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The Book Shelf

Hoffer rises to occasion in tales of 1968 Games

By Joe Sullivan
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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Here’s the challenge to the reader: Read the first chapter of “Something in the Air’’ by Richard Hoffer and I guarantee you’ll have to finish the book.

In his chronicle of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Hoffer sets up the reader quickly by relating the personal situation of a juvenile delinquent in Houston. That would be George Foreman, the eventual gold-medal winner in boxing, professional heavyweight champion, and grill salesman.

To get to where he is today, Foreman had to overcome an adolescence that seemed to be preparing him for life at the state penitentiary. The Olympic Games were the reason he overcame it.

When considering the ’68 Olympics, one’s first thought has to be the famous medal-stand demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos after they finished first and third in the 200 meters, their gloved hands clenched in fists raised straight in the air. The meaning of the gesture was debatable but the reaction wasn’t. It was incredibly polarizing.

Hoffer details the protest by Smith and Carlos, but also much more about what happened at these Games. And that was plenty:

■Dick Fosbury, a goofy, only mildly motivated Oregon State student, revolutionized the high jump by winning a gold medal using his now-familiar “Fosbury Flop.’’

■Bob Beamon broke the world record in the long jump by 1 foot, 9 3/4 inches with a leap of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches. He nearly passed out when he realized what he accomplished.

■Jim Ryun, the US’s darling of middle-distance racing, was a heavy favorite in the 1,500 but couldn’t overcome the altitude.

■Al Oerter almost nonchalantly won his fourth straight gold medal in the discus.

The world was volatile in 1968. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated; there were riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago; and demonstrations against the Vietnam war were widespread. These Games were conducted in October, so after almost a year of never-ending controversy, there was the expectation of some sort of demonstration.

Hoffer, a former Sports Illustrated writer, ties it all together magnificently, especially with an eye for the lesser-known details. It’s not well-known that a demonstration by Mexican students opposed to the Games was violently crushed, leaving many dead, although the official body count was never known.

“As Mexican officials had hoped, the massacre was public enough to have effectively ended the student movement, yet underreported enough that the Olympics would not be stopped on its account,’’ Hoffer writes.

Chapter 9 ends with that conclusion, but there’s more interesting and entertaining tales before it and after it.