Premium

Enriqueta Basilio, athlete who in Mexico City in 1968 became the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron – obituary

Enriqueta Basilio on her way to the Olympic cauldron 
Enriqueta Basilio on her way to the Olympic cauldron  Credit: Bettmann

Enriqueta Basilio, who has died aged 71, was a Mexican athlete who in 1968 became the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron and so signal the start of the Summer Games.

The identity of the final torch bearer is nowadays often kept secret until the last moment. But the choice of “Queta” Basilio, a lithe hurdler known for the hairband she wore while competing, was revealed to the press three months before the opening ceremony on October 12 1968. The presumption was that, at 20, she was intended to represent a Mexico confident of its future. She herself was unsure why she had been selected.

“Maybe it’s because here in Mexico men and women have the same rights,” she said at the time via a translator. “Maybe because some people say I represent the typical Mexican type, a new kind of generation. The new Mexico youth is tall, more thin. The last generation was short, more fat.” Whatever the thinking, it seemed predestined; aged 11, she had played the same role at a national competition for young athletes.

The flame followed the route Columbus had taken to the New World and was relayed by 2,778 athletes during its 50-day journey from Greece to the high altitude of Mexico City. Enriqueta Basilio rehearsed her own part intensively.

Although she learnt how to run with the heavy torch – which weighed more than 4 lb – at a pace sufficiently slow to be dignified yet not one which let the winds in the stadium snuff it out, its metal became so hot that it burned her hand. A protective sleeve was fitted on to it just for her.

Every time she practised, she received it from the same soldier. Yet when the time came she was momentarily surprised that he had been replaced without warning by a cadet she had never seen before. Nevertheless, she turned at a brisk clip into the stadium, dressed all in white, down to her hairband.

Enriqueta Basilio in the Olympic stadium: her mother was there, but 'didn't see me - she was praying the rosary' Credit:  Derek Cattani/REX

“My parents were at the entrance, my mother was very nervous,” she recalled. “I think she didn’t see me because she was praying the rosary, my sister taking photos.”

Only a few days before, Mexico’s government had ruthlessly repressed public displays of dissent by students, causing many deaths, but now what the world saw was 100,000 spectators applauding as Enriqueta Basilio circled the track, bearing the torch.

Passing through her fellow athletes, she bounded up some 90 steps, then from on high pointed the flame to the four cardinal points before lighting the cauldron. Forty thousand balloons, and 6,000 pigeons, soared upwards to mark the moment.

There was one further hitch when no one turned up to bring her a white uniform so she could exit the stadium as arranged. Preferring not to mingle with the crowds in her distinctive and brief garb, she borrowed some grey and green overalls from a cleaner, which she kept as a souvenir.

Her own Games proved similarly short, as she was eliminated in the first heat of each of her three events – the 400 m, 80 m hurdles and the 4 x  100m relay. She retains, however, with Cathy Freeman of Australia in 2000, the distinction of being the only women to have lit the cauldron at a Summer Olympics.

Preparing to light the cauldron Credit: Derek Cattani/REX

Norma Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo was born in Mexicali, in Baja California, on July 15 1948. She and her five brothers grew up in a rural district and by the time she was an adolescent she was known for her sporting ability, initially as a high jumper.

Spotted by the Polish coach Vladimir Puzio at a national youth championships, Queta converted into a hurdler. Soon she set a national record that led her to be dubbed “The Flying Goddess”. In 1967, she came seventh in the Pan American Games and in 1970 she took bronze in the sprint relay at the Central American Games.

She remained involved with Mexican sport, and from 2000 was for three years a member of parliament. Latterly, however, she had lost most of her savings in a well-publicised alleged fraud that has affected thousands of her compatriots. She had also been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Enriqueta Basilio is survived by her son and two daughters.

Enriqueta Basilio, born July 15 1948, died October 26 2019