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.