My friend T. R. Ramakrishna, a sportswriter and sports buff of an uncommon intelligence and senstivity, recently sent me a book published in the past which speaks directly to the present. The book is called Mexico 1968, and it was written by Christopher Brasher, who had been a ‘hare‘ in Roger Bannister’s successful attempt to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, later won an Olympic gold medal himself (at Melbourne in 1956, in the 3000 metre steeplechase), and still later become a well known writer and commentator. Assigned to cover the first Olympics to be held in Latin America, Brasher found that ‘they were killing people when I arrived in Mexico City on the night of Wednesday, October 2nd’, 1968.

‘They’ were the Mexican army and the police, and the ‘people’ killed included students, middle class professionals, and workers, who had come together to protest against a corrupt and authoritarian regime. Brasher observed that they had chosen their moment well, as ‘for the first time in many years journalists all over the world descended on Mexico and they were free to report to the world what they saw. This was an opportunity the deep-rooted protest movement could not ignore. Their own press is very much an “Establishment” press—another arm of the ruling P. R. I. (Partido Revolucionario Institucionalista)—the party which has ruled Mexico since 1928. So it is no coincidence that the battle [between the students and the police] took place at a time when the eyes of the world were turned towards Mexico and the world could see that it was not the stable and progressive regime that it is always made out to be’.

The protesters had called for an end to repression and a respect for democratic procedure. They were handled brutally—about eighty were killed, and many hundreds injured. (There were even ripples in New Delhi, where the Mexican Ambassador to India, the poet Octavio Paz, resigned in protest at the killings). Brasher’s gloss on the events is, again, strikingly contemporary. I quote: ‘The Olympics was, after all, their showpiece—their party face. Behind that face there is another stark, tumultuous face—a face that has little regard for the sanctity of human life’.

Brasher had participated in or written about five Olympics, but by now the sheen was beginning to fade. He still had sympathy for his fellow athletes, for whom the Olympics is about ‘the fulfilment of oneself’. But, as he added immediately afterwards: ‘Of course, the world will see it differently: each nation revelling chauvinistically in the victories of its own athletes and mourning when their hopes are dashed’.

As it happened, some American athletes in Mexico also used the opportunity to protest against the excesses of their regime. Thus Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners respectively in the 200 metres, offered the clenched fist salute of the Black Power movement as they walked to the victory rostrum. Then, ‘when the National Anthem was played they turned towards the flag, bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved, clenched fists’.

Later, speaking to the press, Tommie Smith remarked that ‘if I do something good then I am an American, but if I do something bad then I am a Negro’. Brasher himself offered this comment: ‘In their own country they are treated as first-class athletes but as second-class citizens. Many people think that they should not have dragged politics into an Olympic victory, but can human rights be classified as politics?’

When the games finally came to a close, Brasher noted in his diary that ‘for the first time in five Olympics I will not be sorry to see the Olympic flame die tomorrow evening’. ‘It is nationalism’, he wrote, ‘which has done most to bring about the rape of the Olympic ideals—nationalism which starts in the stadium at the opening ceremony, is fed to the world by television and which comes back here as this huge weight of responsibility on every team. They are no longer competing man to man. It is now nation versus nation, black versus white, communism versus capitalism’.

Decades earlier, another British writer, George Orwell, had characterized international sport as ‘war minus the shooting’. But despite Brasher’s depression and Orwell‘s scorn, I am obliged to draw a more hopeful lesson. The history of the modern Olympics shows that one-party states that host the games seek to project an image of power and pride. But that history also shows that these one-party states are replaced, sooner or later, by democratic, multi-party regimes. Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936; thirteen years later West Germany had the first of very many free elections. The 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow—nine years later the Soviet Union collapsed. The process was quickest in South Korea—which hosted the Olympics in 1988, and had its first free election in 1992. It was slowest in Mexico, where it was only in 2000 that the PRI was finally booted out of power.

So, nationalism and jingoism notwithstanding, the evidence of history prompts this less than pessimistic prediction—that multi-party democracy will come to China sometime within the next four to thirty-two years.

Published in The Hindu, 11/5/2008