Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World

Steroids, apartheid, racial strife in the United States, massive amounts of Cold War propaganda, a dead bicyclist, the rise of female athletes, creepy spies, China’s distaste for Taiwan/Formosa, the powerful growth of television — the 1960 Rome Olympics had it all.

Few observers of the day would have expected the Olympics to simply be races, to be won or lost by the world’s most able and fit. Only 15 years after the end of the Second World War, uneasiness still dominated the international scene. Every last detail of these Games was heavily laden with political meaning, from a Formosan team official raising a controversial handmade sign during the opening ceremonies (it read, “Under Protest,” since his team couldn’t be simply identified as “China”) to the selection of Rafer Johnson as the American flag bearer in the same event. The choice of a black athlete was, at least in part, a message to the Communists that the U.S. is a swell, unified kind of place; even though there were plenty of American establishments at the time that Johnson, the eventual gold-medal winner of the decathlon, couldn’t enter.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Maraniss, an editor at The Washington Post whose four other books include the bestsellers Clemente and When Pride Still Mattered, studies each and every day of the 1960 Olympic Games, as well as the lead-up and the fallout. He chronicles every possible political angle even when it’s seemingly minor: West Germany’s win in the eight-man rowing event is basically ignored in favor of Czechoslovakia’s bronze by the like-minded East German TV! Given the level of detail, you might worry you’ll wind up lost in a maze of political intrigue and track-and-field trivia, but Maraniss becomes a trusted guide, providing information from sources all over the map, literally, figuratively, and politically. He’s in the White House, in the embassies, in the locker rooms, in the press rooms, at the bars, at the hotels, on the streets; Maraniss is everywhere.

While politics is the main story here, Maraniss also brings it down to the personal, giving dimensions to the characters with illuminating anecdotes: high-jumper Joe Faust, who failed to medal in Rome, set up a makeshift high jump behind his shack in California in order to keep jumping half a century after the Rome Games ended. Wilma Rudolph, the sweetheart of the Games, ended up with three gold medals despite having to wear leg braces for years as a kid and previously getting kicked off her track team for teen pregnancy; her performance helped pull women’s athletics in America forward. We’re witness to the (unsuccessful) wooing of Soviet long-jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, whom American officials hoped would defect to the States. And then there’s the young Cassius Clay (who later became Muhammad Ali) supposedly talking trash with then heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson in the cafeteria: “I’m having you next! I’m having you for dinner!”

Looming above all is the Cold War, a riveting character in its own right. In the days after the Olympics, Nikita Khrushchev and his famous shoe came to the United Nations in New York, where the two put on quite a show.

At the start of the Games, Khrushchev sent a note to his nation’s athletes. As Maraniss describes it:

(His) message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes who gathered in Rome?. The progress of humankind, he said, depended “on mental richness, moral cleanliness, and physical development.” Those characteristics, he claimed, were evident in both the Olympic Movement and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet premier was hardly the only one posturing — both the USSR and U.S. spent the entirety of the Olympics trying to show the other and the world that they were superior to their rival, whether it be through how many medals they’d won, how eloquent their leaders were, or how well they treated their athletes.

One of the great side stories of the 1960 Olympics is of the battle waged by the officious Avery Brundage, the only American to ever be president of the International Olympic Committee, to keep athletes as amateurs and not have any whiff of professionalism blow into the Games. While he’s busy prosecuting athletes like American high hurdler Lee Calhoun for getting married on a reality show of the day (Bride and Groom), he doesn’t seem to realize that virtually all of the Eastern European athletes are being set up with trainers, gyms, apartments, cars, and money in order to beat their Western counterparts.

Meanwhile, some Western athletes were pulling in nonmonetary gifts of all shapes and values. West Germany’s 100-meter-dash gold medalist, Armin Hary, the “Thief of Starts,” even balanced sponsorships from archrivals Adidas and Puma. These practices became known as “shamateurism.” And it turned out, of course, that Brundage wasn’t the sweetest guy on the planet: Maraniss reports that he was a Nazi sympathizer and, in the words of Sports Illustrated, “a philanderer of enormous appetite.” Still, he was running the show in Rome and managed to bolster apartheid’s power in South Africa by deciding, along with colleagues, that clearly the country’s all-white team had been produced by fair tryouts involving all of its residents and that hence, South Africa had sent the best possible team regardless of skin color.

Despite all the evidence of the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it that Maraniss chronicles, there are also positive changes that bear mentioning. For example, the marathon is traditionally the last event of the Olympics, and this one was held on the streets of Rome, cobblestones and all. An Ethiopian runner — Abebe Bikila — showed up at the start line in his bare feet. One American runner figured that this was one guy he didn’t have to worry about. But Bikila was the real deal, winning the race with a new Olympic record and ushering in a seemingly unending string of champion-caliber East African marathoners. Bikila also seemed to represent all of Africa at the time, a continent that was quickly changing as it emerged from colonial domination. Just that year, at least 15 new African countries were born, including Chad, Madagascar, Senegal, and Togo.

Bikila’s victory was particularly sweet, of course, because it came in the country that had taken over Ethiopia during Mussolini’s reign. Maraniss notes that Bikila likely gained extra incentive to perform well when the race passed by the Axum Obelisk, “the majestic fourth century monument that Mussolini’s army had looted from Ethiopia in 1937.” And when Bikila died not so many years later, he was very fondly remembered in his home country for making it necessary for the Ethiopian flag to be raised over the land Mussolini once ruled.

Whatever the illusions of an Avery Brundage — no matter how appealing a vision of “pure” Olympic Games might be — a story like Bikila’s reminds us that when it comes to the Olympics, politics is always a part of the contest.