Mexico’s Estadio Olímpico Universitario has seen its share of historic moments. It was there that Bob Beamon broke the world record during the 1968 Olympics for the long jump, where Dick Fosbury introduced the Fosbury Flop technique in the high jump competition, and where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in protest during the medal ceremony. The incident – which became known as the Black Power Salute – is still regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympics.
The stadium is also where Diego Rivera started (but never finished) a monumental mural as a tribute to sports.
“The sculpture-painting at the Estadio Olímpico in Ciudad Universitaria is undoubtedly the most important achievement of my life as an artist,” said Rivera, according to an edited volume about the stadium. He believed it would be one of the most ambitious and experimental pieces of his career.
But the vision never fully materialized, and the mural at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) was never completed.
What remains of the project is only a high relief on the east wall, titled The University, the Mexican family, peace and youth sports, which sits above the main entrance of the stadium. It’s just a small remnant of the sculptural mural that Rivera imagined would wrap around the stadium’s entire facade and tell the history of sports in Mexico from the pre-Columbian era to the present.
Why was the mural that was supposed to be the greatest he ever made left unfinished?
What happened to Rivera’s epic plan? Why was the mural that was supposed to be the greatest he ever made left unfinished?
The mystery has never been fully solved. Architectural historians have different theories; some blame it on the artist’s failing health towards the end of his life, or the fact that the money simply ran out. But Rivera may have taken the answers to these questions to his grave.
What is known for sure is that he had a passionate vision for the mural.
The project was meant to span the 14,000 square meters (45,000 feet) around the entire circular stadium. Most ambitiously, the plan – which now survives only in sketches – conceived the entire piece in mosaics.
A sequence of pre-Columbian sports images would cover one of the longer slopes, with scenes of track and field, basketball, and football overlaying the other side. Two additional small murals were planned for inside the stadium, using Rivera’s classic painted fresco technique, the Olympic torch, and the seal of the Mexico-Tenochtitlan Foundation.
“It is, then, the Mexican people’s symbol of their own heroic and progressive effort.”
He wanted the work to be in harmony with the landscape and planned to use stones from surrounding volcano formations in southern Mexico City, which were left behind by the eruption of Xitle sometime between 245 and 315 A.D.
Diego Rivera’s initial enthusiasm for the project was clear in the text he wrote for the book Estadio olímpico, Ciudad Universitaria, authored by the stadium’s main architect Augusto Pérez Palacios.
“The building emerges from the nearby terrain in the same powerful way that the volcanic cones shape the skyline,” explained Rivera in his text. “It is a crater designed by architecture; it is a crater from an eruption that represented the agrarian-democratic bourgeois revolution of Mexico. It is, then, the Mexican people’s symbol of their own heroic and progressive effort.”
The famous painter, though, was not well-versed in making complicated mosaics on this scale.
The famous painter, though, was not well-versed in making complicated mosaics on this scale. By committing to use experimental materials – diverse volcanic rocks, such as tezontle, tepetate, and other stones for the mosaic – Rivera set himself up for a challenge.
Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera’s contemporary, said his “use of archaic materials led to a primitive result,” according to a book by Philip Stein.
Critics say the lack of refinement in the section that he did finish might have been one cause for the project’s cancellation.
In his book Diego Rivera: pintura mural, Antonio Rodriguez argues that the partial execution of the mural did not meet the expectations generated by the sketches.
“The woman and the man carrying the baby in the finished section reveal clumsiness in the molding. In each of the figures, the legs in the second plane seem to disintegrate from the group,” wrote Rodriguez. “Due to the crudeness of the stone – which prevents any chance of refining the structure – the boy lacks beauty and grace. One of the athlete’s faces – who carries the olympic torch – just becomes grotesque because of the huge size of one of his eyes and the unfinished profile.”
The most common explanation for the truncated project was a lack of funds.
But beyond what some said were the disappointing results of the mosaic technique, the most common explanation for the truncated project was a lack of funds.
Initially, Augusto Pérez Palacios – the stadium’s main architect – thought Siqueiros should decorate its sides, according to the architect’s personal documents in the UNAM archives. But Siquieros, famous in his own right at the time, did not accept the initial budget for the project. Rivera, a second choice, was awarded the contract on June 2, 1952. It was $300,000 pesos for one year (around $3,740 at the time, which would be more than $33,000 today). Of that sum, Rivera had to pay $216,000 pesos to his assistants.
Then the university ran out of cash.
Siquieros had been commissioned to complete another mural at the university’s administrative offices. When the money dried up, Siquieros scrambled to fundraise on his own, scraping together enough to finish his project, as Pérez Palacios’ documents show. Rivera, apparently, didn’t do the same.
Another reason the project stalled could be that Rivera’s health was failing. The same year he was awarded the contract, Rivera was diagnosed with testicular cancer, according his autobiography My Art, My Life. Doctors told him that his penis and testicles needed to be amputated to prevent the cancer from spreading. Rivera refused, so he underwent radiation treatment to eliminate the symptoms, and after some months, the cancer disappeared.
Rivera’s mural stands as a monument to one of Mexico’s most revolutionary geniuses.
Ultimately, the answer may lie in some combination of factors: a lack of funds, the artist’s deteriorating health, and his failed experimentation.
The Olympic Games of 1968 were celebrated in Mexico with the Estadio Olímpico as its principal venue. The historic games showed how much the world was changing. Just 10 days before the inauguration ceremony, the Mexican government massacred hundreds of protesting students in Tlatelolco. Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists to protest racial injustice in the United States. And even though it was unfinished, Rivera’s mural stands as a monument to one of Mexico’s most revolutionary geniuses.