This is the final piece of the series by Mike Fanelli on the 1968 Mexico Olympics Reconsidered, for day Eight, part 2. This piece is reposted on the 54th anniversary of the Mexico Olympics.
This is part 2 of the final day, day 8 of the track & field events in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Mike Fanelli has crafted each and every story, illustrating each piece with photos or artifacts from the well-known Track Garage of Mr. Fanelli. Enjoy this final column.
Aside from the altitude, Jim Ryun and Kip Keino were the ones to beat in the men’s 1500 meters. It would be a long-awaited battle between the world’s two fastest-ever milers. Could America’s hero, Jim Ryun, hold up at 7,000 feet of elevation? Could Keino, whose name in Nandi means “born by the grain storage shed,” survive all of the rounds, heats, and finals of the 10,000, the 5,000, AND the 1500?
Twenty-five percent of the finalists in the field of twelve sported Team USA singlets. Joining Ryun in red, white, and blue were former Oklahoma State star Tom Von Ruden and Villanova teenager via Essex Catholic Martin Liquori. In all of the heats and semis leading up to this metric mile finale, the first lap pacing dawdled in something north of sixty seconds as each race boiled down to a sprint. When the starter’s pistol fired, and the athletes charged down the backstretch, sacrificial lamb Ben Jipcho all but flew around the oval while recording a torridly paced opening 400 split of 56 seconds. The Kenyans were racing as a team, and it was Jipcho’s responsibility to ‘rabbit’ Keino, who shadowed him to a gaping early lead over the entirety of the field…but mostly to take the sting out of Ryun’s sizzling finishing ability. This would be no sit-and-kick competition, oh no. During the second go-around, Jim moved up through the field to a spot in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, Keino’s margin grew to 18 yards over Ryun’s. The intermediate 800-meter time was recorded in a speedy 1:55.3. By lap three, Keino was chased by West Germans Bodo Tummler and Harald Norpoth. UK’s John Wetton was fourth and Ryun, running solo, was 12 yards further back. The 1200 was crossed in an astounding 2:53.3 (faster than Ryun’s world record pace at the LA Coliseum a year prior). And THEN, Keino picked it up, timing the next 200 in a remarkable 27.5. But now, Ryun was really flying. He got Whetton, then Norpoth, and had to go real wide through the final curve to get around a still-fighting Tummler. Keino was 12 yards ahead but not coming back. His final hundred of 14.1 was adequate enough to grab the gold while Jim looked back multiple times to ensure he had silver for in hand…he eased up through the line some 2.9 seconds after Keino’s astonishing Olympic record, 3:34.9. Said Ryun afterward, “I think I ran my best race.” Well, so do we…the Kenyan was just invincible that given day and under those disadvantageous conditions.
All that was left of these Olympics were the relay races. Although the US 4 x 100-meter relay squad was heavily favored on paper when push came to shove, they’d be challenged…mightily. Kingpin leadoff man, Charlie Greene, had been injured in the earlier century competition and, so here, was heavily taped. Both Jamaica and Cuba were faster in the prelims. In the semis, USA got spanked by Cuba in the second heat while Jamaica crushed the world record in the first heat. The stopwatches did not lie. The battle lines had been clearly drawn.
For the final, Cuba drew the inside lane, the USA would race in number two, Jamaica in five, and France all the way on the outside. It was evident soon after the gun that Greene looked far better than he had in the rounds. His exchange with mighty Mel Pender was near perfect. Pender blazed the straightaway, and then it was Ronnie Ray Smith’s turn. At the final exchange, Ronnie Ray’s pass to Jim Hines was utterly flawless…but Cuba had a five-foot lead, East Germany was two feet further back, then came the USA with feisty France on the heels of Hines. The 100-meter Olympic champion blew right past the German anchor, readily dusted the Cuban leader, and won, going away. At least one stopwatch (and remember, they do not lie) captured Jim Hines in a startling 8.2 seconds as the Americans re-claimed the world and Olympic record with a scintillating 38.2. Cuba was 38.3, France 38.4, and Jamaica also timed in 38.4. The top four relay teams broke what the pre-Olympics world record of 38.6 was, and even East Germany in fifth place, tied the previous mark.
Like any good track meet, the last competition of these games concluded with a 4 x400m meter relay. The heavily favored USA team became even heftier after their 1-2-3 sweep at 400 meters. Vince Matthews kicked things off with a solid circuit in 45.0, but the upstart Kenyan team, led by David Rudisha’s Dad, Daniel, was ahead at the exchange thanks to a 44.6-second baton carry. Then came the very fastest 400-meter split ever run, when Ron Freeman tore things open in an unheard-of 43.2. Larry James’ third leg of 43.8 was a beauty to behold, and then, Lee Evans put a bow on it with what appeared as an easy peasy lemon squeezy 44.1. The US margin of victory over Kenya was a gargantuan three and one-half seconds…and their 2:56.1 obliterated the world record by an equal 3.5 seconds of the Omega timing system. What a magnificent way to close out these 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.
In conclusion, by my estimations, the 1968 men’s Olympic track team was the greatest one ever assembled. Some may argue that the 1956 squad was superior, and they did win more medals (28 in 1956 versus 23 in 1968). But of the 12 athletics events won by Americans in 1968, every single one was a new Olympic record…and 6 were world records. By comparison, the 1956 winners set 9 Olympic records (and tied 1) but had just one world record. Finally, the 1956 Olympics had 61 participating countries, while 1968 had 93 countries which of course, included the true emergence of the African Olympic athlete. I, therefore, rest my case. Let us all raise a hearty toast to the 50th anniversary of the XIX Olympiad…cheers.
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