Near the end of the first week of the VII Pan-American Games, a U.S. distance runner struggling to escape the swirling, acrid smog of the Valley of Mexico found himself ascending a lavender-flowered hillside outside the city. Slowly he overtook a stocky Latin running in fashionable slacks, a sweater and heavy oxfords. Sweat rolled from this man's face; he looked neither right nor left, and between his teeth he clenched a silver crucifix. Later, telling of this strange vision of sporting penance, the track man said, "It struck me as appropriate. But there ought to be 20,000 gasping Mexicans up there atoning for the sins they committed this week."
The U.S. team had come to Mexico City prepared to be forgiving. Originally awarded to Santiago, the games had gone wandering after the Chilean junta decided to use its stadiums for detention and torture instead. For a time S�o Paulo, Brazil offered haven, but a meningitis epidemic and financial woes sent the games packing again, eventually to lodge among the 11 million inhabitants of Mexico City, which had less than a year to prepare a near-Olympic-sized fiesta for 4,000 athletes. Thus, when the U.S. athletes began arriving early in the month they were prepared to accept such minor hardships as the location of the competitors' village—a half-completed apartment complex between a pulp mill and an asphalt plant—and Mexico City's climate, once a salubrious blend of tropic sun and cooling altitude but now, affected by automotive and industrial spewings, a dismal alternation of blinding haze and cold downpour.
The opening ceremonies offered evidence that the weather was not the only thing that has changed since Mexico was host to the 1968 Olympics. Some 110,000 people wedged into Aztec Soccer Stadium to watch elaborate card displays, the parade of the athletes and the entry of the torch relayed from Cali, Colombia, the 1971 site. As the U.S. delegation entered, it was jeered with startling vituperation, equaled only by the derisive whistles directed at Mexican President Luis Echeverr�a. Cuba, on the other hand, received thunderous applause and organized cheers led by the stadium announcer. By the time the pigeons were released—the majority settling into the stands where they were caught and happily borne off for dinner—it was clear that much of Mexico viewed the games as a grudge match between the U.S. and Cuba, and its sympathy was all with Cuba.
Once the games began, any appearance by the U.S. team was met with storms of abuse. During the first week, the Cuba- U.S.A. rivalry flared most sharply in track and field. Cuba's Silvio Leonard won the 100 meters in 10.15 from Trinidad's Hasely Crawford, the best American, Clancy Edwards, finishing fifth. El Sol de Mexico called the race a "North American debacle." The literal downfall, however, was Leonard's. Crossing the finish line, he felt a hamstring twinge, lost control and plunged 15 feet into the concrete moat that circles the Olympic Stadium. Mexican doctors carried off the nearly hysterical Leonard and later reported him uninjured. In fact, he had been given a pain-killing injection to enable him to walk to the medal ceremony and was helped onto the stand by teammate Hermes Ramirez, the bronze medalist. Not until Pam Jiles of the U.S. won the women's 100 meters later in the day and nearly followed Leonard into the moat did officials put up a protective barricade.
The next day, when Leonard was to be running the 200-meter preliminaries, he lay in bed under a floral coverlet, with a strained ligament in his right ankle. "I am contented," he said, with a wounded assertiveness, as if his pride were being tested. His eyes clouded as he squirmed with the pain, and he made no attempt to veil his contempt for the questioner from the U.S. He would not permit his win to be devalued by the absence of the best U.S. sprinters. "I would feel the same if Steve Williams had come, because I would have beaten him. The gold medal is what is important. We gathered all our forces for this meet. Here it is Cuba vs. the U.S." Stiffly, he said he had no complaints about the officials' negligence or the stadium that had swallowed him.
Others did. Besides the overlong track and field schedule that took eight days to sort out fewer athletes than contest the NCAA meet in three days, and the absence of programs or crowds (track never filled the Olympic Stadium to more than a quarter of its 70,000 capacity), the officiating was often horrendous. In the women's 200, finish judges declared Jiles the winner over 16-year-old teammate Chandra Cheeseborough—both setting a U.S. record of 22.8. The finish photo revealed the opposite result, but word did not reach the judges until after the medals had been awarded in a consternating ceremony that saw Jiles and Cheeseborough on the victory stand staring at a scoreboard which had them in reverse order. Then, on the way to a TV interview, Neil Amdur of CBS showed them the picture of the finish. Solemnly, Jiles lifted the gold medal from about her neck and exchanged it for Cheeseborough's silver. Holding back tears, Jiles quickly left the stadium. The next day she had come to terms with the result, if not the emotional wrench. "It's O.K.," she said, "since Cheese and I are from the same country and we both get credit for setting the American record."
If the officials were merely inept in the 200, they were clearly biased in the women's long jump. Martha Watson of the U.S. led with her first leap of 21'6�" until Cuba's Ana Alexander, the 11th of 12 qualifiers, produced a jump the reader board showed as 20'8�". That wasn't good enough for the crowd of 10,000, which railed at the officials. After a few moments the board was cleared and a new mark substituted, 21'9", a Pan-American record. Because of a rule prohibiting competitors from the pit area, Watson could not verify her opponent's mark. Later, in the village cafeteria, Alexander was asked by another athlete if she had actually jumped 21'9". "No," she said flatly, without apology. "It was probably around 21 feet."
In the discus, an event world-record holder John Powell won with a Pan-American record of 204'7", officials permitted Cuban entrant Julian Morrinson to throw his personal discus, a violation of the IAAF rule that requires the organizing committee to provide all the implements. Morrinson upset Jay Silvester of the U.S. for the silver medal by 2� inches. Powell viewed the controversy in terms of Aristotelian logic: "We saw the Cuban put the discus in his bag after he had thrown. He was doing one of two things. He was stealing that discus or he was admitting it was his. Now if you begin with the premise that the games officials are pro- Cuba and anti-U.S., everything else follows. The officials will simply say they made a mistake rather than penalize the Cuban." Indeed, the officials did just that.
Powell is a man perpetually swathed in dignity. Told by Head Coach Roy Griak that the jury of appeals contained no English-speaking members, Powell replied icily, "Let me express my surprise." As the meet wore on, the Cuban preparations Leonard had mentioned, which included Soviet coaches and a month in the Ural Mountains for the distance runners, paid off". Cubans Luis Medina and Leandro Civil finished one-two in the 800. Alejandro Casanas won the high hurdles in 13.44, the first U.S. Pan-Am defeat ever in that event. What U.S. victories there were came hard. Sam Colson won the javelin by five feet from Juan Jarvis of Cuba with a throw of 275 feet, a Pan-Am record. In the 400 meters Ronnie Ray faced Alberto Juantorena, the world's top-ranked quarter-miler last year, beat him with a savage 44.45 and was carried from the track.
The discovery of the games, and a refreshing diversion from the grim U.S.- Cuba combat, was a 21-year-old Brazilian army corporal, Jo�o Carlos Oliveira, who two years ago was washing cars in S�o Paulo. After winning the long jump at 26'10�" he came back to bounce an astounding 58'8�" in the triple jump, a world record by a foot and a half. When he learned that his reward for these prodigies was to remain in the army permanently, he said, "That's O.K., I didn't want to go back to the car wash anyway." The day after he set the record a Brazilian museum cabled a request for the shoes he had worn. "As soon as I'm through with them," he replied.