By GORDON MARINO
Published: November 27, 2009
The images that make it into our long-term collective memory are few.
One that has escaped the maws of oblivion, though, dates from the
athletic circus that was the 1968 Summer Olympics. I am, of course,
referring to the photos of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing
shoeless at a medal ceremony. On Oct. 16, Smith won the gold and
Carlos the bronze in the 200-meter race. There they stood on the
podium, heads hanging almost humbly and gloved fists raised in a
defiant black power salute. "Something in the Air," Richard Hoffer's
skillfully told tale of the Mexico City Olympics, revolves around
this arresting image.
Formerly a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, Hoffer walks us back
from the power salutes to where it all began, at San Jose State or,
as it was then known, Speed City. In the '60s, the college's
eccentric but brilliant track coach, Bud Winter, was recruiting
African-American speedsters like Carlos, Smith and Lee Evans. He
also brought in Harry Edwards, a behemoth discus thrower who, as
Hoffer says, would soon become a political flamethrower.
In his sophomore season, Edwards approached Winter about the living
conditions of black athletes at San Jose. One word led to another,
and within minutes the two were locked in a near-violent
confrontation. Edwards would never toss the discus again. But he
remained at San Jose as a basketball player, and then went on to
graduate school at Cornell. The black power movement was cresting,
and Edwards became involved in trying to organize athletes and awaken
their political awareness.
In 1967, Edwards cobbled together the Olympic Project for Human
Rights, an assemblage dedicated to fighting racism. The group strove
to arrange a black boycott of the 1968 Games, but as Hoffer tells it:
"The movement had failed for lack of solidarity, and all that was
left was the possibility of individual protest. And that possibility
seemed to be fizzling as well, event by event, as the black athletes
accepted their medals without demonstration."
Then, late in the Games, Smith and Carlos came up with their almost
impromptu plan for the silent scream of those raised fists. The
American news media were brutal. At home, most blacks smiled; most
whites smoldered. Shortly after the protest, Smith told the ABC
commentator Howard Cosell: "The right glove that I wore on my right
hand signified the power within black America. The left glove my
teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right
hand and his left hand, also to signify black unity. The scarf that
was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore
socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty."
The two medalists were soon kicked off the team, and as Hoffer
reveals, that was only a prelude to death threats and more. "Nothing
either would say was really registering," Hoffer writes. "They had,
in almost total spontaneity, created a scene of discontent that was
so powerful that words would always fail it." Again and again, they
"tried to explain their symbols of protest, their furious pose, but
the words piled up uselessly against the image they'd created." For
years to come, both Carlos and Smith would pay mightily for their
galvanizing gesture. It derailed their athletic careers and
apparently helped to end their marriages.
There were many other dramas played out in Mexico City involving
George Foreman, the long jumper Bob Beamon and the high jumper Dick
Fosbury, among others and Hoffer gracefully brings them all into
the same arena. More important, his jaunty but disciplined prose puts
the wind at the reader's back and shows us how the leaps, lifts and
dashes of 1968 made a significant impact on the civil rights movement
and raised the political consciousness of athletes.
Gordon Marino is a boxing writer and a professor of philosophy at St.
Olaf College in Minnesota. His book "Ethics: The Essential Writings"
will be published in 2010.