second gold medal in just a four-day span.
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