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75 YEARS OF STARS AT THE PAN AMERICAN GAMES: 1968 – 1977

The countdown for the Top 75 athletes who have competed at the Pan American Games continues with the stars from 1968 to 1977.

1968 – JOHN CARLOS (USA) – ATHLETICS

John Carlos is not only known for being a world-class sprinter, but also as a Civil Rights icon in the United States for his historic peaceful protest on top of the Olympic podium at Mexico City 1968. But before his career-defining moment at the Olympics, John Carlos sprinted to the top of the podium at the Winnipeg 1967 Pan American Games in the 200m event. A year later at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Carlos defeated his teammate and world record holder Tommie Smith in the 200m while setting a new world record in the event to qualify to the Olympics. 

Despite initially planning a boycott of the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, Carlos and Smith decided to compete in the Games but vowed to stage a protest if either of them won a medal. After a great performance by both men in the 200m race, Tommie Smith came away with the gold medal while John Carlos earned the bronze behind Peter Norman of Australia. While the U.S. National Anthem played, both Smith and Carlos raised their fists in homage to the Black Power salute while they wore black socks and no shoes to represent the poverty faced by millions of black Americans. The two athletes were forced to leave the Athlete Village and the Games as a result, but their protest will forever be remembered for the impact it had on the world and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

1969 – ARTHUR ASHE (USA) – TENNIS

Arthur Ashe of the United States was one of the world’s top tennis stars through the late 1960s through the 1970s. He reached his first Grand Slam tournament final in 1966 at the Australian Open, ultimately falling in the final to Australia’s Roy Emerson. He would repeat that result as the Australian Open runner-up in 1967, but greater triumphs would soon be on the way. Ashe competed at the Winnipeg 1967 Pan American Games where he reached the podium with a bronze in the men’s singles event while also adding a gold in the men’s doubles tournament. 

His success in Winnipeg would mark a turning point for his career, as one year later he claimed his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in the singles tournament while also reaching the final in the doubles event. He finally won the Australian Open singles tournament on his third attempt in 1970, followed by a victory in the doubles tournament at the French Open in 1971. After falling in the Wimbledon final in 1971, Arthur returned four years later to earn his crowning achievement at Wimbledon in the men’s singles event in 1975. He finished his legendary career after earning five Grand Slam titles (3 singles, 2 doubles).

1970 – LEE EVANS (USA) – ATHLETICS

Lee Evans of the United States is known for his record-breaking performances on the track. He set his first world record in 1966 in the men’s 4x400m relay as part of the team that broke the 3-minute barrier for the first time in history. He competed at the Winnipeg 1967 Pan American Games one year later, becoming the first man to run sub-45 seconds in the 400m event on his way to earn the gold medal. He also added a second gold in the 4x400m relay race. 

He continued to break his own records at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, once again winning golds in both the 400m and 4x400m relay events. His world record of 43.86 seconds in the 400m set in the Olympic final would stand for 20 years and remains the 13th fastest time in history to this day. The 4x400m relay team also set a new world record of 2:56.16 which would last for an even longer 24 years. Although he would go on to finish fourth in the 400m at the Munich 1972 Olympics, he was denied the opportunity to compete in the 4x400m relay because two of his relay teammates were removed from the Games for staging medal ceremony protests similar to those done by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games. Lee Evans was a leader of the Olympic Project for Human Rights group and wore a black beret in an homage to the Black Panther Party while receiving his Olympic gold medal in Mexico City. 

1971 – FELIIPE MUÑOZ (MEXICO) – SWIMMING

Felipe “El Tibio” Muñoz is the most decorated swimmer in Mexico’s history after shocking the world at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics. At just 17 years old, he raced to the wall in the 200m breaststroke ahead of the favorite Vladimir Kosinsky of the Soviet Union to win Mexico’s first and only Olympic gold in the sport of swimming. 

Although there is debate about whether the origin of his nickname is because he preferred swimming in heated pools or that his mother and father were born in Río Frío and Aguascalientes, respectively, there is no debate about his success in the pool and his impact on sport in Mexico. He continued his success at the Cali 1971 Pan American Games, winning a silver in the 200m breaststroke and a bronze in the 200m individual medley. After his sporting career, Felipe Muñoz was elected as the President of the Mexican Olympic Committee in 2000 and served in the role until 2005. 

1972 – DON QUARRIE (JAMAICA) – ATHLETICS

Don Quarrie is another legendary performer in the sport of athletics for Jamaica. He made his first Olympic team at 17 years old but was unable to compete at Mexico City 1968 due to an injury. He claimed his first international titles at the 1970 Commonwealth Games where he conquered the men’s 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay events despite competition from older athletes. Quarrie competed at the Cali 1971 Pan American Games where he once again claimed all three sprinting gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay, solidifying himself as the fastest athlete in the Americas. 

However, he once again came down with an injury during the Munich 1972 Olympics that precluded him from competing for his first Olympic medal. Four years later at Montreal 1976, Quarrie would not be denied the Olympic podium, sprinting to the gold medal in the 200m while also adding a silver in the 100m event. He went on to compete in two more Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal at Moscow 1980 in the 200m before winning a silver as part of the Jamaican 4x100m relay team at Los Angeles 1984 in the last year of his competitive career. 

1973 – PEDRO PEREZ (CUBA) – ATHLETICS

Pedro Perez from Cuba was the next in a long line of triple jump stars at the Pan American Games, following the world-record setter Adhemar Ferreira da Silva from Brazil. He earned his first international title at the 1970 Central American and Caribbean Games, dominating the competition with a jump at 16.33 meters. 

But his true claim to fame came at the Cali 1971 Pan American Games. At just 19 years old, Perez soared to a new world record of 17.40 meters to claim the gold medal. He competed at his first Olympic Games at Munich 1972 but failed to reach the final in the competition. He then surpassed the 17-meter mark at the 1974 Central American and Caribbean Games to defend his gold medal at those Games. His final Olympic appearance came at the Montreal 1976 Games where he narrowly missed the podium with a 4th place finish. 

1974 –  “SUGAR” RAY LEONARD (USA) – BOXING

“Sugar” Ray Leonard of the United States is often considered one of the best boxers in history for his success on the professional circuit from 1977 to 1997. However, he also had great success in amateur competitions before turning pro. He competed at the Mexico City 1975 Pan American Games where he cruised to the gold medal in the light welterweight tournament. He followed that victory by going undefeated at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, defeating Cuban rival Andres Aldama in the final of the light welterweight competition. 

Although he originally planned to quit boxing after the Olympics, he decided to turn professional in order to support his family. In the two years that followed, Leonard quickly began to turn heads with his victories on the pro circuit. By 1979, Leonard competed for his first world title against Wilfred Benitez, eventually winning in the fifteenth round and being named Fighter of the Year. Over nearly the next 20 years, Leonard would claim world titles in five weight classes, the lineal championship in three weight classes as well as the undisputed welterweight championship. He finished his professional career with a 36-3-1 record with 25 Knock Outs. 

1975 – HUGO SANCHEZ (MEXICO) – FOOTBALL

Hugo Sanchez is deservedly considered the greatest Mexican football player of all time. His career accolades for both club teams and the Mexican National Team are outstanding, including being named CONCACAF’s best footballer of the 20th century and being included in FIFA’s top 100 living players list. He is the fifth leading scorer in the history of La Liga and he scored a total of 562 senior career goals for both club and country in 956 matches.

One of his greatest triumphs for Mexico came at the Mexico City 1975 Pan American Games. There, in front of the fans from his home country, Sanchez led Mexico to its second gold medal in football in the history of the Games. Sanchez scored seven goals throughout the tournament that ended in a draw between Mexico and Brazil and the two countries sharing the gold medal. He would go on to compete in three World Cups for Mexico, helping the team reach the quarterfinal in 1986. He also helped Mexico reach the final of the 1993 Copa America at the age of 35 where the team earned the silver medal. 

1976 – ALBERTO JUANTORENA (CUBA) – ATHLETICS

Alberto Juantorena of Cuba is one of the best middle distance athletes in the history of athletics. He competed in his first Olympics at Munich 1972 but was unable to reach the final at just 22 years old. He then won his first international title at the 1974 Central American and Caribbean Games, winning both the 400m and 4x400m relay events. One year later he competed in his first Pan American Games at Mexico City 1975, sprinting to silver medals in both the 400m and 4x400m relay. 

The defining moment of his career came at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. At his second Olympics at Montreal 1976, Alberto became the first and only athlete in history to win both the 400m and 800m events at the same Olympic Games. He set a new world record in the 800m with a time of 1:43.50 before setting a low-altitude world record in the 400m three days later. He improved his 800m world record in 1977 with a time of 1:43.44. Juantorena then returned to the Pan American Games at San Juan 1979, winning two silver medals in the 400m and 800m as well as a bronze medal in the 4x400m relay. 

1977 – JOAO CARLOS DE OLIVEIRA (BRAZIL) – ATHLETICS

Another incredible triple jumper joins the Top 75, as Joao Carlos de Oliveira of Brazil broke through on the scene at the Mexico City 1975 Pan American Games. He won both the triple jump and long jump gold medals, a rare double victory at the Games. He also set the new world record in the triple jump with his incredible leap of 17.89 meters, becoming the third athlete in history to do so at the Pan Am Games. He competed at his first Olympics in 1976 but finished with the bronze despite being the favorite because he was recovering from a recent surgery. 

He returned to full strength at the San Juan 1979 Pan American Games, once again winning both the long jump and the triple jump, defeating a young Olympic legend in Carl Lewis of the U.S. in the triple jump final. The most controversial moment of his career came at the Moscow 1980 Olympics where he finished with his second bronze medal. However, the judges of the event have been accused by many of favoring the athletes from the Soviet Union who finished with the gold and silver medals in the event after judging potentially world-record jumps from Oliveira as faults despite video replay showing that they were clean jumps. He would recover from this controversy by concluding his career with three World Championship titles in addition to his Olympic medals and Pan Am Games victories. 

Follow @panamsports on social media to see who lands in the Top 75 for the next decade in the history of sport in the Americas!