María José Alcalá: The woman who fights to achieve another Olympic Games for Mexico

María José Alcalá
María José Alcalá, president of the Mexican Olympic Committee, in an interview with EL PAÍS, in her office in Mexico City.Nayeli Cruz

Mexico was put on the world stage for the 1968 Olympic Games. They were the first to be held in Latin America and to be broadcast via satellite to the entire world. The eternal footprint, however, has to do with social protest. Ten days before the inauguration, the Mexican Army massacred a still incalculable number of students in the plaza of Tlatelolco. It was also the setting for Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos to rise up against racism. Fifty-four years later, the country is seriously considering hosting another Olympic Games in 2036 or 2040 with another script under its belt.

It all starts with María José Alcalá (Mexico City, 51 years old). She broke the wall of Mexican machismo by becoming, after 98 years, the first woman to take the reins of the Mexican Olympic Committee (COM). Before doing so she was one of the pioneers in diving in the eighties by winning a youth world championship, the National Sports Award. “That served to open the way for the great champions like Laura Sánchez, Paola Espinosa, Tatiana Ortiz, Alejandra Orozco to come,” she says in an interview with EL PAÍS. After leaving the sport, she enrolled in Mexican politics. “It’s scarier to throw yourself into politics than into nails because if you make a mistake you can cause lifelong damage to athletes and you will be scarred. As an athlete you can make mistakes and you get second chances,” she adds.

For five years, Alcalá sought a position in the COM structure, closed to only men and with little transparency in the presidential selection processes. “I always had it in mind because being president is a position where women can demonstrate that we have the capacity for sports administration, by consensus,” she mentions. In November 2021, Alcalá won the first elections. “The Olympic movement has had its ups and downs in terms of adjustments to equalities. In 1924, when they did not want to let women participate in the Olympic Games, we women had to say: then we will have our own Games. 98 years passed because, possibly, the foundations had to be built so that women could have equal competition,” says the Green Party deputy.

Now, the idea that Mexico would once again aspire to the Olympic Games was born from a meeting between the local Olympic Committee and the Mexican Foreign Ministry last June. “In ’68 there were many ambassadors, Mexican diplomats, who contributed to the Games taking place, which created a State policy in favor of sport, the importance of physical culture began to be understood. It was reinforced regarding the issue of roads and transportation. The world got to know Mexico thanks to the Games. Sports infrastructure was built,” mentions the exclavadista. The sports facilities, for the most part, still stand, such as the University Olympic Stadium or the Olympic Pool.

Inauguration of the Mexico Olympic Games
The inauguration of the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968.Images exhibited at Memorial 68 (Digital copy courtesy of the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center)

“Of course Mexico is capable of organizing other Games. Before, cities had to spend billions of dollars, they had to adapt to the Games. Now these must be adapted to the city that wants to organize it. There must be economic resilience, an alliance of economic participation, where it is not a burden for the Government, where private initiative participates so that it is a virtuous circle in favor of the country that organizes the Games. We must understand sport as it continues to transform and Mexico cannot continue to lag behind,” says Alcalá, who has held talks with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In the last 50 years, Mexico has become the great host of sporting events. ’68, the soccer World Cups in 1970, 1986 and now in 2026, together with the United States and Canada, have been proof that the country knows how to throw a party. It has also hosted elite matches from the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and, recently, the WTA women’s tennis tour.

From the office of the Mexican Olympic Committee they recognize that the road is long. The first thing will be to deliver a letter to the International Olympic Committee explaining that Mexico wants to participate to host. From there it is time to build the proposal with sustainable, economic, transparency and governance issues, to present them during the Games in Los Angeles 2028. “These six years will be intense work. We want to form a working group, geopolitical and economic groups. It is a long road,” he mentions.

The fight for equal pay for Mexican athletes

Alcalá also raises another front at the start of his administration: equal pay in Mexican sports. A few days ago, he presented in Congress the initiative to test the waters in a sphere that maintains million-dollar salaries for men in soccer or boxing and meager salaries for women. “We must lay the foundations for equitable payment. Of course there are many interests in sports. It may be complicated to pass a law, but we are open to hearing why the same could not be paid,” he says.

María José Alcalá, President of the COM
María José Alcalá, during the interview, at the facilities of the Mexican Olympic Committee.Nayeli Cruz

When María José Alcalá was giving everything to dive into the pool, something happened to her that she still remembers with bitterness. She was training at the facilities of the Mexican Social Security Institute when a company decided to give 1,000 dollars to athletes and there was another financial resource of 17 dollars (350 pesos). Whoever gets the best results at the 1992 Barcelona Games will have the biggest prize. “I competed and came in sixth place, they didn’t give me the $1,000, they gave it to a teammate who came in seventeenth place. Discrimination? Yes of course. They continued to pay me the 350 pesos,” she recalls. “Women are marking a historic time in sports. We have had to open the gap, we want to stay on the podium. “Women don’t just want to compete, they want to win,” she says.

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