The Olympics in Mexico were the first to be staged in a Latin-American country, and the unique ones held at an altitude over 2000 metres above sea level (2240m). The reduced air resistance was an advantage for sprinters and jumpers, who achieved astonishing world records, but a burden to long-distance runners, because of the reduced oxygen levels.
They were the first Games that used a synthetic “tartan” surface for track & field events, instead of the cinder surface used until then. They showed the first woman lighting the Olympic cauldron (Queta Basilio) and the first doping disqualification (Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall for drinking several beers).
Athletics were marked by the first backwards jump in the high jump event (Dick Fosbury), the Bob Beamon´s long jump world record that would be in place until 1991 (8.90m) and the black-gloved raised fists from 200m medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos in support of rights of the black-American community in the United States.
Regarding the marathon, the high altitude of Mexico gave an advantage to Ethiopian runners, among them the two-times defending champion Abebe Bikila. Over the same course it was organised a marathon one year in advance, which was won by Gaston Roelants from Belgium, (2.19.37), two minutes ahead of a pack of Japanese runners headed by Kenji Kimihara.
Mamo Wolde was born in Dirre Jille, 60 kilometres south of Adis Abeba, and his appearance in Mexico was already his third Olympic participation, at 36. As his hero BIkila, he was also an army member. He had already competed in the Olympics of 1956 in Melbourne, where he finished last in the heats of 800m, 1500m and 4x400m. In 1960 in Tokyo he finished 4th in the 10000m and couldn’t finish the marathon. By 1967 he was in top form, after winning the Zarautz Marathon. Already in Mexico City, he won earlier the silver medal in the 10000m and qualified for the 5000m final, although he skipped it, in order to be fresh for the marathon.
The marathon was planned on October 20th, on a tough course comprising many sharp turns and a final uphill section (km 36 onwards) to finish in the Olympic Stadium. 75 athletes took the start at 15.00 with warm and sunny conditions from the Zócalo square, just in front of the Cathedral. At the 10k (33.54) there was still a group of 20 athletes at the front. Everyone was trying to save energy, conscious of the hard conditions. At the 20k (1.06.02) the big group has started to fade. Roelants was in front accompanied by the British Tim Johnston and Kenyan Naftali Temu, winner of the 10000m one week earlier. Bikila had already retired.
Just before the 30k (1.39.20) Wolde took the lead, followed by Temu, and Japanese Kimihara in third. The Kenyan paid his previous effort and suddenly slowed to a walk just before the 35k. The position in the temporary podium was occupied by New Zealand´s runner Michael Ryan.
By the 40k (2.12.59) positions were unchanged. Wolde was more than 2 minutes ahead of Kimihara, followed very closely (6s) by Ryan. And positions wouldn´t change as runners entered the Olympic Stadium. Mamo Wolde won in 2.20.26, a slower triumph than fellow Bikila´s victories in 1960 and 1964. 12 years after his Olympic debut it was his time to take the limelight. More than 3 minutes later would enter Kimihara, to get the silver medal 14s ahead of Ryan.
With his gold, Wolde obtained an astonishing third consecutive gold medal in the Olympic marathon for Ethiopia. An it would not be his last marathon appearance. At the Munich Olympics in 1972, and already 40, he managed a bronze medal in the marathon event.
As for Kimihara, he had already finished 8th in the Olympic marathon in 1964, although the silver medal in Mexico was his top Olympic finish. He was a prolific marathoner, and Asian champion in 2 occasions. He would also come back in Munich, finishing 5th.
Mamo Wolde future, as Bikila´s, would be difficult. He was arrested in 1993 accused of an execution during the Ethiopian dictatorship. He spent 9 years in jail awaiting trial, despite IOC efforts for his release. Finally, he was sentenced to 6 years in prison, but was released as he had already spent longer in detention. He would die shortly after his release of liver cancer, aged 69.
Another Ethiopian marathon legend with an inappropriate ending.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.