A good introduction to a watershed sports event that often reads like a book-length SI article—breezy, entertaining and not...

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

THE STORY OF AMERICAN PASSION AND DEFIANCE IN THE 1968 MEXICO CITY OLYMPICS

Sports Illustrated senior writer Hoffer (Jackpot Nation: Rambling and Gambling Across Our Landscape of Luck, 2007, etc.) chronicles the racially charged 1968 Olympics.

Even if the event hadn’t taken place during one of the most turbulent and revolutionary decades of the 20th century, the Mexico City Summer Games would have stood out as unique among the Olympics. Never before had a third-world country hosted the event, and never before had they been held at such great altitude—more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Many athletes who excelled in ordinary climates were slowed by the effects of the altitude, but the unusual conditions gave some quirky competitors—such as high jumper Dick Fosbury, inventor of the Fosbury flop, or thug turned boxing champion George Foreman—an edge over their more conventional rivals. Of course, Mexico City will be remembered mainly for the iconic image of American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medals stand, heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black-power salute. Hoffer lays out the circumstances that led to that brief explosion of overt politics, as well as the consequences, least of which was the runners’ purely symbolic banishment from Mexico City. The author introduces some of the characters behind the scenes, including International Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage, whose sympathy for apartheid-era South Africa made him suspect to black athletes worldwide; Bud Winter, the track coach at San Jose State University whose eccentric training methods centered around Zen-like relaxation, but whose interest in his athletes’ well-being often ended at the stadium gate; and Harry Edwards, a runner at SJSU turned political activist and professor who tried to organize a boycott of the Olympics by black athletes. Hoffer’s choice to focus mostly on Americans simplifies the narrative considerably, though including stories unrelated to racial politics may have dulled the story’s overall impact.

A good introduction to a watershed sports event that often reads like a book-length SI article—breezy, entertaining and not too deep.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4165-8894-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading...

CONCUSSION

A maddening, well-constructed tale of medical discovery and corporate coverup, set in morgues, laboratories, courtrooms, and football fields.

Nigeria-born Bennet Omalu is perhaps an unlikely hero, a medical doctor board-certified in four areas of pathology, “anatomic, clinical, forensic, and neuropathology,” and a well-rounded specialist in death. When his boss, celebrity examiner Cyril Wecht (“in the autopsy business, Wecht was a rock star”), got into trouble for various specimens of publicity-hound overreach, Omalu was there to offer patient, stoical support. The student did not surpass the teacher in flashiness, but Omalu was a rock star all his own in studying the brain to determine a cause of death. Laskas’ (Creative Writing/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Hidden America, 2012, etc.) main topic is the horrific injuries wrought to the brains and bodies of football players on the field. Omalu’s study of the unfortunate brain of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at 50 of a supposed heart attack, brought new attention to the trauma of concussion. Laskas trades in sportwriter-ese, all staccato delivery full of tough guyisms and sports clichés: “He had played for fifteen seasons, a warrior’s warrior; he played in more games—two hundred twenty—than any other player in Steelers history. Undersized, tough, a big, burly white guy—a Pittsburgh kind of guy—the heart of the best team in history.” A little of that goes a long way, but Laskas, a Pittsburgher who first wrote of Omalu and his studies in a story in GQ, does sturdy work in keeping up with a grim story that the NFL most definitely did not want to see aired—not in Omalu’s professional publications in medical journals, nor, reportedly, on the big screen in the Will Smith vehicle based on this book.

Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading it.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8757-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

WHY WE SWIM

A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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