- Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics
“The Olympics,” according to author Richard Hoffer, “are always a reliable feel-good story, a clockwork confirmation of national values” (p. 37). At the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, however, the players went off-script. 1968 tested the notion that the Olympics served as a break from the world’s political tensions. With all of the calamitous events—the war in Vietnam, the brutal crackdown on the Prague Spring, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name three—Hoffer notes, “[I]t would have been naïve to think the events of the year would not somehow penetrate the Olympic dream state” (p. 14). Indeed, just ten days before the beginning of the Olympics, the Mexican government cracked down on student protestors in a bloody affair that came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre.
In Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Hoffer, a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated, tells the story of the 1968 summer Olympics through the eyes of American athletes. Hoffer uses numerous interviews with athletes and some historical research to reconstruct a year of turmoil, confusion, and divided loyalties. Due to Hoffer’s access to the former Olympians, his fast-paced account is [End Page 178] chockablock with delightful details that bring the lives of elite athletes into focus. The University of Nebraska Press has re-issued the book after its original printing with Simon and Schuster in 2009. It is not an academic work, though, for when it comes time to make sense of the collected vignettes, Hoffer pulls back, leaving the reader to ruminate over the larger meanings of the 1968 summer games.
Hoffer depicts organized sport as inherently conservative, following a top-down pattern where instruction and strategy comes from no-nonsense coaches who prefer that players do as little thinking as possible. True creativity is rare, and innovators faced doubt, ridicule, and charges of cheating and breaking the codes of sportsmanship. This was especially true for the Olympics, where Hoffer states “a cadre of old white men redolent of their privileges, were accustomed to a tremendous level of compliance, of submission even, from the athletes they paraded in front of the world” (p. 18). The athletes, particularly those in individual sports such as track and field, were ambitious, young, and accustomed to following orders and accepted wisdom.
Yet in 1968 authority and tradition were under assault. The blind loyalties Olympic athletes held to their countries and monomaniacal pursuit of excellence were intruded on by the demands of generational upheaval and racial pride. Normally cocooned athletes were stepping into the political fray. The locus of dissent was San José State, where former student-athlete Harry Edwards led a sustained protest over the treatment of black athletes. Two sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, were among Edwards’ most devoted acolytes. Across America, black athletes and white allies made their grievances known, while baffled journalists struggled to accommodate rage with the Olympic “feel-good” narrative. A threatened boycott fizzled, but the raised, black-gloved fists of Smith and Carlos on the medals stand remains an indelible image from the Civil Rights struggle.
Hoffer cannot quite sort out the meanings of the unrest of the Mexico City Olympics. On one hand, he sees it as a watershed event, as Olympic officials could no longer count on excluding politics, tolerating racism, and abetting gender inequality. Yet he also argues that the results were hard to gauge, and it would be decades before Americans were able to attach significance to events. Besides Carlos and Smith, other athletes made symbolic gestures and bucked authority, but this hardly ushered in an era of politicized athletes. Hoffer hints at the reasons for this by explaining the backlash against the athletes, which included stacks of hate mail and death threats. The press condemned the public acts, with the ever-hyperbolic Brent Musberger...