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Witherspoon's new book sheds light on 1968 Olympics

August 08, 2008
At a plaza in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City on Oct. 2, 1968, Mexican students congregated in protest. Their goal, to draw attention to the lacking democratic processes of the Mexican government. But their voices were abruptly and violently silenced. In the afternoon, Mexican soldiers blocked the exits to the plaza and opened fire on the crowd killing around 300 protesters. It was ten days before the opening of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.   
 
An account of this little-known event and many other details from the '68 Olympics can be found in a new book by Lander University assistant professor of history Dr. Kevin Witherspoon, titled "Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games." As the world turns attention to the current Olympic games in Beijing, Witherspoon's book could not be more timely.
 
Published by Northern Illinois University press, the book begins by tracing the path that brought the Olympics to Mexico City, but quickly changes gears to examine the image Mexico strove to portray to the world even as that image began to fall apart. 

"The Mexico City Olympics were a culmination of decades of work trying to improve the national image of Mexico," said Witherspoon. "Mexico was seen as a dust-blown, revolutionary, violent and primitive place but that country sought to build an image of a modern, cosmopolitan, highly-developed nation. The Olympics were the pinnacle of this push."
 
Witherspoon, however, did not come to this subject with the intention of focusing on the Mexican image during the '68 Olympics. He was first intrigued by the protests of black athletes before and during these Olympics. And his book does go into detail about events such as boycotts by African nations in protest of the admission of South Africa into the games, boycotts by black American athletes in order to draw attention to Civil Rights issues in the United States and, of course, the bowed heads and raised fists of black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they received medals for the 200 meter sprint.
 
The book also explores tactics of the United States and the Soviet Union as they prepared to bring the Cold War to the battlefield of sport. One such aspect of this tug-of-war between two super powers was each country's emphasis on high altitude training to increase athletic performance in the higher elevation of Mexico City.
 
In his book, Witherspoon also discusses the first use of gender testing in Olympic history - a process which has been refined since the '68 Olympics and is still used today. "They never caught anybody," said Witherspoon, "but there were a few women who withdrew from the games for reasons unexplained in the weeks prior to the Olympics. Many people thought it may have been because they were actually men."
 
Participants in the '68 games also saw the first drug testing in Olympic history.    
 
Still, as Witherspoon poured through his research the importance of the Mexican image and the effects of that pivotal event at Tlatelolco on the world view of Mexico seemed more like the story that hadn't been told. And he was drawn to that idea.
 
"The Mexican side of the Olympics hasn't really been seen before in English," said Witherspoon. "There are a few books in Spanish, but nothing for an American audience. We all know about Smith and Carlos, but not about the massacre."
 
Ultimately, as Witherspoon writes in his book, "that Mexico City finds itself at the crux of Olympic history is remarkable. The Olympics, born from the lofty ideals of a French physical educator and for years perched on the shoulders of the amateur ideal of only European and American athletes, by the early 1960s had only just begun to expand its vision to include representatives from the rest of the globe."
 
Witherspoon's book was featured in the new scholarly book section of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
 
Copies of "Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games" are available for purchase at Amazon.com, Greenwood's The BookStore or from the author directly at 864-388-8685. Witherspoon will also be giving a presentation and signing copies of his book at The BookStore on Friday, Aug. 29, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.