THE soundtrack of 1968 was gunshots, whining sirens, the crunch of boots on glass and limbs, mass chanting, overlaid by the acrid smell of burning and the whiff of tear gas. It just didn’t feel then that a new world was possible, but probable, whatever it turned out to be. As one of the slogans scrawled on walls in Paris in the student revolt put it, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

They had tried that in Czechoslovakia, in the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek, a liberaliser, had been elected in January as head of the Communist Party, a brief reign which was over when Russian tanks rolled into the country in August.

In that same month the Vietnam War reached its zenith when the Vietcong launched a series of attacks, the Tet Offensive, against Hue, and Saigon and other key targets, which were militarily unsuccessful but which broke the resolve of the United States to hang in until the war was won. Graphic footage brought it into every living room, albeit it in thumb-sized reality, and then the news broke about My Lai, where US troops gang-raped, murdered and mutilated around 500 Vietnamese villagers.

At the same time protestors clashed with police in Grosvenor Square in London, French workers joined students on strike, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gunned down, and the hapless Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had succeeded Kennedy’s murdered brother JFK announced “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your president.”

The carnage of the year of 1968 puts bloodily into context the Queen’s assertion that 1992 was an annus horribilis.

LBJ was destroyed by Vietnam, the failure either to win the war no matter how many bombs were dropped by B52s, or to withdraw without losing face. But he had, with great skill and tenacity, and after a 54-day filibuster, pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation. It might have been passed on paper, but in practice it was widely ignored, with the end of segregation in schools not even fully ended by the start of the 1970s.

The act also didn’t impact either on the troops embroiled in the Asian maelstrom, one-in-four of the casualties in Vietnam in 1965 was an African American, whereas the black population in the US was less than 11%.

Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement was also being supplanted by the Black Power movement. a precursor of Black Lives Matter. James Brown’s hit of the season was Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, a new anthem which lost him many white supporters.

And into this was thrown the 1968 Olympics, in Mexico City, the first in a Latin American country, the first to be held in a Spanish-speaking country. A group of black US athletes had formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a campaigning group which saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to press for better treatment of black athletes and black people around the world. One of the demands was the reinstatement of Muhammad Ali – “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” – as world heavyweight champion.

Ten days before the torch was due to arrive to set off the XIX Olympiad, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of students sat down in Mexico City's Three Cultures Square demonstrating against their government. The response was bulldozers, batons and live rounds. The official death toll was four, the unofficial count around 3000.

“It deeply affected me and other black athletes,” sprinter John Carlos told me some years later. The first reaction was that OPHR members would boycott the games, “but then we decided we had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”

Carlos was born in New York’s Harlem to Cuban parents. He wasn’t just a supremely talented athlete but he was also an outstanding student who went to university on a track-and-field scholarship.

In the US Olympic trials in California, held at 7400 feet, almost double the height of Ben Nevis, mimicking the altitude of Mexico City, he set a world record in the 200 metres, beating his rival Tommie Smith and clipping 0.3 seconds off the world record. That record was never ratified because he wore brush spikes.

These had been invented by Puma, with rows of 68 needle-sharp spikes on the front of the sole, which were designed for the new Tartan tracks, and the coming Olympics would be the first to have a composite track rather than cinders. However bitter rival Adidas protested, successfully, and to this day running shoes can have no more than six spikes.

Carlos and Smith powered through the heats and were joined by the third favourite, the white Australian Peter Norman, who had been born a poor boy whose father had to borrow spikes for him, growing up in a country governed by its White Australia policy and he had seen the discrimination against native Aborigines.

“Who’s this little white guy?” Carlos recalled saying. On the track in 1968 he would find out.

The final of the 200m was won by Smith in a new world-record time, with Norman surprisingly pipping Carlos for silver on the line.

“Tommie and I had decided what to do, in the ceremony” Carlos told me. “I looked at the high white socks we were given and thought about all the poor black people I’d seen in New York and other parts of the States. So we’d go shoeless in black socks. And the beads I wore symbolised the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from trees in the south.”

They were going to wear black gloves and give the clenched fist, black power salute, except that Carlos had forgotten to bring his leather ones. Norman suggested they share a pair while he, in solidarity, would wear an OPHR badge.

It became one of the moments of the century, the two men arms rigidly aloft, gloved right and left fists, looking down at the ground from the podium while the Stars and Stripes almost drowned out the booing.

The International Olympic Committee was as unprincipled then as it has been up to this day. Avery Brundage, who had then been president for 16 years, ruled that the demonstration was political, as it was, and that the two US athletes had to be sent home. He hadn’t held the same view in 1936 when he called the Nazi salute a national, rather than political, one.

Brundage told the US team management to send Carlos and Smith home, they refused, he threatened to ban the entire track team, so the the United States caved in and the two athletes were put on a plane, 52 years ago this week.

Carlos and Smith faced the inevitable death threats, abuse and shunning, although they were quickly reintegrated into athletics. A year later Carlos had his best-ever year, equalling the world 100 metres record in 9.1 seconds and winning a host of other events. He, like Smith, had a brief spell in American football before becoming a counsellor and civil rights advocate.

Norman suffered much more back home, he was blackballed, ostracised and, almost worse, ignored. He kept winning races and he kept not being picked for the Australian team. For the 1972 Munich Olympics he had run the qualifying time 13 times in the 200 metres and five times in the 100 metres, but the greatest sprinter Australia had ever known wasn’t selected, no sprinters were. He was also repeatedly asked to condemn the protest, the price of readmission, but he refused. Instead, he said, he was rather proud of what he did.

Norman gave up athletics, he wasn’t invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and slumped into alcoholism. It wasn’t until 2012 – he died in 2006 – that he actually received a posthumous apology.

Carlos recalled, “If we were getting beat up, he was facing an entire country alone.” He and Tommie Smith were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral. There was no need to wear gloves.