The Saturday Read ‘Rome 1960:The Olympics That Changed The World’ by David Maraniss

For the last weekend of summer 2016, the Saturday Read takes you to ‘Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World’ by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, David Maraniss.

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’.



‘Summer Olympics Look’ a poem by J. Allyn Rosser

From the origin of the Olympic games in ancient Greece, to the modern games of the twentieth century, poets played a central role along with sport. Each generation added their point of view.

Author Tony Perrottet wrote of ‘Poetry’s Relationship With the Olympics’.

“In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil. Spectators packing the sanctuary of Zeus sought perfection in both body and mind. Champion athletes commissioned great poets like Pindar to compose their victory odes, which were sung at lavish banquets by choruses of boys. (The refined cultural ambience could put contemporary opening ceremonies, with their parade of pop stars, to shame.) Philosophers and historians introduced cutting-edge work, while lesser-known poets set up stalls or orated from soapboxes.”

In 1912, a poem ‘Ode to Sport’ won the first gold literature medal of the modern games. But as Boston Globe reporter Amanda Katz discovered, a bit of intrigue accompanied the entry.

“Presented in full in both French and German versions, attributed to the duo of Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, it was called “Ode to Sport”—a rhapsodic, nine-verse prose poem praising athletics as a model of “Joy,” “Audacity,” “Justice,” and other virtues. The judges went wild. As they wrote in their published review of the poem, “It is of the exact type that we sought for the competitions….It praises sport in a form that to the ear is very literary and very sporting.” So taken were the judges with this Olympic gold poem that they refused to award either the silver or the bronze.

Weeks later, however, according to Stanton, the judges were still trying to get a solid address where they could send Hohrod and Eschbach’s medal and certificate. Only sometime after that did the truth emerge: There was no Hohrod or Eschbach, and the perfect fit of the poem with the initial impulse behind the arts events was no accident. Worried that there wouldn’t be enough entries in his beloved arts competitions, the baron had written the poem himself.”

In London, four years ago, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy‘s poem ‘Eton Manor’ traced the 100 year history of the venue chosen for the Paralympics.

The Friday Poem this week is ‘Summer Olympics Look’ American poet J. Allyn Rosser‘s observation of how we view the Olympics @home.

Summer Olympics Look

Only five of us were arguing about the score
of a forward one-and-a-half triple twist
with absolutely rip entry, executed
by an unpronounceable stiff-stepping Russian,
because the sixth was busy in the kitchen.
I couldn’t help noticing how Jane had made
every surface sparkle, clutter-free, neat tray
of snacks, napkins fanned on the coffee table,
fresh daisies on the mantel and by the door.
The Russian’s entry was smooth, minimal splash,
but his come out had been a tiny bit clumsy.
So Jane’s future ex-husband said, anyway,
and when he called out that he wouldn’t mind
another beer as long as she was up,
and she called back that she’d just brought him one,
he had to say something. Because there it stood,
still frosty, darkening the coaster at his elbow.
He said now that’s the sign of a good wife,
like a good waitress, you’re hardly even aware
when she’s there. By now Jane had entered,
her arms crossed in a kind of tuck position.
Her approach was understated but forceful,
and the deftness of the look she sent him
when he finally looked up at her
was so pure and deep and swift, it left
hardly a ripple there in the room among us.

J. Allyn Rosser   The Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012


The week@work – Unemployment, economic mobility, parental leave, a tribute to #55 and anticipating Rio

The week@work included the first debate of the 2016 election season, the release of economic indicators and two American corporations announcing generous parental leave policies. This week also marks one year until those who work in sports will demonstrate their skills at the Summer Olympics in Brazil. And the NFL, in its wisdom, denied a Hall of Fame inductee’s daughter the opportunity to fulfill a father’s wish.

Once again, the week@work was about values: those we hold as a society and those organizations demonstrate not just in policies, but in action.

The June jobs numbers were released by the Labor Department on Thursday. Ben Casselman reported on the numbers behind the numbers in his article for ‘FiveThirtyEight’, ‘Don’t Forget The Workers The Recovery Is Leaving Behind’.

“U.S. employers added 215,000 jobs in July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said in its monthly jobs report on Friday. It was the third straight month of job growth above 200,000, and the 10th in the past year. Revisions to prior months’ data added another 14,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate held steady at 5.3 percent, the lowest it’s been since before the recession.

Although the progress has been impressive, it has not been absolute. The headline unemployment rate is nearing a level most economists consider healthy — policymakers at the Federal Reserve consider a rate of between 5 percent and 5.2 percent “normal” over the long term — but the government’s official definition of unemployment leaves out people who have stopped looking for work or are stuck in part-time jobs. A broader underemployment rate, which includes both groups, stood at 10.4 percent in July, still well above its prerecession level.

It’s worth paying particular attention to a handful of groups that were hard-hit by the recession and continue to struggle in the recovery: African-Americans, young people, the less-educated and the long-term unemployed. The good news: All four groups are seeing some improvement, in some cases rapid improvement. But all of them have a long way to go before their employment could be considered healthy.”

In a related opinion piece, Nicholas Kristof posed the question, ‘U.S.A., Land of Limitations?

“Researchers have repeatedly found that in the United States, there is now less economic mobility than in Canada or much of Europe. A child born in the bottom quintile of incomes in the United States has only a 4 percent chance of rising to the top quintile, according to a Pew study.

…more children in America live in poverty now (22 percent at last count) than at the start of the financial crisis in 2008 (18 percent). They grow up not in a “land of opportunity,” but in the kind of socially rigid hierarchies that our ancestors fled, the kind of society in which your outcome is largely determined by your beginning.”

The week@work story with the most press was the decision by Netflix, soon followed by an announcement from Microsoft, to offer extended parental leave.

Vauhini Vara writing in The New Yorker reports on ‘Why Parental Leave Remains a Privilege’.

“There are other reasons for policies like Netflix’s, besides the fight over talented workers. Gerry Ledford, a senior research scientist at the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations, pointed out that the companies that offer costly benefits, like long paid parental leaves, tend to be financially successful, with money available to spend on H.R. perks. Google and Facebook are highly profitable, and while Netflix is only barely profitable, investors don’t seem to mind; the company’s share price set a new record on the day that Netflix announced its updated parental-leave policy. A third factor—and perhaps the least known—has to do with Silicon Valley’s location in California, where all workers have access to some amount of paid leave for the first six weeks after the birth or adoption of a child; it’s easier for a company to justify generous parental leave when many of their employees were already taking time off anyway.”

This time next year we will all be cheering our respective nations as athletes compete at the Summer Olympics in Brazil. As NBC rolled out their initial commercials in anticipation of hours of broadcast time, two stories offered a preview of the competition.

The first was part of a series of videos produced by GoPro. Beach volleyball competitor and Olympic silver medalist April Ross narrates a four minute video describing her ‘life @work’ on the beach. For young women who aspire to elite competition, April’s perspective is a window on the dedication required to succeed. She shares her pride at winning silver but is motivated to take that “one step up on the podium” in Rio. Her best advice, “Don’t get caught up in other people’s expectations”.

And then there is the young woman who goes to work every day in the water. Katie Ledecky startled all in London in 2012, when she earned gold in the 800 meter freestyle. This week she won five gold medals at the World Championships. The New York Times reported on her achievement, becoming “the first to win the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500-meter freestyles in a major competition.”

“Ledecky capped off a history-making week on Saturday at Kazan Arena with another milestone. In the 800-meter freestyle, the event that launched Ledecky into the international spotlight at the 2012 London Olympics, she set her 10th world record of the past 24 months with a clocking of 8 minutes 7.39 seconds. The time was 3.61 seconds better than her 13-month-old mark.

Ledecky, 18, slapped the water three times — once for each individual world record she set at these world championships.”

Junior Seau was a football player. On Saturday he was inducted along with seven others into the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The New York Times covered the ceremony and the story behind the story.

“In his 20-year N.F.L. career, Junior Seau established himself as one of the game’s greatest linebackers. He committed suicide in 2012 at age 43 and was subsequently found to have had a degenerative brain condition linked to repeated hits to the head. Before his death, Seau told his daughter Sydney that she should speak on his behalf if he made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the Hall, citing a five-year-old policy of not letting others give full speeches for deceased inductees, did not allow Sydney to deliver her speech.”

Today, The New York Times printed Sydney’s complete remarks as the full page lead story of the sports section. Her words reflect the sincere love and respect of a daughter for a father and a desire to fulfill his wish. One wonders, one more time, about the disconnect at the NFL between stated and demonstrated values.

“The two words that exemplify my dad the most are “passion” and “love.” Everything he achieved, accomplished or set his mind to was done with both qualities. In every situation — whether it be practice, a game, a family barbecue, an impromptu ukulele song or just a run on the Oceanside Strand — he always gave you all of himself because to him, there was never any other option.”

“Being the first Polynesian and Samoan to make it into the Hall of Fame is such an accomplishment. He is proof that even a young boy from Oceanside can make his dreams a reality. All his success is a direct reflection of the Oceanside community and family that raised him and molded him into the man he became. Although he is the first Polynesian to make it into the Hall, I know he will not be the last.”