Philip Barker

Mumbai, the city which has been hosting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session this past week, is a world away from the German spa town of Baden-Baden where the IOC met 60 years ago.

Yet decisions made in 1963 attracted the spotlight every bit as much, in particular, the selection of Mexico City to host the 1968 Olympics was one of the most controversial in history.

"The Olympic Games belong to all countries of the world be they hot or cold, wet or dry, in the east, west, north or south, at high or low altitudes," IOC President Avery Brundage declared.

The decision came at a Session where the problem of apartheid in South Africa still cast a shadow and a breakaway sports movement was threatened.

The meetings were originally to have taken place in Nairobi, but relocated to Baden-Baden. 

"Difficulties have arisen in Kenya," IOC minutes stated.

West Berlin Mayor and future West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and German IOC member Willi Daume both worked, initially in secret, for a bid from Berlin.  

At the time, East and West Germany competed at the Olympics symbolically together with the German flag emblazoned with the Olympic Rings as "Germany",  but the two were politically divided and citizens of East and West Berlin separated by a wall built by the Communist Government in East Germany.

The bid was enthusiastically received by Brundage who declared "it would put political wrangling to shame." 

Eventually political reality took as the idea was dropped.

Lausanne and Cairo also expressed interest but later withdrew.

The Philippines Athletic Federation had presented a bid for Manila.

"It cannot be taken into consideration, since it was not submitted to the International Olympic Committee by the Mayor of that city or by the highest personality," IOC minutes explained.

Four cities ultimately set out their plans before the IOC.

Buenos Aires were first on stage.

"We will put forward our best efforts to the end that the event may display the splendour and magnificence which are traditional," Mayor Hernan Giralt promised.

Argentina had attended every Games since 1924, hosted the inaugural Pan American Games in 1951 and had run Melbourne close in their previous bid for the 1956 Olympics.

"The importance and influence of Argentine sports have attained a maturity which should not be underestimated," their report claimed.

"The Olympic Flame would shine in Buenos Aires in all the clarity of its millennial purity."

Their bid material made liberal mention of Baron Pierre de Coubertin and included pictures of sports facilities.

These included the impressive Monumental Stadium, which did host a world event.

This was not in 1968 but 1978 when it was the setting for the FIFA World Cup Final.

Olympics in either April, May or September and October were proposed by the Argentinians.

Detroit’s bid was led by Frederick Matthaei, an industrialist who had led the city’s efforts to win the Olympics since 1936. 

It also had the support of Michigan Governor George Romney. 

Almost 40 years later, Romney's son Mitt was put in charge of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Organising Committee.

Detroit's presentation included a filmed message from President John F Kennedy.

"Should Detroit be selected as a result of your deliberations in Baden Baden, I want to assure you of the warmest and most cordial welcome in the United States," the President began.

"Detroit is the centre of a great sports community, we are anxious to open our doors to you all to share our nation and our hospitality with participants and spectators from all over the world.

"I appreciate this opportunity to appear before you and may all of you have the wisdom ascribed to the Olympian gods in arriving at your very difficult decision."

The French candidate Lyon also had high hopes of success.

Officials claimed that "Lyon has proposed its candidature because it considers its programme for sports facilities capable of fulfilling such needs."

This included the Pierre de Coubertin Sports Centre which included a stadium, swimming pool and an indoor Palais de Sports. 

Sailing was to be held either on the lakes, either at Annecy or Aix-Les-Bains. The Mediterranean was an alternative.

Games in Lyon would have taken place in early September 1968.

Led by Mayor Louis Pradel and sports specialist Tony Bertrand, Lyon staged a lavish reception and offered the finest French cuisine and champagne, supervised by noted chef Gérard Nandron.

Mexico’s bid team promised Games in October "held in an atmosphere of freedom and sportsmanship," but they would also be held in thin air because the city stood 2,240 metres above sea level.

"We feel called upon to mention that the altitude of Mexico City in no way affects persons of normal health, as is proven by statements made by doctors specialising in heart and circulatory diseases," Mexican officials insisted.

The IOC vote was supervised by Ireland's future IOC President Lord Killanin and Denmark's Ivar Vind.

Detroit had been so sure of winning that a television commercial had been pre-recorded for transmission after the vote. It was never transmitted because too few IOC members put their hands up for Detroit.

Mexico City were overwhelming winners with 30 votes.

Detroit polled only 14, Lyon 12 and Buenos Aires only two.

Many athletes required medical help after racing at altitude during the 1968 Mexico Olympics ©Getty Images
Many athletes required medical help after racing at altitude during the 1968 Mexico Olympics ©Getty Images

Mexico's altitude remained the main talking point and Onni Niskanen, coach to the Ethiopian double Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila, later made a famous forecast.

"An Olympic athlete will always do their utmost, but few of them have any idea what the lack of oxygen can do to those who are not used to the altitude, there are those who will die," Niskanen explained to 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion turned journalist Chris Brasher.

Meanwhile, Norwegian IOC member Olaf Ditlev-Simonsen complained of the "relentless propaganda of the candidate towns."

He proposed that "no candidate town representatives should be received in private houses, nor should permission be given to organise cocktail parties and the giving of all kinds of presents should be banned."

In 1998, after revelations of what had been done to ensure Salt Lake City won the 2002 Winter Olympics came to light, it finally prompted much stricter rules.

By coincidence, the whistleblower was a man elected to the IOC at the 1963 Session, Swiss skiing official Marc Hodler.

The Session was also an important staging post for African sport as the National Olympic Committees of Ivory Coast, Jordan, Mali, Senegal, Libya and Cameroon were all officially recognised.

"It was decided to address a letter to the new National Olympic Committees to put them on their guard against all Governmental interference," the IOC said.

The decision actually gave African nations greater political leverage in forcing more concrete action against South Africa.

At the IOC Session in 1963, it was proposed that a prize be given to the best turned out team at the Opening Ceremony but the idea was rejected ©Getty Images
At the IOC Session in 1963, it was proposed that a prize be given to the best turned out team at the Opening Ceremony but the idea was rejected ©Getty Images

The system known as apartheid, operated by the Pretoria Government enshrined in law discrimination and segregation based on ethnicity.

A South African National Olympic Committee delegation appeared before IOC members.

"These delegates said that ‘apartheid’ was an internal matter and one which did not concern the International Olympic Committee," official minutes said.

After a resolution passed by 30 votes to 20, the South African group was told that that "it must get from its Government by December 31 1963 a change in policy regarding racial discrimination in sports and competitions in its country, failing which the South African National Olympic Committee will be debarred from entering its teams in the Olympic Games."

In fact South Africa did not compete in 1964 or 1968, but not until 1970 were they formally banned by the IOC.

As they did this week for LA28, the IOC in 1963 considered the sporting programme for 1968.

Even before they had made their Olympic debut in 1964, judo and volleyball were ruled out for 1968.

Much stricter rules were put in place after revelations around the circumstances surrounding the awarding of the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City ©Getty Images
Much stricter rules were put in place after revelations around the circumstances surrounding the awarding of the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City ©Getty Images

Archery and handball were also rejected but all four were eventually included in 1972.

There were proposals to award a prize to the "best turned out" team at the Opening Ceremony and a call to do away with national anthems at victory ceremonies. Neither idea was adopted.

This week, the IOC departed Mumbai with many matters still hanging in the air, just as delegates 60 years ago made their way home with the questions such as the Olympic future of North and South Korea and the uneasy truce of the two Germanies still unresolved.

They also faced the prospect of a breakaway led by Indonesia’s President Sukarno, about to stage his Games of New Emerging Forces in Jakarta.

He had branded the Olympics an "imperialist tool," after the IOC suspended his nation for refusing to grant visas to athletes from Israel and Taiwan at the 1962 Asian Games.

Then as today, all seemed resigned to the prospect of sport in an imperfect world.