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Bittersweet victory

By Steven V. Roberts
Sunday, November 29, 2009

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

American Passion and Defiance in The 1968 Mexico City Olympics

By Richard Hoffer

Free Press. 258 pp. $26

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The image is indelible. Mexico City, October 1968: American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos mount the Olympic victory podium after finishing first and third in the 200-meter dash. As "The Star Spangled Banner" plays, each runner looks down and raises a black-gloved fist. "They had," writes Richard Hoffer, "in almost total spontaneity, created a scene of discontent that was so powerful that words would always fail it."

The 1968 Olympics were a 10-ring circus, bringing together a "confusion of agendas" and a medley of characters: Jim Ryun, a straitlaced white miler from Kansas, providing a cultural counterpoint to the angry black sprinters; George Foreman waving a tiny American flag after winning the heavyweight boxing title; and the brothers Dassler, who created rival shoe companies, Puma and Adidas, bitterly competing for business (one of them, Armin, is depicted as paying off pole vaulter Bob Seagren, who won a medal while wearing his gear).

But at the core of this book is how Smith and Carlos reached their moment of immortality. Smith grew up in California's Central Valley, where his family picked grapes and cotton for a living. His father reluctantly agreed to let him run track but warned, "If you run and you get second place, you'll have to be back in the field with the rest of us next Saturday." Carlos was a street-wise New Yorker who used his speed to rob freight cars near Yankee Stadium. When the cops finally nabbed him, "One of them, a huge guy, grabbed Carlos's face in one hand, his fingers wrapping it from ear to ear. 'You think you're fast,' he told Carlos, 'maybe you should run track.' "

Carlos and Smith became teammates at San Jose State, known as "Speed City," the best track program in the country. But the school had long mistreated its black athletes, skimping on scholarships and forcing them to sleep in a shed near the football stadium. In the early '60s, a towering discus thrower named Harry Edwards ended his athletic career by confronting the coach and calling him a "racist low life." But Edwards, who then went to Cornell for graduate school and fell under the influence of Malcolm X, returned to campus in 1966 as a sociology professor and crystallized the grievances of athletes like Smith and Carlos. Soon he was wearing black berets and African beads and calling for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics to protest racism.

The boycott fizzled because it forced athletes to choose between their race and their talent. Hoffer, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, quotes sprinter Larry James: "It boiled down to a clash between the goal -- doing good for all mankind -- and the gold -- the individual's self-interest." But personal protests were still possible, and Olympic officials cracked down hard. Broad jumper Phil Shinnick, an Air Force captain, was threatened with a court martial if he joined any demonstrations. Newsweek writer Pete Axthelm had trouble securing credentials and was urged to cover "something better . . . than niggers." But Smith and Carlos resisted the threats, and during a 20-minute break between the race and the medal ceremony, they hatched a haphazard plan. "It was not a gesture of hate, it was a gesture of frustration," Smith explained. "This was going to be a silent gesture that everyone in the world would hear."

Actually, the world didn't hear right away. Many journalists were confused by the scene. But the Olympic committee, thick-headed and thin-skinned, tossed the runners off the team and thus made them martyrs. Today, a statue of Smith and Carlos stands on the campus of San Jose State, where black runners once slept on football tackling dummies.

This is a well-told tale, but the book has flaws. Hoffer chides contemporary writers for paying "no attention" to the Tigerbelles, the fabulous female runners from Tennessee State, and then makes them bit players in his own narrative. More seriously, this book says almost nothing about the fallout from Mexico City. It briefly mentions that Smith and Carlos were treated as "outcasts, terrorists" after their return and that they struggled for years before finding jobs as track coaches in Southern California. What do they think of their gesture today? How has it marked their lives? And ours? Hoffer never asks. But then, perhaps, he does not have to. Their image endures -- etched in stone, film, memory. Two men, two fists, one daring demonstration of human dignity.

Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His new book, "From Every End of This Earth," has just been published.

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