The Olympics in Mexico was the first Olympic film to be directed by an Olympian. Alberto Isaac represented Mexico in freestyle swimming at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, and swam the anchor leg for his country in the final of 1948 4×200-meter relay. Like the Rome 1960 film, The Grand Olympiad, The Olympics in Mexico was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category. Indeed, the film is a model of how to make a movie about the Olympics. It is beautifully shot and edited, and yet it manages to show every sport except field hockey, modern pentathlon and wrestling. The narration is restrained. However, athletes, while competing, are identified by superimposed titles (i.e. T. Smith, USA).
As befits a film with artistic pretensions, The Olympics in Mexico opens with two and a half minutes of music accompanied by a black screen. For the first time, the Cauldron in the Olympic Stadium is lit by a woman, 20-year-old Enriqueta Basilio. Strangely, the first event we are shown is the men’s 4×400-metere relay, won by the United States in world record time…on Day 8 of the Games. Naturally, the performances of Mexican athletes are highlighted, particularly the come-from-behind upset victory by 17-year-old Felipe Muñoz in the 200-meter breaststroke. Coming on Day 10, it was Mexico’s first gold medal of the Games. Mexican athletes would win two more, in boxing.
However, there is ample coverage of the athletes of the world. Among the athletes given special attention are U.S. swimmer Debbie Meyer, who earned three gold medals, American discus thrower Al Oerter, who earned his fourth gold medal, and the East German victor of the women’s shot put, Margitta Gummel, who, as it was later revealed, had been taking steroids for the previous three months.
There is excellent footage of American high jumper Dick Fosbury. His revolutionary jumping technique is highlighted, of course, but so is his fist-clenching, somewhat nerve-wracking preparations before each jump.
Bob Beamon’s famous long jump of 8.90 meters (29 feet 2½ inches) is shown in stop-action slow motion. We also see him overcome by emotion and collapsing. And, in a nice touch, shaking hands with each official as he leaves the field.
By the way, if one listens carefully, the venue announcers refer to the U.S. as “The United States of North America.”
Among the tidbits that are mentioned are that the eight finalists in the men’s 100 meters are all black, and that in the cycling road race, of the 144 starters, only 64 finished the race.
Although we are told over and over again that world records are set, no mention is made of the effects of Mexico City’s high altitude, which aided records in shorter events, and made endurance events (like the road race) unusually difficult.
Coverage of the water polo final between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union centers on the referee, who has a challenging time keeping up with the numerous fouls and brutal play. The Yugoslavs won 13-11.
Once again, the equestrian three-day event is shown with beautiful scenery…and lots of falls. Not mentioned is that, as in 1936 and 1960, two horses lost their lives as a result of the competition.
The 1968 Mexico City Olympics are known for three major controversies, only one of which is covered in the film. Ten days before the Opening Ceremony, Mexican forces opened fire on a gathering of unarmed students, killing an unknown number, usually thought to be about 200. This is not included in the film. Also not included is the silent protest by gymnast Věra Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia. At the previous Olympics, Čáslavská had earned three gold medals, including the all-around title. Soviet forces invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia less than two months before the Mexico City Olympics. In 1968, she gained another four gold medals. But one of those, in the floor exercises event, was shared with Larisa Petrik of the Soviet Union, and in another, the balance beam, she placed second behind Soviet gymnast Nataliya Kuchinskaya. Both times, when the Soviet national anthem was played, Čáslavská bowed her head and turned away. Alberto Isaac does include footage of Čáslavská’s performances, as well as her Mexico City wedding with fellow Czech Olympian Josef Odložil.
Isaac does cover the famous Black Power protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos after they finished first and third in the 200 meters. However, he emphasizes the race itself, showing it twice, including once in slow motion, and Smith’s joy after his victory. At the medal ceremony, we see the two American athletes climb the podium and receive their medals. When they stage their non-violent protest, the camera focuses on Smith’s raised gloved fist, and then the film moves on.
There is nice coverage of the cultural activities that accompanied the Olympics, with participants from 97 nations and opportunities for children to take part. We are also told that guided tours of the Athletes’ Village were allowed, although it is not made clear.
Before the joyful mood of the Closing Ceremony, Isaac presents a 25-minute segment on the marathon. Winner Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia celebrates by donning a local hat and doing a victory lap.
Olympic Movement fans know the story of Tanzania’s John Stephan Akhwari, who injured his knee in a fall and completed the marathon bandaged, bloody and limping, and finished the race in last place, 19 minutes after the next-to-last runner. Isaac includes dramatic shots of Akhwari stopping and restarting and then, filmed from behind, his entry into the stadium. For the record, Akhwari would later explain why he didn’t drop out: “My country did not send me 7000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 7000 miles to finish it.”