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Original Issue

Rodeo's bad old days lose something in a new and workmanlike translation

Fred Schnell begins his book on rodeo misleadingly but enticingly, with a scene in a Phoenix barroom. Carrying his camera and tape recorder, the author has a run-in with a drunken saddle bronc rider who asks, "You doing some kind of exposé on cowboys?" and tries to ease Schnell off his barstool. To the author's alarm, the other rodeo performers in the bar begin to reminisce about great quarrels of the past among their kind, some of which ended in gunfights and occasionally in death. Sure enough, when Schnell steps outside, the belligerent bronc buster is waiting for him, attended by two "lean and tough" cowboys. And then?

Well, nothing. And so, the start of Schnell's Rodeo! the Suicide Circuit (Rand McNally, $12.95) was a letdown for the author, and it proves to be one for the reader as well. The fight never comes off, and at their next meeting the bronc rider invites Schnell to a friendly game of pool.

Thereafter, Rodeo! settles down to 14 workmanlike chapters on bronc riding, roping, steer wrestling, bull riding and other events, all illustrated with 125 Schnell photographs of riders cartwheeling through the air, clowns a foot ahead of onrushing bulls, men leaping from a horse to grab a steer by its horns and the like. They justify Schnell's subtitle; rodeo is a suicide circuit.

The new world of rodeo, Schnell says, is highly concerned about its image. It is now a big, prospering enterprise: 600 professional rodeos a year, 40 million spectators, as much as $100,000 in prize money in a single rodeo. Its superstars like Larry Mahan, who won $280,000 over seven years, do all the things superstars in other sports do, from flying their own planes to endorsing breakfast cereal. Many of today's rodeo performers are former college athletes rather than former cowboys, and this change has cost the sport some of its color and lore.

Yet this may be to the good. "A lot of the old-timers were animals," one rider tells Schnell. "Even many of the champions were nothing but glorified Western hoodlums and criminals." Ruling today's sport is the Rodeo Cowboys Association, which forces its 3,000 members to wear appropriate cowboy garb and levies fines and suspensions for infractions that soil the idealized Western image. And for Wild West traditionalists there is one consolation: about 100 riders are suspended each year for being bad guys.

Slaughter the Animals, Poison the Earth, Jack Olsen's probing study of human depredations of American wildlife, which originated as a series of articles in this magazine, has been published by Simon & Schuster ($6.95).