Mexico’s Olympic Massacre

As London prepares to host the Olympics, the memories of Olympic veterans have turned to the Mexico games of 1968 – which saw momentous achievement on the tracks, black power salutes from the winners’ rostrum … and a terrible massacre of scores of protesting students. Bob Trevor, who has spent much of his career as a sports and news editor at the BBC, was in Mexico covering the Olympics as sports editor of the London Evening News and witnessed the shooting down of unarmed demonstrators:

It was the evening of October 3rd and Mexico was enjoying the excitement of staging the Olympic Games for the first time in Latin America. The main thoroughfare, Paseo de Reforma, was thronged with theatre- and film-goers. Tourists were strolling along the boulevards. Cafes, restaurants and wine bars were full.

Yet a mile or so away in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, students and trade unionists were being shot from rooftops and army helicopter gunships. A peaceful demonstration turned into a bloodbath. The marksmen couldn’t miss as they fired into the packed square, lit up by flares from the helicopters. I was swept into a side street by the crowd as pandemonium broke out. Nobody around me realised that the far end of the street had been blocked off by armed soldiers supported by armoured cars. The pressure of the crowd built up from behind, slowly pushing those at the front towards the line of riflemen. Everyone thought they would be killed.

The demonstrators had been listening to speakers on the podium calling for the resignation of President Diaz Ordaz and a return to constitutional government knowing the world’s press was in town. There can be little doubt the action was premeditated. The correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, John Rodda, was hustled into a cellar at gunpoint before the killings began, only to be released when it had all finished. The government didn’t want independent eyes to see the massacre, and certainly didn’t want a foreign reporter hurt in any way. But there were foreign reporters in the square to record the event, and one of them – the Italian, Oriana Fallaci – ended the night in hospital with two bullet wounds.

As we tried to escape somebody found an alley and I was flushed down this narrow exit into a quiet, empty road.  We returned to the everyday reality of the Reforma where nobody was aware of the brutal drama taking place so close by. A press conference was hurriedly arranged where the police chief, General Luis Cueto, said twelve people had been killed including seven policemen. He said he had ordered his officers to round up anyone engaged in public disorder “This will not be tolerated,” he exclaimed. (Four months later I received a letter in my office at the London Evening News postmarked Montevideo with a list of 900 people who had not been seen since the meeting in the Square of Three Cultures and a similar gathering in Vera Cruz).

After the press conference I returned to the alley with correspondents from The Observer newspaper, Chris Brasher and Hugh Macilvanney, and we watched as bodies were thrust into garbage vehicles and trucks carrying water cannons flushed away the evidence. It was the most frightening evening of my life – worse than the London blitz. But the American head of the IOC, Avery Brundage, ruled the Games would go ahead regardless.

The next day Chris, Hugh and I returned to the Square of the Three Cultures and were quickly surrounded by students wanting to tell their stories. We were taken to one house where a woman told us she had been to the police station to report her son as missing. She had taken all his documents and handed them to a policeman. He took them into an office and returned to tell her that she had brought no paperwork and she had no son. He threatened to arrest her for wasting police time.

For those of us who had witnessed the violence, the brutality overshadowed the Olympics – but I had been sent out to cover the Games, and so my attention turned to the events. The organisation at the Athletes’ Village was chaotic. Most competitors lived out of their suitcases for the duration.  There was an underlying tension in the village throughout the Games.

Stele in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Mexico City, dedicated to the remembrance of the protesters massacred on 2nd October 1968

Yet in spite of everything Mexico became the largest and most successful Games ever. 112 nations competed (18 more than the previous best at Tokyo in 1964), and 252 Olympic records fell in the five events where time, distance, weight and points decide the results.

For the first time in Olympic history overt politics was introduced  when, at the Victory Ceremony for the 200 metres, the winner Tommie Smith (USA) and his countryman John Carlos, bronze, raised the clenched fist salute of the Black Power movement. The stadium erupted in booing and catcalls. Both athletes were sent home immediately in disgrace.

But politics hounded the Games in the next four Olympics at Munich, Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles.

It was at Mexico that Africa emerged as master of middle and long distances running.  Kip Keino won the 1,500 and came second in the 5,000. His fellow Kenyan, Naftali Temu, took the 10,000 gold. The Ethiopian Mamo Wolde won the marathon with almost three minutes to spare.

The outstanding field event was the men’s long jump. The American Bob Beamon, on his first and only jump, cleared 29ft 2.5 ins (8.90 metres) beating the world record by 22 inches. Not far behind Beamon’s exploits was the man who jumped over backwards. For the first time the world witnessed the Fosbury Flop. At a stroke he changed high jumping for ever and for everyone.

Away from the track, the gymnast Vera Caslavska became the star of the Olimpiada. She had escaped from Czechoslovakia a few months earlier as the Warsaw Pact countries invaded to quash the Prague Spring. The selectors kept faith with her and the Mexicans cheered her to the echo as she led the Czechoslovak team at the Opening Ceremony. She won four gold medals to add to the three she had taken in Tokyo for an Olympic record.  She repaid the fans’ adulation by performing ‘The Mexican Hat Dance’ in her floor exercises.

Yet for all the remarkable Olympic achievement and performances, some of us – as we flew out of Mexico City – viewed the Games as a sideshow after witnessing the massacre at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. I feel the same way today.

Bob Trevor

[the original posting of this article has been corrected with regard to medal winners of track events]

One Comment

  1. The Guardian’s John Rodda was
    in the square, and lay under a pile of bodies, pretending to be dead.
    He died in 2009, and the the main workroom in the Olympic media centre is
    named after him.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *