The 1968 Games was the first – and, to this date, only – Games to be held at high altitude. Mexico City was situated 2240m above sea level and the thin air did impact adversely on some performances.
In many ways, it was a Games of contention. Riots, strikes and protests occurred in Mexico City in the lead-up to the Games, resulting in the tragic deaths of hundreds of young protesters when police opened fire on a student rally a fortnight before the Opening Ceremony. During the Games, African-American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged their own ‘Black Power’ demonstration on the medal podium after the 200m sprint final, each raising a gloved fist in the air during the playing of their national anthem (the other man on the podium was Australian Peter Norman, the silver medallist).
The Games also featured one of the singularly celebrated feats in Olympic history: American Bob Beamon’s historic world record long jump leap of 8.90m to win the gold medal. The previous world record was 8.35m; Beamon’s jump was so extraordinary it would remain a world record until 1991. He achieved it with the fourth jump of the final on the afternoon of October 18, collapsing in a fit of emotion when the distance was displayed on the scoreboard.
Australia at these Games
Australia sent a team of 135 athletes to Mexico City, 111 men and 24 women. This was almost half the size of the team sent to Tokyo in 1964 and a third of the size of the Melbourne team from 12 years ago. While many athletes struggled with the difficult conditions, there were some excellent performances, with the team finishing with 17 medals: five gold, seven silver and five bronze.
Bill Roycroft, the hero of Australia’s team three-day equestrian event win in 1960, carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony, with hockey’s Eric Pearce having the honour at the Closing Ceremony. Roycroft, along with his son, Wayne, and Brien Cobcroft, won a bronze medal in the team three-day event. Pearce was a popular choice – the hockey team had won the silver medal, improving on its bronze from 1964.
Athletics and swimming provided the gold medals. At the pool, Michael Wenden was Australia’s golden boy, winning both the 100m and 200m freestyle. He remains the only Australian to win the double. Wenden also won two relay medals – silver in the 4x200m freestyle and bronze in the 4x100m freestyle. Western Australia’s Lyn McClements won the 100m butterfly and picked up a silver medal in the 4x100m medley relay.
In athletics, Maureen Caird became the second Australian, after two-time champion Shirley Strickland, to win the 80m hurdles. Caird was only 17-years-old and became the youngest athletics champion in the history of the Games. Australia’s other athletics champion in 1968 also earned himself a footnote in the record books. Victorian Ralph Doubell won the 800m, the only male runner not from a high-altitude country to win an event longer than 400m in Mexico.
Australia also won a surprise pair of silver medals on the track. Peter Norman was second in the men’s 200m and Raelene Boyle won the first of her three silver medals in the women’s 200m. Medals for the men’s eight rowing crew (silver), men’ hockey (silver) and three-day eventing equestrian team (bronze) showed Australia’s growing strength in team-oriented events.