Years ago, early one evening I stumbled across a documentary on HBO profiling great modern sports figures. Out of all the athletes shown, today I can only remember one. At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in a Rome a previously unknown runner from Ethiopia captured the gold medal in the marathon. Held at night because of Rome’s triple digit summer heat and following a route illuminated by lines of torch-bearing Italian army soldiers Abebe Bikila, a member of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard stunned the world. “It had taken Italy a million-man army to defeat Ethiopia, but only one lone Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome” I can still remember the documentary’s announcer saying. Not only did Bikila take home the gold, but in doing so also set a new world’s record. And he did it barefoot.
As memorable a sports achievement that is, you’d thought I’d read David Maraniss’ 2008 book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World the first chance I got. Instead it’s been on my radar forever, and only recently, when I found myself in the mood for a little 20th century European history did I borrow an ebook version through Overdrive. I’m pleased to report Rome 1960 is one heck of a book.
At first glance the 1960 Summer Olympics resembled every other Olympics held in the post-World War II era. The US-Soviet rivalry played itself out as each side fought to take home the most medals. There were events the US lost which we felt we should have won, prompting the usual round of soul-searching and finger-pointing. On the other hand, there were competitions the US did surprisingly well in, and America as a nation relished in the victories. According to Maraniss however, while people might not have realized it at the time, in hindsight we can now see just how significant these Olympics were not just in the history of sports but also history in general.
After a Danish bicycler dropped dead while racing and his autopsy showed the presence of performance enhancing drugs in his bloodstream sports officials from now on would routinely be on the lookout for such substances. It would also mark the first use of steroids by both male and female athletes, a practice which would become widespread among those competing from the Eastern Bloc. There was also the first product endorsement controversy when a German track and field star snubbed his patron Adidas in favor of the upstart Puma. Lastly, the victory of the above-mentioned Ethiopian Bikila would be the first of many medal winning runners from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Games also signaled a turning point for the United States. There was increased African American participation in the 1960 Olympics even though they faced wide-spread discrimination back home. Whether they liked it or not, prominent African American Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson (also selected to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony), sprinter Wilma Rudolph and boxer Cassius Clay found themselves in the spotlight as not just athletes but also goodwill ambassadors representing a nation, that as the Soviets and their allies were quick to point out, oppressed them because of their skin color. While in Rome, Clay was well on his way to coming the larger than life sports figure the world would know later as the charismatic, poetry quoting, outspoken professional boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
The Games in Rome were also the first commercially televised Summer Olympics. Today the Olympics are multibillion dollar television extravaganzas employing thousands of people world-wide using state of the art technology and a network of globe-circling satellites bringing us almost unlimited coverage, much of it in real-time. But in 1960 America’s coverage began with a small crew filming a selection of the day’s events after which the film was flown by commercial jet across the Atlantic to New York. There, in New York the film was developed and hand-spliced while Jim McKay, an up and coming sportscaster banged out a script on a typewriter, supplementing it with interesting facts and trivia mined from the Encyclopedia Britannica. That night on CBS news (in those days the network had no sports division) he briefly recounted the day’s Olympic highlights.
In the years to follow more and more countries began taking Olympic competition seriously. Some nations, especially those in the Eastern Bloc, saw the Games as an extension of foreign policy. No longer were the Olympics the sole realm of amateurs. What first began as rumors the Italians were paying their boxers to stay home and practice were followed by reports based on interviews with defectors the Soviets were generously subsidizing their Olympians. From living expenses to training to luxuries not available to their fellow citizens the state paid the bills. Little wonder then in 1992 America would recapture the gold medal in men’s basketball only by using a handpicked team of affluent NBA superstars (plus one token college standout). A barefooted champion from an impoverished nation would now have to share the Olympic limelight with millionaire sports celebrities.