Tlatelolco Massacre 1
The violent suppression of anti-government protests only 10 days before the start of the Mexico City Olympic Games.
It was 48 years ago when the Olympic Games were last held in Latin America. And like the upcoming Rio Olympics, political unrest served as an overture to the opera that was the Mexico City Olympics.

The Rio Games commence in only a little more than 2 months from now. President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is in the midst of impeachment proceedings, which has sparked protests both for and against the embattled leader. However, protests against the government appear to be far greater than those supporting the government.

As the New York Times recently put it, “more demonstrators have hit the Brazilians streets than the rest of the world combined.” And the Olympics are the spark:

The Olympics will provide activists of all political stripes with another prime opportunity to voice their grievances, but this time beneath the hot glare of the global media spotlight. The Olympics raise a raft of reasons to dissent: displacement (some 77,000 people and counting), militarization of public space (85,000 security officials will flood Rio, more than double the number in London), flawed spending priorities (billions spent on Olympics while hospitals are shuttered).

So far, thankfully, little violence has come of the protests in Rio de Janeiro. But in the summer of 1968, protests against the Mexico government were considered such a threat that the President decided to end it, or face the humiliation of open government opposition at a time when the international community was expecting a stable, united and enthusiastically positive Mexico. But in actuality, Mexico City was a few sparks away from a conflagration.

President Gustavo Ordaz
Then President of Mexico Gustavo Diaz Ordaz

The first spark was on July 22, when rival student gangs in competing vocational schools got into a rumble that resulted in riots. The government shut down the riots when police invaded one of the vocational schools, assaulting students and teachers alike, somewhat indiscriminately. The attack by the police on the vocational students led to a growing solidarity of a large number of students in Mexico City. This student movement gained momentum as they raised money, distributed leaflets and held demonstrations in protest of Mexico’s President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.

On August 1, the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Barros Sierra, led a peaceful demonstration of 50,000 students against what were thought of as repressive actions by the government. After weeks of continued protests, the Mexican Army took over the UNAM campus – the second spark. Rector Sierra resigned on September 23, only 19 days before the start of the Mexico City Games.

The third spark came on October 2, 10 days before the world would focus its attention on the release of thousands of doves, representing peace, and the march of over 5,500 athletes from 112 nations coming together with a promise to compete as members of a united humanity. Only fifteen miles from the Olympic Village, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to listen to anti-government speeches, and to protest. President Ordaz had had enough.

At 5pm that day, the Plaza was encircled by tanks on the ground, and covered in the air by helicopters. When the helicopters sent flares into the sky, undercover troops called the Battalion Olympia, who were identifiable to the Army by the single white glove they wore, swept through the crowd. Shots rang out and people collapsed.

Tlatelolco Massacre 2

Richard Hoffer wrote about what later became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, in his book, Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Hoffer explained that the CIA’s Mexico City station chief was relaying to Washington DC what his contacts in the Mexico government were telling him – that “the first shots were fired by the students”, and that “this was a premeditated encounter

John Akhwari's bandaged leg
John Stephen Akhwari walking his final lap

Mamo Wolde had already completed the 42-kilometer marathon in the oxygen-thin air of Mexico City, continuing Ethiopian dominance in the footsteps of Abebe Bikila. Wolde had already received his gold medal, and was likely resting somewhere inside the stadium when a humming murmur turned into joyful cheers on that evening of October 20, 1968.

A man was walking into the Estadio Olimpico Universitario, his right leg heavily bandaged. He limped decidedly, the result of falling close to the halfway point in the marathon while jockeying for position. He had dislocated his knee and banged up his shoulder in the collision with the pavement. He got treated, and kept running despite the pain, and the cramps.

While 17 in the 54-man field did not complete this most grueling of the long-distance competitions, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, was determined to finish. As intoned in this somewhat over-the-top narration of Akhwari’s final steps in this video below, “a voice calls from within to go on, and so he goes on.”

Afterwards it was written, today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit, a performance that gives true dignity to sport, a performance that lifts sport out of the category of grown men playing a game, a performance that gives meaning to the word courage. All honor to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.

When asked why he kept running, Akhwari gave one of the most memorable quotes in sporting history: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”

John Stephen Akhwari

Ada Kok Sharon Strouder butterfly 1964
From left to right: Ada Kok of the Netherlands, Sharon Stouder and Kathy Ellis of the United States.


She used to train with the boys – big boys, who were boxers during the day and bouncers in bars at night. Ada Kok was a teenage swimming phenom, asked to join the Dutch national swimming team at the age of 13, but in the early 1960s in Amsterdam, athletes were on their own.

“In those days, you just had a swimming coach but nothing for any condition training. The coach of the boxing team helped me. I ran in the park with the other boxers. I skipped rope. And my friends made sure that boys didn’t give me trouble when going out in Amsterdam because they’d tell them, ‘I’ll punch you in the nose if you don’t do right by her’.”

Inspired by her sister, who competed on the Dutch swim team at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kok became the premier butterfly swimmer in the world, setting the world record in that discipline in September, 1963, and again in May, 1964. At the age of 17, Kok was the favorite going into the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Nearly matching her world record time, Kok swam an excellent race in the 100-meter butterfly finals. But she lost to Sharon Stouder of the USA, who broke Kok’s world record. Going into the finals, Kok expected to win, but in retrospect, she now knows she was unwittingly swimming upstream against a US team that was more prepared and more experienced than any other team.

“I was very disappointed,” Kok told me. “I was the world’s record holder for years, and I was training hard for this event. I didn’t know Sharon Stouder. I didn’t think about my competitors. I was confident, not arrogant. But I was also naïve.”

In the end, no other country had the resources to support a swim team like the USA at the time. Not only was the Netherlands 0.4% the size, 6.3% the population, and 43% of the per capita GDP of the United States in 1964, the US had the swim clubs, the coaches and the access to international competition that very few other athletes in the world had.

Ada Kok on bicycle in Tokyo Olympic Village
Ada Kok (left) on a bicycle in the Olympic Village in 1964.

“They were more professional,” said Kok of the Americans. “They had paid coaches. Mine was a volunteer, who had a regular job. Our swim federation didn’t have the money to send us abroad so we competed in nearby countries traveling at minimum cost.”

And yet, the Dutch women’s team still proved to be a powerful force, winning silver in a team race in the women’s 4X100 meter medley relay, a competition where four swimmers swim two lengths of the pool each in four different styles in this order: the backstroke, the breaststroke, the butterfly stroke, and freestyle (which means any style other than the previous three).

As a demonstration of American dominance, the US swim coach did not even use their top swimmers in the heats. And the four swimmers who swam in the finals set an Olympic record, finishing over three seconds faster than the silver medalists, the Dutch. Making it close was Ada Kok, who got some measure of revenge against Stouder by swimming the third leg butterfly stroke over 1 second faster than the American in the finals. “The silver medal for the team was a positive surprise,” said Kok. “We couldn’t get anywhere near the Americans, but to be second as a team was fantastic.”

Kok would regain her world record in the butterfly in August, 1965, as well as win the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly in Mexico City in 1968. But she was happy with her results in 1964. “You’re always pleased to get a medal. When you’re on the podium, and you see it and touch it, it’s wonderful.”

Yukio Endo_Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Service
Yukio Endo, from the book Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

By the time the 1964 Tokyo Olympics rolled around, gymnast Boris Shakhlin of the Soviet Union had won nine Olympic medals in Melbourne and Rome, including four gold medals in 1960. Until 1980, his total Olympic medal haul of 13 was the most by any male athlete until 1980.

Shakhlin certainly had an opportunity to continue his championship ways in Tokyo. Except that Yukio Endo, and perhaps all of Japan, stood in his way.

Boris Shakhlin_XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun
Boris Shakhlin, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun

Endo won the men’s individual all-around gymnastics competition, which includes compulsory and optional events in six events: the vault, floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar. After all was said and done, Endo had a total score of 115.95 out of a total 120 points, edging out three competitors who tied for second with scores of 115.40.

In other words, 0.55 separated gold from silver. The problem is, Endo had what could be described as an awful effort on the pommel horse optional. As American gymnast Dale McClements described in her diary at the time, “Endo sat on the horse 2 times and dismounted with bent legs.”

According to the Japan Times, Endo had a considerable lead over his teammate Shuji Tsurumi and Shakhlin before the pommel horse optionals. “Japanese spectators were biting their nails fearing that the last moment error would cost Endo the gold medal. The event was halted 10 minutes as Japanese team manager Takashi Kondo made a strong appeal to the judges that the faults should not be counted too much. While the Russians glowered, spectators burst into cheers when the judges finally raised their scoring flags. All four were unanimous giving Endo 9.1 scores which assured him of the gold medal.”


Yukio Endo
Yukio Endo, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

Another American gymnast who witnessed Endo’s performance, Makoto Sakamoto, told me that the pommel horse is arguably the hardest of the six disciplines. “It’s the most difficult event to stay on. There are so many opportunities to fall and slip off. You can hit a slick spot, or you sit down. He missed! I remember saying, ‘Darn it, the best gymnast in the world is crumbling.’ Then he got a 9.15, and I thought, ‘what a gift!’ Anyone else would have gotten an 8.2 or 8.4. He got a 9.15.”

In other words, the 0.55 edge would have disappeared if Endo had not


No soccer player has scored more goals as a representative of the Japanese national team. No Olympian in the 1968 Mexico City Games scored more goals. Currently a member of the Japanese government’s House of Councilors, Kunishige Kamamoto (釜本邦茂) is considered the greatest Japanese soccer player of all time.

As a student at Waseda University, Kamamoto was one of the youngest players on the Japan national team that competed in the Tokyo Summer Games in 1964. Despite winning their first match against Argentina unexpectedly, in which Kamamoto assisted on the winning goal, the Japan team lost their next two matches against Ghana and Czechoslovakia to fall out of the running for a medal. And Japan lost in the consolation rounds to Yugoslavia, to end up eighth in the standings. But in the match against Yugoslavia, the striker from Kyoto scored the only goal in a 6-1 loss. It was his first goal in Olympic competition. But it wasn’t his last.

The coach of the Japan national team, Dettmarr Cramer, believed Kamamoto to be world class. In fact Cramer was influential in getting Kamamoto experience in Germany with a German football club as well as with the German national team in the beginning of 1968.

Kamamoto then joined the national team in the Mexico City Games in 1968, scoring a total of 7 goals, the only Asian ever to be the top scorer of an Olympic Games. He led the team to victories over Nigeria (where he had a hat trick), and ties with Spain and Brazil. In the medal rounds, Japan defeated France 3-1, in which Kamamoto netted two goals. While they were shut out by eventual gold medalists, Hungary, to finish out of the championship match, Japan fought off host Mexico in front of 105,000 people to win 2-0. Who scored those two goals in the first half to quiet the crowd? Kunishige Kamamoto.

Unfortunately, Kamamoto was sidelined due to hepatitis for a considerable amount of time after the Mexico City Games, and the Japan team wasn’t able to advance to the World Cup. Additionally, Japan did not have a professional league to take advantage the momentum Japan’s national team generated in Mexico City. But eventually the Japan Soccer League was formed and Kamamoto became the highest scoring player in that league’s history, with Yanmar Diesel.

Kunishige Kamamoto_Pele Overath
Kamamoto on the shoulders of Pele and Wolfgang Overath at his retirement match in Tokyo on August 25, 1984.

Kamamoto was said to have a powerful right foot, who never missed when taking a shot from 45 degrees, and a beautiful header taking advantage of a strong leaping ability. In short, Kamamoto was precise. Here is how this website, Japan Soccer Archive, explains it:


I looked back on negatives of similar photographs taken by two cameramen to record all of his matches throughout an entire year. It was astonishing to see just how this player’s approach to the ball, steps, impact, and follow-through when shooting were always exactly the same. His technique and posture when heading was similar – always stable and beautiful – from his vision to ready himself for the moment the crosser played the ball, to his determination of the ball’s point of fall, his steps, his jump, and finally his contact with the ball in the air.

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) on the podium after the 200 meter race at the 1960 Summer Games in Mexico City. Peter Norman took silver and is the person on the left. All three wore the OPHR button and went barefoot in protest.
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) on the podium after the 200 meter race at the 1960 Summer Games in Mexico City.

An amazing post from the blog whatwesee has been making the rounds – The White Man in the Photo – which focuses on the story of Peter Norman, the Caucasian sharing the podium with Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

You would think with all the attention Smith and Carlos got with their black-glove protest, two fists thrust defiantly in the air, that they had placed first and second in the 200 meter race. But it was Norman who took silver in front of Carlos. And while Smith and Carlos were famous runners from “Speed City”, Lloyd (Bud) Winter’s San Jose State College track team, Norman was no slouch. In fact, according to Richard Hoffer in his book, Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Norman, Smith and Carlos traded places on record paces several times.

“Smith tied the record of 20.3 in the first round; Norman, who had never run faster than 20.5, ran 20.2 to break it in his head; and then Smith came back in his to tie it. This was inspired running. In Wednesday’s two semifinals, both Smith and Carlos won their races in new Olympic records of 20.1.”

Tommie Smith won the finals in world record time of 19.83 seconds, but Peter Norman snuck ahead of John Carlos at the end as Carlos was turning his head. According to Hoffer, Norman really wanted in on the protest, and bumped into Harvard rower, Paul Hoffman. Hoffman, a Caucasian, was part of a crew team that went out of their way to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and their demands for equality for Blacks in America. Hoffman was the type of who invited the women’s track team, who were Black, to an all-white Harvard alumni event in Canada, and who set up a meeting with the Black Panthers to discuss ways the Harvard rowing team could show their support.

OPHR Button
OPHR Button

So when Norman walked by Hoffman, he said, “Hey mate,” you got another one of those, Hoffman was suspicious. Norman was from Australia, which had an apartheid-like policy of its own…and yet he was asking for Hoffman’s OPHR button. Hoffman wondered whether Norman was joking. Hoffman decided that he wasn’t.

And the rest is history. Norman shared that incredible moment with Smith and Carlos, shoeless and defiant. And while our eyes never really notice the white guy in the photo, as the popular blog post notes, Norman did suffer the consequences when he went home to Australia. As stated in the “whatwesee” blog post, Norman was treated like an outsider, an outcast, and subsequently couldn’t get stable work. Norman eventually had to deal with depression and alcoholism. As the whatweesee blog post states,

Japan beats Argentina with Coach Cramer on the right in black, from the book "Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency"
Japan beats Argentina with Coach Cramer on the right in black, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

He is second from right, in the black coat, running onto the field to celebrate with his team – Japan’s victory over Argentina in a preliminary soccer match at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

Like so many sports, Japan was playing catch up. In the case of soccer, the then President of the Japan Football Association, Yuzuru Nozu, thought that Dettmar Cramer was the man to coach the national Japan team. So the West German coach worked with the Japan team for four years, and in their very first match, they defeat Argentina 3-2 in what was considered an upset.

Japan beats Argentina 2

Cramer would go on to be an advisor to the Japan team that went to Mexico City, and incredibly, Japan won the bronze medal. As he is quoted in this Japan Times article, striker Ryuichi Sugiyama said Cramer was a true inspiration. “Before the bronze medal (match) he told us ‘show me your yamato damashii (Japanese fighting spirit)’. As a trainer, he was fantastic but he was also engaging as a human being.”

Cramer passed away on Thursday, September 17 at the age of 90. His life was dedicated to soccer, leading Bayern Munich to victory in the European Champions Cup in 1975 and 1976. In Japan,

Takuji Hayata in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
Takuji Hayata in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

He grew up in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, dreaming of becoming a tuna fisherman like so many of the adults in his town.

But at the age of ten, he would walk around on his hands, and everybody began calling him “Handstand Boy”. His natural physical gifts eventually led to attendance at the best university for gymnastics in the strongest country for gymnastics – Nippon University in Japan. And he would go on to Olympic glory in Tokyo and Montreal.

In 1960 at Rome, Japan won its first of five straight Olympic team championships. So for Takuji Hayata (早田卓次), the youngest member of the 1964 team, it was initially intimidating to join the Japan gymnastics team. “Four of the six team members competed in Rome, including Yamashita Haruhiro who had a technique named after him. I was happy, but I was an unknown, so could I really make a contribution,” he wondered in an interview.

Paraguayan stamp of Takuji Hayata

As it turned out, Japan won gold in the men’s team gymnastics in 1964, with Hayata taking gold in the individual rings competition. But Hayata explains that becoming a champion was not easy. He said the gymnastics coach was a perfectionist and a taskmaster.

Upon waking every day, his coach insisted that he do one hour of electromyostimulation, then three hours on core gymnastics, followed by resistance training to build up muscle. Hayata had to keep his weight down, as he had to work hard to drop about 2.5 kgs a day, which he did by running or sweating off the weight in a sauna. On top of that, his coach filmed everything, pointing out every mistake.

As a result, Hayata was in top shape. But two-and-a-half months before the opening of the Tokyo Games, his father went to the hospital and passed away. “A year before the Olympics I was in excellent condition and I enjoyed working out daily,” he said in this speech at his induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2004. “I was selected and attended the training camp with great joy. I didn’t want to sleep. However, my healthy father suddenly became ill and passed away. People worried about me. All my friends came to comfort me. So at the age of 24 on my birthday (which happened to be the day of the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Games), I wanted to do my best for my father.”

Hayata of course did do his best, not only for his father but for his home town. He said that during the Olympic Games, prior to his competition, he got a letter from his junior high school in Tanabe. A student had drawn a picture of him on

From the Japan Times, October 15, 1964
From the Japan Times, October 15, 1964

On October 14, 1964, four days after the start of the Tokyo Summer Games, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr won the Nobel Peace Prize.

rafer johnson flag bearer
Rafer Johnson carries the American flag in the Opening Ceremony at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Fifty one years later, despite Barack Obama becoming the first black in the Oval Office, the state of race relations in the United States appears be getting worse. According to a recent New York Times CBS News poll conducted last week, race relations have regressed. “…nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse. By comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Obama took office said they believed that race relations were generally good.”

In my view, race relations between blacks and whites in the US have been a long slog of three steps forward two steps back. Sports in some ways has been a leading indicator for race relations, mainly because at some point, ability and outcome outweigh the color of one’s skin.

Here are a few significant moments from sports relevant to this topic, including past Olympiads – this is not a comprehensive list by any means:

  • Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis in 1935 in a highly publicized match between a white German and a black American, one year prior to the Berlin Games in 1936.
  • Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, under the glare of Nazi leaders who espoused Aryan racial superiority.
  • In 1938, Joe Louis dropped Max Schmeling three times in the first round, remaining heavyweight champion of the world.
  • Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball by becoming the first black ball player in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.
  • In the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, decathlete Rafer Johnson was the first black athlete to be flag bearer for the US team. Despite protests, apartheid South Africa participated in those Games.
  • South Africa was suspended by the IOC from participating in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 due to the South African government adopted a policy to prohibit athletes of different races to participate in sports together.
  • In 1968 at the Summer Games in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who  came in first and third in the 200 meter race, were kicked out of the Olympic Games for raising their fists covered in black gloves. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated that year.

Here is a photo of