George Ernie Pickett, Pt 7

The Olympic Games, Mexico City, 1968 "Getting There"

by Bill Starr | July 01, 2013

george ernie pickett

Ernie was back into hard training the week following the Senior National Powerlifting Championships. The vacation and heavy workout at the contest had done wonders for his overall strength and mental attitude. He was pushing his bodyweight higher and higher by drinking multiple protein milkshakes. He also found that drinking lots of Energol and taking liver tablets was helping his energy, so I made sure he had an ample supply of those products and enough Super Hi-Proteen for a half dozen hard-training athletes.

On October 1st, the Olympic team – Russ Knipp, Fred Lowe, Joe Puleo, Phil Grippaldi, Bob Bartholmew, Joe Dube, and Ernie – flew to Denver and settled in at the Denver YMCA to train and become adjusted to a higher altitude. Some thought they would be better off going straight to Mexico City. While Denver is the mile-high city, the capital of Mexico is a mile and a half high. That’s a considerable difference. The decision was based largely on economics. It was much less expensive to have the athletes and officials stay at a Y than a hotel in Mexico City, especially with the rate for rooms going sky-high just prior to the Games.

Hoffman, Smitty, Major George Ottot, and Terpak accompanied the team to Colorado. Major Ottot had been selected as team manager for reasons no one could understand. He had never coached or been a part of any international weightlifting team and had never coached any lifter of note. The simple fact of the matter dealt with economics. Major Ottot was being rewarded by Hoffman for buying two dozen Olympic sets from York plus benches, racks, dumbbells, and other equipment for the gym at the Marine Base in Quantico, Virginia.

This was a practice that Hoffman had used many times before, but in this case it was ludicrous. Terpak was designated the coach of the team. Again, a selection based on politics and not ability. Terpak did not know thing one about coaching lifters. He, in truth, didn’t like them all that much to begin with and had zero talent when it came to interacting with them during the very stressful competitions.

It did not bode well for the American team.

When Smitty and Hoffman returned to York a week before the Games were scheduled to open, I quizzed Smitty on what transpired at the training sessions in Denver, which were also held in the YMCA.

He informed me that the only help the lifters got from anyone was from himself. Glumly, he added, “All Terpak and George did at the training sessions was sit and watch. They did a lot of discussing of starting poundages and that was about it. Which was silly since those numbers can’t really be decided until the very last moment.” He sighed before adding, “I ran my legs off but there’s no way one person can handle that many lifters. It’s going to be a mess, Starr.”

“I was afraid of that,” I replied sadly.

I went upstairs to the office and called Hoffman, saying I was coming out to his house to pick up some articles he had written. I should mention that a few months earlier, Tommy had moved over to the business portion of the Barbell, which had elevated me to the position of Managing Editor of . When I met with Bob at his house, I laid out my proposal, which I had rehearsed over and over during the drive to Dover. I told him what he already knew, that Major Ottot and Terpak were not capable of handling the lifters in Mexico City and urged him to send Smitty and me down there to deal with the athletes during training and at the competitions.

He knew that there wasn’t a better platform coach in the country than Smitty, who also performed the duties of a trainer quite well. He was also happy with the way I worked with Ernie at the Olympic Trials. I said Smitty could be registered as the team trainer and I would go to cover the contest for the magazine. There was a precedent for this, set the year before by Tommy when he went to the Little Olympics. They had denied him a press pass, but was allowed one as a coach. I reminded Hoffman of this and he readily agreed. “But,” he said, “you’re not going to be able to find a place to stay this late in the game. Everything has been booked for months.”

I had an inkling of a plan in that regard, so said to him, “So it’s okay with you if I book tickets for me and Smitty? We’ll figure out something about where to stay.”

I could tell he was a bit relieved as he told me to go ahead with my plan. I hurried back to the Barbell and called the travel agent we used for all the trips made by the Barbell. Which were considerable. The lady I talked to said it was going to be difficult to find two seats to Mexico City at this late date but she would do her best. After an anxious half hour, she called me back and said we were confirmed on a flight out of Friendship Airport in Baltimore on the 11th of October. One day before the Opening Ceremony. That was cutting it close, but as long as we got there before any of our lifters competed, it would be fine.

Now I had to figure out how to come up with a place to stay and I needed Smitty’s help for that. At the Seniors that year, Smitty had made friends with a person who served as the team trainer for the New Orleans Athletic Club. Smitty had introduced him to me and after a short conversation, he said to us, “If you ever need a place to stay in Mexico City, let me know. I have an apartment down there that you can use anytime you want.”

It took some time before Smitty found his phone number, then I called him and told him of our predicament. He said he would be delighted to help us out. “I’ll express mail you the key to the apartment today along with the address. Just one thing you should know. I have a girlfriend staying there, but it has two bedrooms so you’ll be all right. Good luck.”

Smitty and I were ecstatic. Yet we didn’t take much time to celebrate. We had tons of work to do in order to get packed and to make sure all our necessary projects were finished before we left.

Now while this next segment doesn’t directly involve Ernie, it does have a direct bearing on the events that transpired in Mexico City. If things had not turned out as they did, we would not have been able to assist the lifters nor would I have had the opportunity to take tons of photos and give an eyewitness account of what happened at the training center and the meet site. It was also one of the strangest turn of events that ever occurred in my life.

The key and directions to the apartment arrived with time to spare and I picked up our airline tickets the day after calling the travel agent. No hitches whatsoever and as we lifted off from Baltimore’s Friendship Airport on that Friday morning, we were floating on cloud nine. This was a dream come true for both of us. Any bad feelings Smitty had for me for my role in helping Ernie beat Barski at the Olympic Trials were suddenly gone. He knew that I could have just talked Hoffman into sending me to Mexico, but I had pushed hard for him as well. He knew it was for the respect I had for him and his value to the lifters he worked with at the training halls and competitions. I think he also finally understood that what I did for Ernie had in no way been because I wanted Barski to lose.

When we walked out of the airport terminal in Mexico City we were hit with a wave of heat and humidity. It brought to mind what I had read in several newspapers about holding the Games in Mexico City this time of year when it was still extremely hot and muggy. After all, the city was built on a swamp. But we couldn’t worry about such things. We needed a taxi and a driver who could speak enough English to take us to the apartment. No problem. The driver of the cab spoke a rough version of English, but he assured us he would deliver us to the address we showed him. He whisked out of the airport and into the city as if it were a medical emergency. I determined from the position of the sun that we were traveling east, although I couldn’t be certain. I tried to keep track of the streets we were on and once we came to Avenue de Ayotla, the driver stayed on it for the next twenty minutes before pulling into a side street and stopping in front of a four-story concrete block building.

“Dis es it,” he told us proudly and it was, much to our relief. We paid him in pesos although he said he would gladly accept American dollars. Smitty and I had changed fifty dollars each at the airport, just in case. 

Carrying our luggage, we went into the building, found the elevator and went up to the second floor, then moved up and down the hallway until we found what we were looking for – apartment 2-C. Smitty knocked. No response, so he did it again, this time more loudly. The door opened and a girl greeted us. I guessed she was in her mid-twenties and had a lot of Indian blood in her. Unfortunately she didn’t speak any English.

I let Smitty handle the problem because he has a way of making people feel at ease and accept him. He tried, with sign language and words that he hoped would elicit some response for several minutes, but nothing was registering. Even when Smitty repeated our friend’s name several times, she didn’t seem to understand. But for some reason she must have figured out we belonged here. She opened the door wide and gestured for us to come inside.

We entered into a living room, followed her past the kitchen, then she opened a door to a bedroom. There were two mattresses on the floor. That was it. We thanked her and she left us alone. “Not much,” Smitty said, “but it’ll do. All we need is a place to sleep. We can eat at the dining hall at the Olympic Village.”

I agreed. This was just what we expected and it certainly met our needs.

After washing up in the bathroom across the hall, we decided to check out the area. We both liked to explore new places and this certainly qualified as that. Smitty informed our host that we were going out and would be back in a few hours. She merely smiled as we left.

Since we didn’t have a clue where we were and didn’t want to take a chance of getting lost, we walked to the Avenue de Ayotla and strolled toward what looked like a business section. Which it was. We checked out the various stores and street vendors, and when we came to a movie theater, we stopped and looked over the posters telling what movies were playing and when. “There’s one starting in five minutes,” I said, “and it’s a Western. We got some time to kill. What’a you say?”

We had decided it was way too late to catch a taxi to the Olympic Village, so Smitty nodded in agreement and we bought tickets and went inside. But we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said on screen and it was a silly film. We left after about forty minutes and continued our stroll around the neighborhood.

We hadn’t eaten anything since the meal on the flight and began looking for a restaurant. Although we passed quite a few, none had appealed to us. They just weren’t very clean. We had, of course, been warned about eating the food and drinking the water in Mexico and we were trying to be as careful as possible. I had added another caution. I got a script for Lomotil, a drug used to stop diarrhea in its tracks and had taken a tablet on the plane. I also gave Smitty one, which he swallowed quickly.

We finally found a place that was clean, went inside, sat at a table and a waitress hurried to us with menus. Which did little good since we couldn’t read it and she did not speak any English. Then I remembered how I ordered when I was at a restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland, facing the same situation. I pointed to a couple eating in a booth a few feet away and told the waitress, “We’ll have what they’re eating. That okay with you Smitty?”

“Sure,” he said. “I can’t make heads or tails of this.” We handed the waitress our menus and I said to her, “Cokes to drink,” as I made a motion as if I were drinking. She nodded and soon we were sipping on lukewarm Cokes. Our meals arrived and we both just sat there looking at our plates with confused expressions. I could identify the rice and beans, but didn’t have any idea what the meat was or the green sauce spread over it. I dug in anyway for I was starving.

Smitty, on the other hand, only picked at his food. He leaned over and asked in a low voice, “Starr, what’s this runny green stuff?”

“I think it’s guacamole.”

“This doesn’t look like any guacamole I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve eaten it plenty of times,” he grumbled, still keeping his voice low.

“I know it looks nasty, but it tastes all right,” I said softly and kept on eating.

After a few more minutes, he put his fork on the table, sat back and said, “I can’t handle it.”

I laughed. This was the first time I had ever seen Smitty refuse to eat any food placed in front of him. I finished off my plate and was tempted to eat what was left on Smitty’s plate as well, then decided not to push my luck. We paid the bill and left.

By the time we got back to the apartment building, it was nearly 10 o’clock York time and we were feeling the jet lag, the effects of traveling, and the heat and humidity. When we opened the door to the apartment with the key we had, we discovered that there was a party going on. A group of young people, college-aged, were listening and dancing to music from a record player. They were drinking wine and there were plates filled with various types of munchies.

We nodded at the people as we made our way back to our bedroom. When we shut the door, the sound of the music still filled the room. We were, to put it mildly, pissed off. We began complaining about how rude it was for the girl to have a party when we were the house guests of the man who was paying her rent and probably a bit more. But neither of us could come up with an idea of what to do about the situation since we weren’t able to communicate with her.

Our bitching was interrupted by a knock on the door. Smitty opened it and a young man stepped in the room and said, “Hello. Maria, the lady who resides here has asked me to ask you who you are.”

Smitty explained how the man who rents this place and lives in New Orleans in the States, sent us a key and gave us permission to stay here during the Olympics, adding that we were going to be working with the weightlifting team.

The young man frowned, studying what Smitty had told him rather intently, then his face brightened and he said, “Oh him. He hasn’t paid rent for the last two months.”

Stunned doesn’t come close to our reaction to those words. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut and became weak in the knees. I knew Smitty felt the same as all the blood drained from his face. It took us a few minutes before the shock wore off, then Smitty started apologizing. I thought of the expression that Smitty often used, I could have dangled my legs off a dime. That fit us perfectly.

We had barged our way into a complete stranger’s apartment, then been very upset that we weren’t treated like guests. While that was certainly bad enough, my mind was on another problem – where in the hell could we find a place to stay this late at night and the day before the Olympics opened? We were up shit creek without a paddle.

I quickly determined that the best source to help us with this problem was the young man standing in front of us. When Smitty paused in the expression of our regrets, I introduced myself and Smitty to the young man. In turn, he said, “My name is James Dollero. Nice to meet you.”

“James,” I said anxiously, “do you know of any hotels around here where we could stay?”

He studied the question a few moments and replied, “No, there are no hotels in this part of the city and I doubt if any of them have a vacancy. Because of the Olympics.”

Smitty and I looked at one another and our bodies slumped in reaction to that news which we had already suspected to be the case. We were in trouble. With no place to stay, we would have to fly back to the States. There was no way we could stay in the Olympic Village. It just wouldn’t be allowed. While our brains whirled to come up with some kind of solution to this dilemma, James said, “Hold on just a minute. Let me make a phone call. My mother rents out a room in our house. Let me find out if someone is staying there now.”

He left and Smitty and I crossed our fingers and I lifted a prayer to whatever saint was in charge of lost travelers. After what seemed like an hour, but was only a matter of a few minutes, James came back into the room and said happily, “There is a room available. If you like, I can drive you there right away.”

I wanted to hug him. If he had told us we had just won a million bucks, we wouldn’t have been happier. We gathered our belongings and left in a rush, nodding to the guests and our host, Maria, as we passed through the living room.

On the drive I asked him how to pronounce his name in Spanish. He replied, “James is the same in English and Spanish.” That makes it easy, I thought, then inquired if there had been anymore riots. The news had been full of the riots that took place in Mexico City just a few weeks before. Over 30 student protesters were killed, more than 100 injured, and another 300 were jailed.

“No,” James said, “President Ordaz has brought in many soldiers to keep the peace during the Olympics. There is no need to be concerned.”
Talk about turning a lemon into lemonade. Smitty’s and my mood went from despair to delight in a very short period of time. The room we were to occupy was on the second floor of a beautiful house in a fashionable part of the city. It was surrounded by a white stone wall with a garden of flowers and a pet iguana who lounged over the curved entranceway to the front door.

While James showed us our bedroom, a spacious bathroom with both tub and shower across the hall, and the beautiful dining room, he told us that Victoria, their maid, would prepare an American breakfast for us whenever we got up. She would also do our laundry if we left it out on our beds.

As he was giving us the tour and explaining all the services that would be provided I began to wonder if we could afford what it was going to cost us. James fully understood that we were in a tough spot and could charge us whatever he wished and we would have no choice but to pay. I’m sure that Smitty was thinking the same thoughts. But we were in for yet another surprise when he said to us, “It will cost you four and a half dollars each per day and that includes meals.”

Smitty and I couldn’t get to our money fast enough to pay him. We thanked him profusely for his help and for coming to our aid. He told us that it was he would should be grateful for the money would help pay for his education at the university and for his younger brother’s and sister’s education at a boarding school.

Smitty asked him the best place for us to catch a taxi tomorrow. He replied, “No need to pay for a taxi. When you walk out through the front gate, turn left, stay on that street and it will take you to Insurentes Avenue where there is a bus stop. A bus will take you straight to the Villa Olimpico.”

We nodded that we understood and he said, “Now I will go back to the party. Sleep well.”

We had planned on taking a shower after our walk, but the presence of the party-goers had changed our plans. So we quickly took care of that chore in the lavish bathroom, then got into bed, and relaxed for the first time in a long time.

I said, “Smitty, can you believe what just happened to us? There must be a guardian angel watching over one or both of us. Not only did James rescue us, he cut us a fair deal. He could have charged us ten times as much and I for one would have been willing to pay him. This place is nicer than any hotel I ever stayed in and includes meals and laundry service. We’re two lucky bastards.”

“You can say that again,” Smittv said with a chuckle, “Thank the Lord for small favors. Or in this case a very large favor. We’ll have to come up with a way to thank James before we leave.” Which we did.

With the long day of travel, walking, and the trauma at the apartment, we didn’t have any difficulty going to sleep.

After stuffing ourselves at a humongous breakfast that Victoria had prepared for us – steaks, fried eggs and potatoes, sliced papaya with freshly-squeezed orange juice and coffee – Smitty and I set out to the bus stop. It took over a half an hour, longer than we had expected, yet we didn’t mind. We were taking in the sights like the tourists we were. The neighborhood where the house that we were staying in was located was surrounded by stately mansions, all enclosed in ten-foot-high stone walls. And the majority of the walls were topped with shards of glass. Gates leading inside were shut tight and I was sure they were locked firmly.

While we waited at the bus stop for the overdue bus, we talked about how our reception might be from Terpak. Hoffman had arrived the day before and informed him that we would be assisting him with the lifters at the training sessions and at the contest as well. How Terpak would react we could only guess. He liked being a part of every decision that dealt with the Barbell. It was quite conceivable that he would tell us that he was unable to obtain any credentials for us at this late date. If that happened, we would not be able to get in the Olympic Village, the training hall, or the Insurentes Theatre, the site of the competitions. We could live with not being allowed into the Village, but if we couldn’t get in the training hall or the meet site, our trip would be a failure.

The bus arrived almost forty-five minutes later than it was scheduled to be at our stop. We were to learn that this was normal. The drive to the Village was stop and go all the way. Traffic was unusually heavy due to the fact that today was the opening ceremonies for the Games. All the way, Smitty and I were silent, both anxious to find out if we could get over one more hurdle.

At the Little Olympics the year before, Tommy had easily gotten access to the competition, but that was for a single sporting event. This was the Olympic Games where forty-five nations came together to participate in a multitude of events. And with the tension of the recent riots, we believed that security had to be tight.

I noticed that there was still a great deal of construction going on, and last-minute signs and billboards were being put in place. There had been much concern by the top people in many sports over whether the Mexican government could get all the facilities together in time. It appeared that they were cutting it as close as possible.

We finally arrived at the Olympic Village and hurried to the security station at the entrance. Smitty told the officer that we needed to contact the coach or manager of the American weightlifting team. He asked Smitty for a name and Smitty told him, “John Terpak.” The officer checked a list, made a call, and Smitty got on the line with Terpak and told him where we were. After hanging up and thanking the officer, Smitty turned to me and said, “Fifteen minutes.”

We spent the time browsing in the gift shop right next to the entrance of the Village. And that’s when we found out about the value of pins. People swarmed us, wanting to know if we had any pins to trade. We had both brought a quantity of AAU pins but didn’t bring them with us since we had other things on our minds.

Terpak arrived and handed us laminated badges with the word “Official” embossed on it. “This took some doing. Smitty, you’re listed as the team trainer, and Bill, you’re an assistant-coach. But on an unofficial basis.” Meaning we would not be listed as a part of the team. We didn’t care one iota about that. We were here to help the lifters in any way we could. Terpak could have all the recognition, that was fine with us.

Terpak was extremely friendly and guided us through the entrance to the Village and took us to the high-rise building where the U.S. lifters were staying. He informed us that Hoffman, Major Ottot, and he were quartered in a different building than the athletes. “They’re on the tenth floor,” he said, then added cheerfully, “Glad you could make it.”

When he walked away, Smitty said, “I’ll be damned. I wasn’t expecting a warm greeting.”

“Me neither, but it makes sense when you think about it. We’ll be doing all the work and if things turn out like we hope they will, he’ll take all the credit.”

“He can have it,” Smitty declared and I agreed. It finally dawned on me as we road the elevator to the tenth floor, that I was to be a part of the greatest sports extravaganza in the world – The Olympic Games. 

  • Part 1
  • Part 2
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 5
  • Part 6
  • Part 8
  • Part 9
  • Part 10
  • Part 11
  • Part 12
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