There were other moments of drama — such as when Vera Caslavska, a sensational Czech gymnast, stood on the medal podium, bowed her head and looked away during the anthem of the Soviet Union, which had recently invaded her country. Set against a backdrop of political turmoil around the world, including the deadly government repression of a Mexican student movement, the events of the 1968 Games reverberated far beyond the world of sports.
Those Games began with a milestone in Olympic history, when 20-year-old Enriqueta Basilio, a member of the Mexican track-and-field team, became the first woman to light the Olympic flame. She died Oct. 26 at 71, according to an announcement by the Mexican Olympic Committee, which did not cite a place or cause of death.
The tradition of the Olympic flame dates to the ancient Olympics in Greece. When Ms. Basilio — the daughter of a cotton farmer — opened a newspaper shortly before the 1968 Games and learned that she had been chosen for the honor of lighting the flame that year, she was at once thrilled, nervous and confounded about her selection.
“Maybe it’s because here in Mexico [men and women] have the same rights,” a friend said on her behalf, interpreting Ms. Basilio’s comments for a New York Times reporter. “Maybe it’s because some people [say] she represents the typical Mexican type, a new kind of generation.”
Norma Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo was born in Mexicali, the capital city of the Mexican state of Baja California, on July 15, 1948. He father was also a runner, and many of her siblings were athletically talented.
Ms. Basilio attended the University of Baja California and told the Times in 1968 that she hoped to study political science. She was a national champion in the 80-meter hurdles, according to the Mexican Olympic Committee, before competing in the 1968 Games.
On Oct. 12, 1968, before a crowd of 100,000 and millions more watching on television, she made her entrance in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, gliding around the track. Her gait was compared variously to that of a gazelle and an antelope.
She then made her way up 90 steps to the platform where the Olympic cauldron stood. The climb up the steps was “no mean feat at this altitude,” Times sports columnist Arthur Daley observed.
She “stood there with the torch triumphantly aloft in her right hand. Then she plunged it into the huge saucer and it came alive with fire,” he wrote. “Anyone with acutely sensitive ears could then hear a spectral sound. It would have been the ancient Greeks spinning madly in their crumbling mausoleums. They never permitted a woman to come near their Olympic Games but had summary punishment for every female intruder detected. She was promptly tossed off a seaside cliff onto the rocks below.”
“And here was a woman in a focal role a couple of thousand years later,” Daley concluded, describing the effect of Ms. Basilio’s performance in the stadium. “She handled it well.”
Ms. Basilio’s performance in the track-and-field events was less glorious. She entered the 400-meter race, the 100-meter relay and the 80-meter hurdles but made it only to the first heat in those competitions, according to Time magazine. But she had already secured her place in the annals of the Olympics.
“The first woman to light the Olympic flame, the farmer’s daughter presented an image that emblematically spoke to an increasingly feminist political tenor in Mexico, simultaneously symbolic of both the preservation of a rural heritage and a quest for modernity,” historian Amy Bass observed, according to the book “In the Game: Race, Identity, and Sports in the Twentieth Century.”
The Mexican Olympic Committee did not release a list of Ms. Basilio’s survivors.
“I am a privileged woman,” she told the Associated Press in 2004, when she again carried the Olympic flame during its stop in Mexico City on the way around the world to that year’s Summer Games in Athens. “I have realized so many of my dreams.”
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