Enriqueta Basilio, a Mexican sprinter who at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City became the first woman to light the Olympic flame, died on Oct. 26. She was 71.
Her death was confirmed by the Mexican Olympic Committee, which did not specify where she died or the cause.
The 1968 Olympic Games were memorable for a number of reasons, starting with Basilio’s appearance in the opening ceremonies. A 20-year-old member of the Mexican track and field team, she created a stir in the international press after she was selected to light the Olympic caldron and greeted the honor with aplomb.
The New York Times quoted her as saying, through a translator, that she thought she may have been selected because Mexican men and women had “the same rights,” and that her country hoped to demonstrate this equality to the world.
“The days we live in, it’s difficult to depend on a man,” Basilio said. “They must be iguales — the same.”
On Oct. 12, 1968, Basilio ran into the Olympic stadium in Mexico City holding the Olympic torch, which had been carried over land and sea from Greece by a succession of more than 2,775 torchbearers. She jogged around the track, climbed 90 carpeted steps and dipped the torch into a massive metal caldron, igniting gas burners and officially starting the Games as some 100,000 spectators roared.
“Anyone with acutely sensitive ears could then hear a spectral sound,” the Times sports columnist Arthur Daley wrote. “It would have been the ancient Greeks spinning madly in their crumbling mausoleums. They never permitted a woman to come near their Olympic Games but had summary punishment for every female intruder detected. She was promptly tossed off a seaside cliff onto the rocks below.”
He continued: “Here was a woman in a focal role a couple of thousand years later. She handled it well.”
The Mexico City Olympics had several more unforgettable moments, among them when the American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the winners’ podium to protest racism during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and when the American Bob Beamon shattered the long jump world record by leaping 29 feet, two and a half inches — nearly two feet farther than the previous record.
Basilio competed in the 400-meter, the 80-meter hurdles and the 400-meter relay. But she was eliminated in each event and never again competed at the Olympics.
Several women have since lit the Olympic flame at Winter and Summer Games. But Basilio and the Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman, who lit the caldron at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, are the only two to ignite the flame at the Summer Games by themselves.
Norma Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo was born on July 15, 1948, in Mexicali, the capital of the state of Baja California, to a large family of cotton farmers. She attended college in her home city and became a national champion in the 80-meter hurdles before her turn in the Olympics.
Information on her survivors was not immediately available.
In 2004 Basilio carried the Olympic torch once again, this time as it passed through Mexico City en route to the Summer Games in Athens.
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