ROME 1960: The Olympics That Stirred The World, by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 2008, 478 pages)
This book does what only the best sports books can manage – it demonstrates that sport can be about more than competition; it can reflect broad social changes, and even cause them.
Maraniss argues convincingly that the 1960 Olympic Games were a turning point in history – a time when the Games ushered in the modern era of sports and culture. Standing firmly in the past was the Olympic Committee’s president, Avery Brundage, staunch defender of the status quo and his vision of “pure amateur sport.” Marannis reveals Brundage’s refusal to allow athletes to earn a living by threatening to strip them of their amateur status if they dared to even make appearances on a game show or a movie – as was the case for two athletes – even as he and the rest of the Olympic Committee profited from their official positions to lead lavish lifestyles. Complicating this situation was the emergence of the Soviet bloc, with their state sponsored athletic program.
The 1960 Games began ominously with the death of a cyclist, which apparently was due at least in part to his ingestion of performance-enhancing drugs. Such drugs were not yet banned then, but their use by athletes – especially weightlifters – was just beginning to be noticed. Soon, this issue would take center stage, and continues to be a festering wound for both amateur and professional sports.
The Games featured the emergence of women as serious athletes, as well as competitors from the newly-recognized countries of Africa. Cold War tensions and intrigue were an underlying theme throughout, and Maraniss does a fine job exploring how the pressures of national expectations affected the perceptions of the athletes and spectators alike. Particularly interesting was the description of the connection of American runner Dave Sime and Soviet athlete Igor Ter-Ovaneysan. Sime had been recruited by the U.S. government to recruit Ter-Ovaneysan for defection, and though the mission failed, the description of the flirtation is a good read.
Standing tall above the fray were running phenom Wilma Rudolph and decathalete Rafer Johnson. The gold-medal winning performances by these two African Americans were overshadowed only by the grace and dignity with which they carried themselves, providing hope that the overt racial and gender discrimination of those times could be overcome. And not to be forgotten was the performance of a young, outspoken boxer named Cassius Clay, whose own gold medal-winning performance would help launch him to worldwide fame as Muhammad Ali.
Maraniss fills the chapters with the heroes and charlatans of the games, deftly weaving stories of journalists, politicos, and athletes along with headlines and major events of the times. But the final event of the Games was, from my perspective as a runner, one of the most interesting. The marathon was held at twilight on the last day of competition, and was won by an unheralded runner from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila. At the starting line, one competitor looked over at the bare-foot Bikila and remarked “there’s one fellow we won’t have to worry about.” That would be the last time that an elite runner from sub-Saharan would be underestimated. Bikila repeated his victory at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and ushered in an era of dominance by Ethiopian and Kenyan runners that continues to this day.
By the book’s end, Maraniss shows how the closing ceremony of the Rome Olympics ended not just the Games, but an era. Over half a century later, the repercussions of those events are still with us.