When equestrians think of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, we tend to think about how impossibly hard the show jumping and cross country courses were.
Or we think of Stroller, the incredible pony ridden by Marion Coakes, clearing an oxer that looks as big as a house.
But there are many lessons to learn from the 1968 Games if we want the 2021 Olympics to be great.
It was a tough time for the equestrian teams. Mexico City is at high altitude and the horses had to arrive weeks ahead of time to adjust to the 30% decrease in oxygen.
Even given the time to adapt, horses struggled, especially in eventing. A last-minute change of cross country venue didn’t take the rainy season into consideration and the course flooded. These days, the IOC would almost certainly call it off, but the horses and riders struggled through and two horses died.
The show jumping track was the biggest in history, and saw the USA’s first gold medal ever in the sport. William Steinkrauss took the top individual podium placing on Snowbound, a notoriously impossible horse. Marion Coakes and her pony Stroller earned the silver medal for Great Britain.
West Germany and the USSR took almost all of the dressage medals, with Switzerland squeaking in for team bronze.
West Germany and the USSR—two reminders that we need to consider the context of the 1968 Games.
The Cold War was in full throttle in 1968. Europe was divided between the western and eastern blocs, and Germany was split. West Germany was created during the Allied occupation of Germany in 1949. East Germany, the former Soviet occupation zone, stayed in the Eastern Bloc. The two would not officially reunite until 1990.
The USSR, formed in 1917, spanned much of Eastern Europe and all of North and Central Asia. Although the USA was uncomfortably allied with the USSR during World War II, the sweeping territory expansion and confrontation with the Western Bloc instigated the Cold War in 1947. Eastern Bloc countries, including East Germany, were known for brutal repression of human rights.
Meanwhile, South Africa was fully in an apartheid state and was disinvited from the Games after African countries, Black Americans, and much of the Eastern Bloc threatened to boycott if they were included. Under apartheid, the government classified all people into three racial groups and developed rights and limitations for each category. Although white people were only 20% of the population, they controlled most of the resources. The Black majority in South Africa suffered under this legal segregation by nearly any metric. Their exclusion from the Olympics is only one example of boycotts, divestments, and exclusions that South Africa faced as a result of its brutal segregation.
The Mexican government, too, was cracking down on citizens with increased political and economic suppression. Ten days before the Games were to begin, a group of students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas en Tlatelolco to call for greater civil and democratic rights. They were demonstrating peacefully until the government sent in 5,000 soldiers and 200 tanks to surround the group. Hundreds of protestors were killed and over 1,000 were arrested in a violent quashing of peaceful protest.
Of course, a great deal was also happening in the U.S. in 1968. Historians used to consider 1968 the end of the civil rights era, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 of that year.
But in fact, the movement grew only more complex and dynamic as the years progressed. Students on campus fought for Black studies programs and financial aid policies to make a college education more accessible to low-income students. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw efforts to make workplaces and educational institutions more equitable and accessible, as well as coalition building between groups affected by the long-standing inequities in the U.S. The Vietnam War escalation in 1968 and deployment of Black troops did little to dismantle white supremacist thinking.
The tensions created by white supremacy and oppressive governments at home and abroad led to what is perhaps the most memorable moment in the 1968 games: the Black Power salute. During their medal ceremony for the men’s 200m race, Black Americans Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) each raised a Black-gloved fist during the playing of the US National Anthem. Australia’s Peter Norman, the silver medalist, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with the other two men.
Smith and Carlos left the podium to boos from the crowd. Smith later noted, “If I win, I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are Black and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games, and all three men were shunned from their respective countries’ sporting communities after the event. Decades later, Colin Kaepernick would fare no better when he took a knee in protest of police brutality against Black Americans.
Given the tremendous upheaval across the world, the flooded cross country course looks like small potatoes. It’s worth noting, too, that we have yet to have a Black equestrian represent the USA in any of the Olympic disciplines.
Segregation in sports is a continuing issue. Often, the Olympic sports in which Black athletes excel are the ones with the lowest barriers to entry—no country clubs with exclusive memberships, no equipment costing thousands of dollars or animals that cost even more. And cultural messaging about which sports are for which people remains strong even to this day.
Holding sporting events during times of crisis can be useful, if they’re not putting people at risk. In some ways, the 1968 Games did, from the increased dangers of the equestrian competition to the violent crackdown on peaceful student protestors. But the Games also highlighted the many ways in which white supremacy and oppressive governments were harming people all across the world.
The Tokyo Games next year will reflect the times we are in, too.
How do we want future historians to write about them? Wouldn’t we rather see a story about how a global pandemic was quashed through responsible behavior, how white supremacist institutions were finally torn down and rebuilt in the name of equity, how the sports themselves are working diligently to be safe for the youth and accessible to everyone?
Or do we want to see teams decimated by COVID-19, hampered by racism eating away at the souls of the nations represented, sports that have made no strides in fighting against abuse and exclusion?
If we want the 2021 Olympics to reflect who we want to be, there’s no time to waste in making equestrian sports and the culture they’re in healthy, safe, and anti-racist.