Friday, January 1, 2010

Book: Something in the Air

Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by Richard Hoffer

For a book about history--specifically history of an event defined in many people's minds by race--this book gets a lot of the history wrong, and is somewhat obtuse about race. That said, the narrative's fascinating, and it does add a lot of detail to a story I only vaguely knew about.

Still: attributing the events of spring and summer '68 (as Hoffer does) primarily to students (and discussing the ongoing fight for civil rights in the years before only as an afterthought) is a flimsy base on which to hang a thesis.

Although Hoffer's grasp of the historical context in which the events of that fall happened appears patchy, his depiction of the unequal and exploitative treatment of black athletes in college (especially San Jose State) in the years before '68 is pretty compelling. Multiple athletes forced to share scholarships, sleeping in otherwise empty buildings because the school could not find another african american to house them with, even being forced to make do with walnuts from a tree for dinner.

The author makes no attempt to trivialize the eventual protests--with the unequal background many of these guys experienced, it's no surprise they were willing to step up. The disagreements among various athletes about whether to boycott the olympics or whether to protest on the podium are reasonably well-rendered, if not put in a particularly historic context.

Finally, a couple of issues that aren't in themselves particularly bad, but show the author's ignorance (or ignoring) of the times.

Harry Edwards
--who'd been kicked off the track team at San Jose State for protesting the conditions of black athletes to the coach--founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which threatened a boycott of the Olympics. As the profile of the organization rose, and as Edwards's profile rose, he became more and more worried about the FBI tailing him, or even trying to assassinate him. Hoffer relates this as a way of characterizing Edwards as losing his grip on reality. This, despite what we know now as an extensive campaign of surveillance and violence against radicals (and particularly black radicals) at the time. In his conclusion, Hoffer even describes Edwards treating his FBI tail to lunch!

The other serious problem is in Hoffer's discussion of Jim Ryun. Introducing the miler, the author writes,
Better to showcase somewhat more conservative and traditional qualities: hard work, stoicism, modesty. A potential gold medal winner who'd be uplifting and unthreatening. Totally inoffensive, but still, someone who could run fast or jump high.

That would be Jim Ryun, by enormous consensus.
Hoffer goes on to enumerate the reasons Ryun was a media darling. What he doesn't mention (and this comes immediately after his extensive introduction of the black runners of San Jose State and the substandard living conditions they were forced to put up with) is that the most media-friendly of Ryun's qualities--even more than "hard work, stoicism, modesty"--was that was white. To treat this at not worth mentioning, in a book that owes its existence to the role race and the struggle against racism, is a bizarre omission.

Hoffer, as befits a former Sport Illustrated writer, does have a gift for protraying the drama inherent in athletic competitions. His coverage of the Olympics events themselves are pretty compelling.

Overall, despite the book's serious problems, it's a worthwhile description of the events surrounding the 1968 Olympics, as well as the events of the Olympics themselves.

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