Ed Burke, 1968 Mexico Olympics

Mexico · About Culture & History
In the last article, I wrote about the 1968 Mexico Olympics with John Carlos and Tommy Smith. There was another memorable figure there that year. Also from the Bay Area, notably right in my own neck of the woods, Los Gatos. Ed Burke, now a household name here in LG, but then he was a budding Olympic athlete who would, during this Olympic, quite the games only to return 40 years later to compete and win!

I had met Ed, many times over the years prior to 1968. He traveled a lot and booked many of his flights and travels through my agency. We certainly knew and appreciated our mutual interests: travel, sports and the Olympics.

That year, 1968 in Mexico City, I attended Ed’s event. Several of us sat in the bleacher anxiously waiting for him to show his skill in an event that dated back to the 15th century and is one of the oldest of Olympic Games competitions. The 'hammer' used in this sport is not like any of the tools also called by that name. It consists of a metal ball attached by a steel wire to a grip and the skill to throw it based on strength, technical skill and speed.

At this Olympic Games, the rules had just recently changed to allow for a restart on a throw, but the officials didn’t know the rules and that altered the next 16 years of Ed Burke’s life and Olympic career.

We were in the stands watching as he prepared to throw. He had been throwing well and was positioned to win a medal. Then suddenly there were two fouls called. None of us understood what was going on and although his last throw went well, he didn’t qualify. The officials had incorrectly called the fouls. The rule had been changed to allow a thrower to start his motion over, provided the ball didn’t touch the ground outside the circle. But it was no use arguing. We could see the disruption on the ground but despite Ed’s protestations, he didn’t get a do-over, and he finished 12th. He was so upset with the call that he quit the sport on the spot thinking he’d never compete in another Olympics.

As it was, Ed didn’t throw again for the next 11 years. But in 1979, his wife Shirley encouraged him to return to the sport. That was the second time she offered such encouragement. The first was after a dreadful accident that nearly cost her life, back in 1962. I still remember hearing about it. Los Gatos is a small town and word got around fast. Ed was practicing his throw. It was a cold, rainy day and Shirley, who was always at his side, had climbed back into their car to wait for his last practice swing. The 16 lb solid metal ball and chain, came directly at her, smashing through the car window and hitting her on the side of her head. It took many surgeries and years to return to normal.

But Shirley was always to be his most loyal fan, coach and partner. So, 11 years, after the 1968 Olympics, she did it again and encouraged her husband to return to the sport. He was nearly 40 years old, yet within a couple of years, he was throwing as far as he did in his prime. In 1984, he threw a lifetime-best, 243-11 and made his third Olympic team at age 44. He was the oldest member of the American team and the first U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for Olympic teams 20 years apart!

There is no denying that his journey was most interesting, with all its ups and downs, and so as the Games approached he was asked several times whether he would like to be a flag-bearer. He replied, “are you kidding me, it’s the greatest honor that your nation can bestow upon you so of course, I’d love to!” never really thinking it would happen. Though he didn’t qualify for the final, the other team captains selected him to carry the U.S. flag into the Los Angeles Coliseum during the opening ceremonies. This was to be, in this own words,”…what I’m known for. It’s one of those quirks of fate. People can’t remember who won the gold medal, but they remember the guy who carried the flag into the stadium.” 

That was a memorable day indeed, for all of us. I remember it well. Ed recounts the events as they unfolded. “The night of the Ceremony, it felt like we were waiting all day to march in because we were the last team. There were almost 100,000 people in the stands, most of the home fans, and as we waited to march, I was congratulated by so many famous Olympians who I’d looked up to, like Al Oerter, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and others.

As we were waiting to enter, the officials handed me the flag pole and asked if I could hold it with one hand. It was a brass pose, about 8 feet long, and it had been shellacked. It was extremely hot and my hands were sweating and I said, ‘I can’t hold that, it keeps slipping.’ So the vice-president of our Olympic Committee started digging in the dirt for little stones that we could use to scratch the pole to help me get a good grip. It took us quite some time and we were frantic.”

“But we managed it and finally it was our turn to enter. I led the team in, holding the flag with one hand. I still remember it so clearly – I was crying every step of the way. And when I got to the far curve of the track, I saw my two daughters in the stand.”

“I looked up to see what the flag was doing and it had tipped down and all of a sudden, I realized I’d lost all feeling in my right arm through the weight of it. People don’t know this but without breaking stride or flinching, I let go with my right and grabbed the flag with my left and carried on walking around the curve.”

Ed came back to Los Gatos a local celebrity. He not only founded the Los Gatos Athletic Club which still exists today but also formed Explorer post 813, with Mac Wilkins, Olympic discus champion, in San Jose as a way to introduce youngsters to the experience of throwing. He was inducted into the National Masters Hall of Fame in 1996 and was still competing in the early 2000s at the Senior and Masters levels setting a number of records.

The 1968 Mexico Olympics were incredibly memorable in so many ways. In the next and last segment of this three-part series, I will talk about the Canadian equestrian team that I helped get to the Mexico City Olympics.

What a story that was….

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