1968 U.S. track team was best ever
Ann Killion
Mercury News Columnist
Article Launched: 06/22/2008 01:40:16 AM PDT

 Olympic track and field trials begin this week in Eugene, Ore., the quadrennial push will be on to crown "the greatest." To find out who is the fastest, the strongest, the best.

But with the current state of track so badly tarnished by the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, the trustworthy answer to such questions lies in the past. Forty years in the past, to be precise.

The best ever? The answer is the 1968 U.S. track team.

"That was the greatest Olympic team in history," said John Carlos, one of the most memorable figures on that team.

For four decades, that team's accomplishment has been overshadowed by Carlos and his teammate Tommie Smith and their extraordinary, iconic podium protest. "Mexico City, 1968," means two raised fists and a firestorm of fallout.

But for the men and women on the team - a team that had roots at San Jose State and was shaped in the high altitude of Lake Tahoe - Mexico City '68 also is shorthand for the best track team ever assembled.

The names are legendary: Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, Wyomia Tyus,

Al Oerter, Lee Evans, Smith and Carlos.

"Easily the greatest team ever," Evans said.

"And," said Barbara Ferrell, a gold and silver medalist, "the cleanest."

In the ensuing 40 years, two U.S. track teams have won more medals. But the 1984 team - it won 40 medals - competed against only half the world because of the Soviet bloc's boycott of the Games in Los Angeles.

The 1992
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team - it won 30 medals in Barcelona - had athletes competing in many more events than were available in 1968, owing largely to the growth in women's sports.

The Mexico City track team won 28 medals. It won 15 golds, second only to the '84 team. It set eight world records.

And it changed the Olympics forever.

"The '68 Olympics turned everything," said San Jose's Steve Simmons, a longtime Olympic and collegiate track coach. Like others interviewed for this column, Simmons took part in a track clinic at Union City's James Logan High in February.

"The media attention changed," he said. "The social significance for blacks and women changed. Not only was it the greatest athletic team in the history of this country, it was a seminal moment."

Elevated but level

For years, Mexico City was discussed with an asterisk, because the Games took place 7,546 feet above sea level. But every athlete was competing at the same altitude - an elevated but level playing field. The notion that those achievements are questionable seems quaint in this age of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

To prepare for the altitude, the U.S. team trained in Lake Tahoe. Two sets of Olympic trials were held, one in Los Angeles and one in Tahoe, ostensibly for altitude performance. (However, many speculated that two trials were held to create a larger pool of athletes in the event of a boycott by black athletes.) In any case, the result was not only enhanced physiology but also enhanced unity.

"What we had going for us as much as anything is that we fell in love with each other," Carlos said. "We bonded."

The team's bond was tested by the tumult of the times. There was the boycott threat, heightened tension between athletes and governing bodies, the massacre of students by Mexican authorities in pre-Olympic riots. White athletes, such as Harvard rowers Cleve Livingston and Paul Hoffman, were vilified for professing unity with their black teammates.

The biggest challenge came on the morning of Oct. 16 after the 200-meter race, when Smith and Carlos bowed their heads on the medal stand and raised their fists as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. The reaction to the protest against the plight of black Americans was immediate and extreme. The IOC threatened to ban the entire track team from competition.

Ultimately only Smith and Carlos were stripped of their credentials and sent home. The remaining team excelled in spite of the disruption.

"Everything changed after that day," said Fosbury, who set an Olympic record in the high jump using the "Fosbury Flop," a technique that changed his event forever. "There were 50 reporters at the door the next morning."

Fosbury, a young white man from Medford, Ore., stood behind Smith and Carlos.

"I felt connected to those guys," he said. "It affected my life."

Evans, another vocal activist who along with Smith and Carlos was part of San Jose State's Speed City, considered withdrawing from his event after his teammates were expelled. Carlos persuaded him to run, and Evans' world record of 43.86 seconds stood for 19 years. He also anchored the record-setting 4x400 relay team.

The most indelible mark from the '68 Games - aside from the protest - was Beamon's long-jump record of 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches. In the 33 years preceding Mexico City, the record had progressed 8 1/2 inches. In one jump, Beamon shattered the mark by 21 3/4 inches.

"It was the impossible dream that came true," said Beamon, whose record stood for 23 years until Mike Powell broke it by two inches.

Back-to-back titles

Although women didn't have as much opportunity as they would in post-Title IX years, they shared in the success.

Tyus, who had won the 100 meters in 1964 in Tokyo at 19, became the first Olympian to win back-to-back 100-meter titles. She was one of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles, the most dominant women's track team of its era. She believes she and her teammates have never received enough credit, and she is certain they helped pave the way for the flood of change to come.

"I think we accomplished a lot for women," Tyus said. "We opened a lot of doors and a lot of eyes."

The 1968 team continues to give back to its sport. Many went on to become coaches or educators. Fosbury is president of the World Olympians Association. They get together often, to reminisce and celebrate what they achieved.

"I think we're more connected than other teams," Fosbury said.

They're older. Grayer. Some, like Oerter - who won his fourth Olympic gold medal in the discus in 1968 - have died. Their records have been surpassed. But 40 years later they still hold the title.

"We were," said Mel Pender, part of the gold-medal-winning 4x400 relay team, "the greatest track team ever."