In the summer of 1960 only 15 years had passed since the end of World War II. The superpowers were angling for global influence, and the XVII Olympiad in Rome provided one more stage to showcase the benefits of competing forms of government.
“History is replete with moments that ache with misplaced optimism, and that seemed true of the period of the 1960 Summer Olympics even as signs of a troubled world riddled those days of late August and early September. The Games were bookended by the Soviet spy trial of American U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers and Khrushchev’s threat to stir up things at the UN, while in between came increasing tension in divided Berlin and violence in the rebellious Congo. Whatever Avery Brundage’s wishes, the Olympics were in no way isolated from the eruptions and disruptions of the modern world. Rome had its share of spies and propagandists looking to turn every situation to their advantage. Yet those days in Rome were infused with a golden hue nonetheless. The shimmering was literal – emanating from the autumnal sun; the ancient coloration of the streets, walls, and piazzas; the warm angles of refracted light – but it was also figurative, an illumining that comes with a moment of historical transition, when one era is dying and another is being born.”
The reader experiences the eighteen days of the Rome Olympics through Maraniss’ chronicle of events, athletes, coaches, sports writers, and a few nefarious government players. The narrative introduces us to the Americans and their competitors. It’s quite a cast of characters including then Cassius Clay, Rafer Johnson, C.K. Yang, Wilma Rudolph, and Abebe Bikila.
“The pressures of the cold war played an underappreciated role in forcing change in culture and sports, all much in evidence in Rome. At the opening Parade of Nations at the Stadio Olympico, the crowd was stirred by the sight of Rafer Johnson marching into the arena at the head of the U.S. delegation, the first black athlete to carry the American flag. Johnson’s historic act reflected his unsurpassed status as a world-class decathlete, but it also served as a symbolic weapon at a time when the United States was promoting freedom abroad but struggling to answer blatant racism at home, where millions of Americans were denied freedom because of the color of their skin.”
The author is at his best when sharing the story of Coach Edward Temple and his ‘Tigerbelles’ women’s track team from the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville. We time travel to an American South before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when women’s sports were viewed as unimpressive adjuncts to the men’s competition.
“When Temple was named head coach at Tennessee A&I State after graduating in 1950, it was because nobody else wanted the job. His starting salary was $150 a month, which when added to his pay for teaching social science courses, brought a yearly sum of $5,196…By the mid fifties, even after Temple had established his program and led it to a national title, the athletic department still would not give him a desk, let alone an office. “
In Rome, as Olympic coach, Temple could only see a segment of the track from his position at the opening of the tunnel. One of his runners, Wilma Rudolph, who had overcome polio as a child, was competing in the 100 meter race. The day before, ‘Black Tuesday’, the U.S. men’s track and field team suffered its worst losses in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4×100 meter relay.
“Wilma won! Wilma won!” someone shouted at Temple in the tunnel. “You’re joking,” he said. Then he stepped into the golden late afternoon sunlight, and “they flashed it on the big scoreboard and put the time, the new Olympic record, ‘Wilma Rudolph, USA.’ and I said, ‘Hot Dog!’.
Earlier in the competition, Ed Temple’s greatest hope was just to get one of his runners on the medal stand. A bronze would do. But in the four days since Wilma Rudolph won gold in the 100, all of that had changed. From a relative unknown, Rudolph had risen to international stardom, belle of the Olympics, the favorite in anything she did.”
Her success resonated with other athletes, including Anne Warner, a gold medal swimmer.
“I had read the stories about her fight against polio and what she had done. She was really a hero for a lot of us. It didn’t matter that it was a different sport. She was just such a beautiful runner. And I think that polio was such a part of our lives then, too, because we were swimmers. A lot of times your parents were nervous about going to swimming pools in that era. And there was no Salk vaccine yet when we were starting out. So the fact that she had polio meant something special to us.”
Maraniss’ command of the story places the reader ‘on location’ as events unfold.
Rafer Johnson was student body president at UCLA and a member of the track and field team along with CK Yang. On September 5, 1960 they met as competitors for the title of the world’s greatest athlete; Johnson representing the United States and C.K. Yang, Formosa. At the end of the first day of decathlon competition Johnson led Yang by a slim 55 points.
“Few Olympic athletes know one another as thoroughly as Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang. It was not that both had trained at UCLA for the same event under the same coaches. A deeper sensibility seemed at work in their symbiotic relationship, a spirited blend of admiration and competitiveness that pushed them to greater accomplishments together than they may have achieved apart.”
Across town, Cassius Clay was the unanimous winner in his bout with Zbigniew Pietrzkowski of Poland.
“Everyone seemed up and about early Tuesday morning. Cassius Clay paraded through the village before breakfast, gold medal dangling rom his neck. “I got to show this thing off!” he kept boasting…He was on his way to signing a professional contract, earning serious money, and becoming even more famous as the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Tuesday was day two of the decathlon.
“After back-to-back fourteen-hour days, ten events, draining humidity, evening chill, rain delays, unbearable tension, and the accumulation of an Olympic record 8392 points, (by the scoring system in 1960), Rafer Johnson left the Stadio Olimpico for the last time at eleven o’clock that night, retracing the steps he had taken nearly two weeks earlier as the captain and flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic team. As he trudged, relieved and exhausted, along the moonlit Tiber and over the bridge, C.K. Yang, now just a friend, no longer a competitor, walked once again at his side.”
The marathon was held on the final full day of competition in 1960. It was to produce one of the most remarkable stories in Olympic history.
Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia waited at the start, barefoot.
“Marathons traditionally were held during daylight and ended with the runners entering the main stadium…In the heat of Rome, the race began at twilight and proceeded into darkness; the finish line was not inside the Stadio Olympico but at the Arch of Constantine amid the Roman ruins.
The British writer Neil Allen, from his seat jammed amid his fellow journalists, feeling “the sudden chill of the night” and looking “dazedly at the floodlit Arch of Constantine,” could not believe it when the loudspeaker crackled the name of the leader, Abebe Bikila…”A completely unknown athlete from Ethiopia was going to win the Olympic marathon…Journalists and officials edged forward in their wooden stands, peering along the darkness of the Appian Way hoping to be the first to spot this last and most unexpected hero of the Games.” At last the lights of a convoy could be seen…There was a brief tussle with one of the persistent Lambretta scooters before it was bundled our of the way, and then – here he came!“
The Rome Olympics were the first commercially televised summer games in history. In New York, Jim McKay was beginning his career in TV sports from a small studio in New York.
“It was all so minimal in Rome, with McKay in that little studio in New York, tapping our his own scripts on a portable typewriter, drawing information fro the Encyclopedia Britannica; and with Peter Molnar’s crew of fewer than fifty in Rome filming and editing on the fly, literally trying to beat the clock every night with their canisters winging west toward New York City in the bellies of commercial jets. The televising of the Olympic games grew from that infancy in Rome to an extravaganza, expanding every four years into an ever-larger enterprise that eventually entailed a broadcast army…”
As Rome prepares it’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, enjoy David Maraniss’ account of the first time the world came to compete for gold in ‘The Eternal City’.