Sunday, March 24, 2019

Books: On The Most Famous Protest By Athletes

Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico Olympics
By Richard Hoffer
University Of Nebraska Press; paperback, 276 pages;. $19.95

In this era of the activist athlete, it is a good time to look back to where it all started, at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968.

Richard Hoffer, in the book Something in the Air, that tells the individual stories of the athletes who gathered amidst upheaval around the world.

Racial tensions were high on the U.S. Olympic team, where inflamed black athletes had to choose between demands for justice, on the one hand, and loyalty to country, on the other.

A perfect example of the divide among American athletes was shown when basketball star Lew Alcindor (later to become the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) decided not to participate, while heavyweight boxer George Foreman not only competed and won a gold medal but waved a miniature American flag at foreign judges.

Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their mark with a raised-fist gestures of protest, which they became known for almost more than their speed on the track. No one was prepared for Bob Beamon’s long jump, which broke the world record by a staggering twenty-two inches. And then there was Dick Fosbury, the goofball high jumper whose backward, upside-down approach to the bar (the “Fosbury Flop”) baffled his coaches while breaking records.

Hoffer writes of a form of protest over civil rights that never came to fruition, "The idea of an Olympic boycott has been around for years. Dick Gregory, comedian-turned-activist (and himself a scholarship athlete), had brought it up as early as 1960. The idea got a little more traction after the Tokyo Games in 1964, when some of the black athletes began comparing notes over treatment there. It wasn't until Tommie Smith made an offhand comment to a Japanese reporter in the fall of 1967 that it really took hold, at least in the press. 
"Smith was in Tokyo for the World University Games in September when a reporter there asked about the possibility of a boycott by black athletes. The reporter asked, 'Were Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they were treated?' Smith was partly amused that he had to travel around the world to field such a question but not so amused that he couldn't answer it seriously. Of course not, he said. The reporter followed up, asking about a boycott. 'Depending upon the situation,' said Smith, 'you cannot rule out the possibility.' To that point there had been no talk specifically of an Olympic boycott, no organization, not even a particular grievance to rally around. But, given the question, Smith had to admit it was not something to be ruled out, given all the civil rights disturbances of the time.
"Whatever was written in that Tokyo newspaper got quickly translated. By the time Smith got back to San Jose, he was swamped with interview requests. Smith issued a statement through the athletic department, saying he had not meant to make an appeal 'to black athletes to boycott the Games,' but added, 'If a boycott is deemed appropriate, then I believe most of the black athletes will act in unison.'
"And that might have been that. Anybody who understands sports realizes the chances of organizing a group of athletes, based entirely on race, would be remote. Even in those enlightened times, athletes would divide themselves according to federations and regions and opportunity before they would divide themselves by skin color. A black man would honor his military obligations before any call to boycott. A black man might honor his school, his region, or his family above all. Some might defer employment or endorsement opportunities to promote an unpopular cause. But would enough? As one of the black athletes later said, 'Athletics have been mighty good to the Negro.' Athletes are groomed by extremely personal agendas; they would not likely be co-opted by any movement that interfered with the instinctual me first."

Filled with human drama, Something in the Air is a powerful, unforgettable tale that will resonate with sports fans and readers of social history alike. This edition features a new afterword by the author on the fiftieth anniversary of the Olympics.

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