On 16 October 1968, French athlete Colette Besson pulled off an eye-catching victory in the women’s Olympic 400m final in Mexico City.
Many French athletics fans still treasure the memory of 16 October 1968, the day that Colette Besson (FRA) secured a place in her country’s sporting folklore at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City.
It was around 5.30 p.m. when the unfancied 22-year-old pushed off from the starting blocks in Lane 5 of the women’s Olympic 400m final, with her sights set on the favourite, Lillian Board (GBR), who was drawn in Lane 1. Emerging from the final bend, Besson found herself back in fifth position, while Board looked to have the race all wrapped up. However, the Frenchwoman then proceeded to surge past her fellow runners in the final 100 metres, pipping Board at the post by 0.1 seconds to win in an Olympic record time of 52.00, taking a full 1.5 seconds off her personal best. The Soviet Union’s Natalya Pechonkina finished third to complete the podium.
“These were no ordinary Games,” explained Besson. “Mexico City’s altitude is 2,200m – you had to be able to adapt. I was incredibly lucky, because all of the schools had shut in France due to the political events of May 1968, and so as a teacher I was able to go and train at altitude much earlier than planned, at Font Romeu in the Pyrenees.”
With four and a half months of high-altitude training under her belt, she eased through the first round and semi-final, which was held in pouring rain.
“In the final, I felt so comfortable. Coming round the bend, I could see all my opponents struggling and grimacing, but I felt like I’d sprouted wings. I was wondering what had happened to me! I was also spurred on by the 80,000 cheering fans, who must have been asking themselves, ‘Just who is this young runner busy passing all the favourites?’”
Besson’s magnificent 400m triumph catapulted her to instant stardom in France. In her mind, however, her own feat paled in comparison with some of the other exploits of Mexico 1968, such as that of Bob Beamon. “I saw his jump of 8.90m live in the stadium. It was absolutely fantastic. A moment of magic; truly incredible.”
In September 1969, she produced another flash of magic herself at the European Championships in Athens (GRE), where she set a new 400m world record of 51.70 with compatriot Nicole Duclos, who crossed the line in exactly the same time and was eventually awarded the gold medal after prolonged scrutiny of the photo finish.
The first French athlete to secure gold in the Olympic 400m event and the only French Olympic champion in athletics at the Mexico City Games, Besson would have to wait 24 years to see a compatriot emulate her achievement over the same distance. “I was in Barcelona in 1992 when Marie-José Pérec won the 400m title. I jumped for joy!” she recalled later.
On 9 August 2005, following a long battle with cancer, Besson passed away in La Rochelle at the age of 59. Thousands of people attended her funeral, where the Olympic flag was draped over her coffin.
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