The Americas 61.2 (2004) 159-188
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Showcasing the 'Land of Tomorrow':
Mexico and the 1968 Olympics*
A tourist arriving in Mexico City in the early summer of 1968 would have found the capital awash in color, an air of expectation and optimism everywhere palpable as the country finalized last-minute preparations for the Olympic Games, scheduled to commence that October. Yellow, blue, and pink banners framing a white dove of peace lit up major thoroughfares. Throughout the city, numerous commercial billboards had been replaced with photographs of cultural and physical activity related to the Games; in one corner, was the omnipresent peace dove. Other enormous images laced the skyline: caricatured line drawings of school children, a family portrait, anonymous faces in a crowd. "Everything is Possible in Peace," the new billboards proclaimed in a multitude of languages—set against a background of hot pink and vibrant yellow. Along a designated "Route of Friendship" that extended across the southern part of the city, large abstract sculptures of brightly painted concrete by artists of international renown could be observed in various stages of completion. The country's official logo for the Games—"MEXICO68"—whose evident Op Art influence was designed to evoke a moving, modernist feel, was omnipresent; so too were the hundreds of young edecanes (event hostesses), whose uniformed miniskirts and pantsuits were emblazoned with a graphic representation of the logo. The viewer could scarcely have avoided the sensation of a city, a country on the verge of something spectacular.
Today, however, the 1968 Mexican Olympics are generally remembered either for the tragic massacre of unarmed students on the eve of the Opening Ceremony or alternately, for the image of silent protest by U.S. black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at their awards ceremony five days into the [End Page 159] Games. Moreover, these memories tend not to overlap.For Mexicans, images of repression have overshadowed all other aspects, while for Americans the Olympics have been largely telescoped into a single representation of black-gloved defiance. Lost in this narrowing of historical memory is a sense of the exuberance as well as conflicts and challenges that marked Mexico's staging of the Games. As the first "developing nation" to host an Olympics, Mexico faced a series of obstacles that were not only material but, above all, discursive. Nothing less than the reputation of the "Mexican Miracle" itself was at stake in the successful staging of the Games.
Despite a growing body of literature on the 1968 student movement, researchers have only recently begun to assess the significance of 1968 in Mexico from a broader historical perspective.1 Arguably, the historiography of this crucial period has been distorted by a near single-minded focus on the student movement itself and, in particular, the massacre of unarmed protesters at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Tlatelolco) on the eve of the Games. The tendency toward a testimonial approach, moreover, has often meant that there is much memory but little objective historical analysis of this period. This historiography is beginning to change, especially as new archival sources become available. One of the important components of this shift is a growing appreciation for the centrality of the XIX Olympiad, which ironically is often overlooked while researchers seek to unravel the politics and power plays behind the dynamic of student protest and government response [End Page 160] that culminated in the massacre at Tlatelolco.2 A central question many historical treatments of the period dismiss, for example, is whether planning for the Olympics generated popular support within Mexico. Because of the outbreak of the student movement, the implicit assumption (generally perpetuated by treatments of the period) has been that the public viewed the Olympics as excessive and wasteful. The question of public support, however, remains one of the crucial and least understood aspects of this period; it strikes at the heart of the deeper problematic concerning the nature of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional's (PRI) hegemony during the Mexican Miracle.
Of those who have begun...