Fifty years after the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968, the performances, records, innovations and, yes, that famous protest still echo today.
As the last Games of the turbulent 1960s, the Mexico City Olympics were the first to be held in Latin America and also the first in a Spanish-speaking country.
Team USA led the medal table with a total of 107 medals – 45 golds, 28 silvers and 34 bronzes – its highest output since 1904 on home soil in St. Louis.
More than half of those medals came in the pool where Team USA won a whopping 52 medals in swimming and six in diving.
The track and field team added 28 medals, many of the 15 golds coming in spectacular fashion.
Here are 12 ways the 1968 Games made their mark on history and continue to resonate today.
1) Black Power Salute
Tommie Smith raises his fist for Black Power at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in the “Black Power Salute” on the podium.
After Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter with Carlos capturing the bronze, they made a stand to protest racial inequality in the United States. The sprinters were part of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights” organized by Harry Edwards, their sociology instructor at San Jose State. Edwards originally advocated boycotting the Games.
Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, refused an invitation to try out for the U.S. basketball team to protest the treatment of black athletes. However, African-American track and field athletes opted to attend the Games and protest in their own way. For example, double gold medalist Wyomia Tyus wore black shorts. The men’s 4x400-meter team wore black berets on the podium and raised a clenched fist as they walked out of the stadium.
But Smith and Carlos grabbed the headlines. Their medal ceremony became one of the iconic images of the Games and is compared today to Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality.
After Smith ran a world record of 19.83 seconds, breaking Carlos’ mark of 19.92, the Americans wore black socks on the podium with no shoes to symbolize black poverty. Smith tied a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. Because they only had one pair of gloves, they each took one glove. They also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons, as did silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia. During the national anthem, Smith and Carlos raised their fists and lowered their heads in a silent, non-violent protest. “The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity,” Smith said.
Under pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to disqualify the entire U.S. track team, the United States Olympic Committee suspended Smith and Carlos and forced them to leave the Olympic Village. They were also ordered to leave Mexico.
Teammate Lee Evans wanted to withdraw from the 400-meter final to show solidarity with Smith and Carlos, but Carlos persuaded him to run. Evans led a U.S. sweep, winning in a world-record time of 43.86 seconds, which lasted for 19 years.
Cuba, which took second in both the men’s and women’s 4x100s, announced it was sending all of its silver medals to Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael as “a symbol of protest of the treatment of the black man in North America.”
2) A High-Altitude Games
Wyomia Tyus competes in the women's 100-meter at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 15, 1968 in Mexico City.
The Games were the first to be held at high altitude.
At an elevation of nearly 7,400 feet, the thin air in Mexico City provides only 77 percent of the oxygen at sea level. This led to a slew of records in track and field – including two lasting more than 20 years – but near tragedy in the pool. Michael Wenden of Australia lost consciousness after winning the 200-meter freestyle and nearly drowned and silver medalist Don Schollander of the United States had to be given oxygen.
While the altitude slowed down distance runners, sprinters and jumpers had a field day. They smashed world records in the men’s and women’s 100- and 200-meters, the men’s 400, the men’s and women’s 4x100s, the men’s 4x400, the men’s 400 hurdles, the men’s and women’s long jumps and the men’s triple jump. The world record was also tied in the men’s 800 and set in the women’s shot put, while Olympic records were established in nearly every other event. Three of those world records were chased for many years by athletes who seldom had the opportunity to compete at altitude. No Games have been held at such a high elevation since 1968.
The men’s 4x400-meter team ran 2:56.16, a record lasting 24 years. It was finally eclipsed at the Barcelona Games in 1992 by Team USA.
Tyus became the first athlete, male or female, to repeat as 100-meter Olympic champion. She also was the first woman to run a legal time of 11.0 seconds (hand-timed). Four of the five world record holders at 11.1 were in the Olympic final.
Jim Hines of Team USA was the first man to run under 10 seconds officially in the 100 with a time of 9.95 seconds in the first all-black final in the event.
Although the altitude was more of a curse than a blessing in the longer events, Madeline Manning prevailed in the 800-meter. She was the only U.S. woman besides Tyus, a fellow Tennessee State Tigerbelle, to win an individual gold medal. Manning, who has been a Team USA chaplain at the Olympics, remains the only American woman to win the 800 at the Games.
3) Beamon Sets A Still-Standing Olympic Record
Bob Beamon breaks the world record in the long jump at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Bob Beamon soars 29 feet, 2 ½ inches in the long jump.
In the rarefied air of Mexico City, Beamon uncorked a legendary leap. But first, he drew comparisons to 1936 champion Jesse Owens – but not for the right reasons. Like Owens, Beamon had two fouls in the preliminaries and only one more chance to post a legal jump. Team USA’s Ralph Boston advised him to jump well before the takeoff board, just like Germany’s Luz Long advised Owens.
On Beamon’s first jump in the final, he flew incredibly high over the sand. The judges had to use a steel tape because their optical measuring device was not long enough. Beamon wasn’t that familiar with the metric system, so he wasn’t as impressed with 8.90 meters as he should have been. When he saw the converted measurement, he collapsed. Beamon had sliced a full 21 ¾ inches off the previous world record of 27-4 ¾.
Reigning Olympic champion Lynn Davies of Great Britain told Boston, “I can’t go on. What is the point? We’ll all look silly.” Then Davies told Beamon, “You have destroyed this event.”
Beamon never jumped over 27 feet again. In 1991, Mike Powell of Team USA went 29-4 ¼ to set a new world record, but Beamon still holds the Olympic record after 50 years.
Boston, the 1960 gold medalist and 1964 silver medalist, went on to win the bronze to complete his Olympic collection.
4) Team USA’s Unprecedented Domination In Swimming
(L-R) Jan Henne, Debbie Meyer and Jane Barkman sweep the podium in the women's 200-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Of the 553 medals won by the United States in swimming the last 122 years, nearly 10 percent are from Mexico City. Team USA won 52 of the 87 available medals, winning 11 of 14 women’s events and 10 of 15 men’s events. The United States won 21 gold, 15 silver and 16 bronze medals and made the podium in every event. Among the 50 other countries, Australia and the Soviet Union were tied for second with eight medals apiece.
This was a complete team effort, with no swimmer winning more than three gold medals.
Debbie Meyer, a 16-year-old Californian, was the standout by becoming the first swimmer to win gold medals in three individual events: the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyles. The 200 and 800 were both new Olympic events for women. No other athlete equaled Meyer’s feat in the freestyles until Katie Ledecky in 2016 (Janet Evans won the 400 free, 800 free and 400 IM in 1988).
Charlie Hickcox won three gold medals (200 IM, 400 IM, medley relay) and one silver (100 backstroke). Claudia Kolb won the women’s 200 IM and 400 IM. Her Olympic-record time of 5:08.5 in the 400 IM gave her the most decisive women’s swimming victory in 40 years, as teammate Lynn Vidali was second in 5:22.2.
Team USA went on to win 43 medals in Munich four years later, then 34 in 1976. With such lopsided medal tables, the IOC decided to cut the number of individual entrants per country to two instead of three for the 1980 Games, a restriction which continues today.
5) Mark Spitz Debuts
(L-R) Mark Spitz, Doug Russell and Ross Wales sweep the podium in the men's 100-meter butterfly at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Mark Spitz made his first Olympic appearance.
Before “Spitzian” became synonymous with incredible success, the brash swimmer suffered a blow to his confidence.
Spitz predicted he would win six gold medals in Mexico City, but came up short with only two relay golds and a silver in the 100-meter butterfly. He was eighth in the 200 butterfly despite holding the world record. Four years later, Spitz was the first athlete to win seven gold medals at one Games, a record that stood for 36 years until Michael Phelps eclipsed him with eight in Beijing.
6) The Fosbury Flop
Dick Fosbury sets an Olympic record in the men's high jump at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Dick Fosbury introduced a new technique to the Games.
As one of the worst high school high jumpers in the state of Oregon, Fosbury was desperate to get over the bar. During a meet, he improvised a new technique, which he originally called the “back layout.” He later changed the name to the Fosbury Flop.
Although he was ridiculed for going over the bar backward, Fosbury defied his coaches’ wishes to try a more conventional style.
In 1968, he improved 5 ½ inches in less than nine months, culminating in Mexico City when Fosbury jumped 7-4 ¼, a new personal and Olympic record. The crowd was enthralled, and the worldwide attention led to a revolution in the sport.
Four years later in Munich, 28 of the 40 competitors were using the Fosbury Flop, with one exception being the Olympic champion. All Olympic champions, male or female, starting in 1980 have used the Flop.
“He was like the Beatles, breaking new ground,” the late Track & Field News writer Jon Hendershott said in the new book, “The Wizard of Foz – Dick Fosbury’s One-Man, High-Jump Revolution.”
7) Gender Testing Makes Its Debut
Madeline Manning Mims wins gold in the women's 800-meter at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Athletes underwent gender testing for the first time at the summer Games.
In an effort to keep men from competing in women’s events, the IOC began testing athletes in 1968. A chromosome test was conducted after swabbing the inside of the athlete’s cheek.
Mandatory gender testing ended in 1999, although individual athletes could still be evaluated.
The drastic improvement of Caster Semenya of South Africa in 2009, when she won the world championship at 800 meters, led to controversial gender verification testing. Since then, the IOC and international track and field federation have struggled to come up with guidelines involving testosterone levels that are fair for all athletes.
8) Doping Disqualification Begins
Jim Henry competes in the men's springboard at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
The first Olympic athlete was disqualified under new doping regulations.
Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swedish modern pentathlete, claimed he drank beer to calm his nerves before the shooting competition. When he tested positive for alcohol, he cost his country a bronze medal. Doping is an ongoing problem in sports, with athletes testing positive at every Olympic Games, although usually for performance-enhancing drugs instead of beer.
Liljenwall went on to compete in the 1972 Games, presumably without quaffing any alcohol, and Sweden placed fifth.
The international federation instituted doping controls after the 1965 world championships in which Austrian athlete Hubert Polzhuber apparently drank 10 beers and a bottle of cognac before shooting all of his bullets into the ground.
9) George Foreman Makes A Name For Himself
George Foreman wins gold in heavyweight boxing at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 26, 1968 in Mexico City.
George Foreman won the super heavyweight boxing gold medal.
Despite having fought in only 18 bouts before the Games, Foreman defeated Jonas Cepulis of the Soviet Union with a second-round TKO for the gold. He then waved a small American flag in the ring.
Foreman became the third straight U.S. boxer to win the world heavyweight title after claiming Olympic gold. Cassius Clay, who fought in the light heavyweight division in 1960, was the first, followed by super heavyweight Joe Frazier in 1964.
In 1973, Foreman knocked out Frazier to earn the world heavyweight title, retiring four years later. He launched a comeback in 1987 at age 38. On Nov. 5, 1994, the 45-year-old Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer to become the oldest fighter to win the WBA heavyweight crown.
10) Al Oerter Earns His Four-peat
Al Oerter competes at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Al Oerter is the first track and field athlete to win the same event four times.
Oerter won his first Olympic gold medal in the discus at age 20 when he wasn’t the favorite by any stretch of the imagination at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Severely injured in a car accident a year later, Oerter was back for the Rome Games, where he defended his title. Hampered by neck and rib injuries four years later, Oerter fought through the pain to win again.
Finally, at age 32, he was the underdog in Mexico City. Teammate Jay Silvester, the world-record holder, led the qualifying with an Olympic-record toss.
Rain delayed the final an hour, which threw Silvester off. But Oerter was on fire. In the third round, he heaved the discus 212-6, five feet farther than his previous best. He also threw 212-5 and 210-1 to prove that was not a fluke.
Oerter was the first to win his track and field event four times, a feat equaled by Carl Lewis in 1996.
Oerter came out of retirement in 1980 and was fourth at the Olympic Trials, which were held despite the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games.
11) Willie Davenport On Track To Become Two-Sport Olympian
Willie Davenport competes in the men's 110-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
Little did Willie Davenport know in 1968 that he would go from hurdling down a track to hurtling down a mountain in a bobsled. A 1964 Olympian, he was so nervous before the 110-meter hurdles in Mexico City that he almost fell down while taking off his sweat pants. Davenport went on to run 13.33 seconds, equaling the Olympic record.
He placed fourth in Munich, then won the bronze in Montreal.
While it is common now for athletes from summer sports to take up bobsled, that wasn’t the case when Davenport answered the call to switch sports. He made Team USA after only three months of training. At age 36, Davenport competed in his fifth Olympics, this time at the Winter Games in Lake Placid in 1980, placing 12th. Davenport, teammate Jeff Godley and Bob Wilson of Canada were the first black athletes to compete in the Winter Games. Davenport also was the first track athlete and only the fourth in any sport from Team USA to compete in both summer and winter Games.
12) Groundbreaking Color Broadcast
Lee Evans competes in the men's 400-meter at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 during Oct. 1968 in Mexico City.
The 1968 Olympics are the first in which a majority of the events – not just the opening and closing ceremonies – are broadcast worldwide in color.
In the United States, ABC produced its first summer edition of the Games (having already televised Winter Games from Innsbruck in 1964 and Grenoble in 1968).
Thanks to satellites and a convenient time zone, a lot of the competition during the 43.5 hours of coverage was shown live.
ABC paid $4.5 million for the rights, a far cry from the $50,000 CBS paid to show the Olympic Winter Games Squaw Valley 1960 – the first to be shown on television in the United States.
In the most recent deal, NBCUniversal, the current Olympic broadcaster, acquired broadcast rights across all media platforms, including free-to-air television, subscription television, internet and mobile, for 2021 through 2032 for $7.65 billion, plus a $100 million signing bonus to be used for the promotion of Olympism and the Olympic values between 2015 and 2020.