Photo by Jeffrey Blankfort for Ramparts (1968)
“I went for Ramparts in ’68 to the Olympics in Mexico City where I photographed Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during the playing of the National Anthem after they finished first and third in the 200-meter run. The response [in the stadium] was incredible — in total support. The Mexican people identified with the Black Liberation struggle. It was an incredible response.”
Below is an outtake from an interview that I did with Jeffrey Blankfort for my book, On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. (PM Press, 2011).
Blankfort relates the difficulties he encountered in trying to obtain his press credentials at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. This story provides a great glimpse of some of the mechanics crucial to the efforts to produce and project a sanitized atmosphere at the Olympics — then and, I’m sure, now.
The Mexican Secret Service knew who I was, because when I arrived in Mexico, getting off the plane, I was the only one they photographed. I was walking with a very pretty woman whom I had met on the plane, and someone took a picture of me and walked away. Then when I went to the hotel — it was just after the massacre of 400 people [Tlatelolco Massacre] and Mexico City was a ghost town — they knew I was a journalist even though I had not announced what my occupation was. When I went out to the Olympic stadium, [I was] talking to Smith and Carlos at the fence [when] a Mexican man comes up to me with no identification on (everybody had some kind of a badge, and this guy didn’t). I look like I’m Mexican, so when I’m in Mexico they speak to me in Spanish, and this guy spoke to me in English. He said, “How are you enjoying Mexico?” And I turned to him and said, “It has the most beautiful women and most delicious beer.” And he said, “Very good.” And he just turned and walked away.
I went to the meeting of sports writers, which was hosted by a guy named Bob Paul—a cigar-smoking official with the Olympic Committee. In the room there were a whole bunch of guys, sports writers whom I had known for the five years I worked at the Examiner—people I used to drink with and dine with—and none of them would talk to me. I mean, these weren’t good friends, they were work buddies, but we, you know, we went out afterward, we went to bars. They wouldn’t talk to me because I was Ramparts, and Ramparts had run these stories on black protest in the Olympics. And so Bob Paul, at the end of the meeting, says to everybody, “Ok guys when you leave here you can pick up your caps.” You know, to show you’re a member of the U.S. Olympic team, or whatever. When I go to reach for my cap, he says, “Not you, Blankfort.”
What happened is that they were denying me press credentials, and so I had to figure a way to get them. So I went to the office of the Mexican Olympic Committee, and after waiting hours and hours over a couple of days, I was able to see a man named Raymundo Cuervo. I didn’t know the guy, but I took a risk and I said, “The U.S. Olympic Committee is not giving me credentials because they’re racist. I have reported on the activities of the Latino and Black community in the United States, and the U.S. Olympic Committee doesn’t like that.” He says to me, “OK, if you can get me a letter from your editor, a telegram, rather, and get it to me, you’ll get your press credentials.”
I go back assuming the telegram is going to be there. By the way, my appointment with him when I finally saw him was two-o’clock in the morning. So I go back, and I contact Bob Scheer [his editor at Ramparts], [then] I go back and he [Cuervo] isn’t there. I look around on the desk and I find the telegram from Scheer. I am trying to reach Cuervo on the telephone when his assistant, Peter Celliers from South Africa, tells me I have to get off the telephone [because] I’m going to be arrested. Just at that moment I reach Cuervo and I have this telegram and I read it to him. I show it to Celliers, and Cuervo says, “Put Celliers on the line.” He comes on the line and Cuervo says, “Tell Blankfort to come back tomorrow at such-and-such a time and he’ll have his press credentials.”
As I’m getting in the elevator Celliers says to me, “I was only following orders.” And I said, “That’s what Eichmann said.” I found out later they had a whole bunch of soldiers on the floor below me who were going to come and arrest me. So I come back the next day and get the credentials, and I go into the stadium. I have my telephoto lens, a 200mm lens, and I have it pointed straight at Bob Paul waiting for him turn around — and he does. I get his picture and he couldn’t believe it.