The first sign that this would be one of the sport's most extraordinary competitions came in the qualifying round thanks Italy's Giuseppe Gentile, a 25-year-old law student who was later to appear opposite the legendary singer Maria Callas in a film. Gentile was a talented athlete, who had was the reigning national champion in both the long and triple jump.
Gentile leaped 17.10m, a world record and way beyond any distance he had set before. It was his only jump in qualifying and then, with his first jump in the final, he stunned the Mexico crowd by beating even that mark, clearing 17.22m. Two jumps, two world records. It was quite a way to start his Olympic career.
At that point, few would have bet against Gentile taking the title, but the conditions were perfect, the altitude was helping and the wind was right at the legal limit. In the second round, the relatively unheralded Nelson Prudêncio of Brazil produced a triple jump of 17.05m – about 75cm than he had ever gone before. Suddenly Gentile's leap didn't seem quite so untouchable, and in the third round, it was beaten – the pre-Games favourite Viktor Saneyev, of the Soviet Union, pushing the world record out by a single centimetre to 17.23m.
Back came Prudêncio, setting another world record with a jump of 17.27m and, going into the latter stages of the final round, it was the Brazilian who was out in front. Saneyev, under huge pressure, produced something spectacular – a triple-jump of 17.39m that gave him comfortable victory in this most turbulent of contests.
Prudêncio had to settle for silver, while Gentile – who had broken the world record twice – took bronze. A measure of the quality of that final is this - Nikolai Dudkin, of the Soviet Union, broke the old world record, but could finish only fifth.