A Review of Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World

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The 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome were fraught with change and significance. It was a time of racial struggle in the United States. The Cold War between the USSR and the United States was heating up. New countries were coming into being throughout the world. The world of the amateur was clashing with the world of the professional. Women athletes were trying to break through various glass ceilings to get just the chance to compete in various events. And the people behind the Olympics were struggling to keep up.

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World

, by David Maraniss, is the story of not only those Olympic Games but also of the world that surrounds them.

Maraniss actually begins his book in Moscow in 1958 at the first ever dual meet of U.S. and USSR track-and-field teams. While part of a Cold War thaw, this competition plays a key role in the ongoing propaganda war of the countries. The Soviets are trying display the triumph of their egalitarian athletic system that produces nothing the best while the Americans are out to show the triumph of democratic society. The Soviets end up winning the meet, and the stage for 1960 is set.

Once in Rome, the various conflicts arise. American athletes are pressed into action by the CIA in hopes of getting Soviet athletes to defect. American track stars Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolph face the pressure of helping the American government win the propaganda war against the Soviets, while back home the country is racked with racial strife. Cassius Clay is making his presence felt in the boxing ring while readying to make the jump to the professional ranks.

But the political process is ever present among other countries. East and West Germany – two different nations ruled by two different political philosophies while sitting at ground zero of the Cold War – are forced to compete as one country. The country of Taiwan, which prefers the name Republic of China, is ordered by the International Olympic Committee to compete as Taiwan so as not to offend the communist country of China; if not, they are told they cannot compete. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, which is more concerned with the Cold War, suggests instead that Taiwan boycott the games rather than compete as Taiwan. And all of these moves are dictated by the Olympic board, run by American Avery Brundage, a mini-dictator decrying professionalism in sports while striving to make every dollar that he could.

And Rome is the first Olympic Games to be televised, with CBS having the U.S. rights and the tape-delayed coverage anchored by a very young Jim McKay.

There are many fascinating story lines in Rome 1960, and Maraniss does an excellent job of interweaving all of the threads, plotlines and personalities. But in away, that is also a fault of the book. So many of these stories – and there are many more not included in the synopsis – are touched upon in the book, that it feels, at times, superficial.

Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is perhaps best known in the sports world for his biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. He is a very good writer. The physical descriptions are apt and vivid; the personalities are tightly and clearly drawn. But – and in many ways this is a compliment – Maraniss leaves the reader wanting so much more information.

While it’s admirable that Maraniss wants to look at the Games as a whole, it’s actually disappointing that he didn’t write a book on just one of the many stories. The Rafer Johnson/C.K. Yang story would fill a massive book without ever boring the reader. The two were friends who trained under the same coach. But they were from different countries. Rafer Johnson was the African-American who had to deal with the pressure of being considered the best decathlete in the world, while being the leader of the U.S. team delegation and the man chosen to carry the American flag during opening ceremonies. Yang had the problem of competing not just against his friend, but of being the best athlete from Taiwan – Taiwan doesn’t boycott because of Yang.

The story of Wilma Rudolph and her female track mates, the Tigerbelles, is discussed, but is worthy of a book, as is the story of Cassius Clay in Italy. Books, not just one book, could be written about the pressures on American sprinter Dave Sime who is not only a major medal hope for the States, but who also finds himself recruited into an effort to convince Soviet long jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan to defect to the States during the Games. But my favorite story is about Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian marathoner running barefoot through the streets of Italy – the country that had conquered and run his homeland until after World War Two.

This is a good book. It’s a quick read. And very enjoyable. But it could have been so much more. This is the type of book that the late David Halberstam turned into one of his specialties. Perhaps the problem with this book is that it just pales in comparison with Halberstam’s work. But Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World just ends up feeling slight. It’s well-researched. It’s compelling. But while Maraniss goes for the gold medal, at the end, he has to settle for the bronze. – John Royal

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