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'Rome 1960': birth of a new era

Ideals clashed with reality in the 1960 Olympic Games.

By Erik Spanberg / July 2, 2008



It was an American election year marked by a presidential candidacy defined by change and breaking barriers.
It was also an Olympic year that came during a time when it seemed clear one era was dying and another was being born. Performance-enhancing drugs cast a shadow, while human rights debates and the role of China in international athletics posed thorny questions.

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That description fits 2008, but, in this case, the references are to 1960, when a young Roman Catholic named John Kennedy vied for the presidency and the Summer Olympics in Rome heralded the dawn of a new age.

During the course of 17 days in Italy, a Danish cyclist dropped dead during competition, felled by a combination of heatstroke and amphetamines; South Africa colluded with the International Olympic Committee to extend apartheid to the country’s national team, only to be rebuked by Olympic officials soon after the Games ended; and China was infuriated by the independent team from Taiwan, known as Formosa.

These groundbreaking events – and the people who played roles large and small in them – are explored in Rome 1960, David Maraniss’s marvelous account of the interminable clash between Olympian ideals and pragmatic reality.

At the same time that the tumultuous civil rights era divided America, the rise of African-American athletes riveted the nation – and the world. Decathlete Rafer Johnson not only captured the gold medal in Rome, he became the first minority to carry the American flag during the opening ceremonies, leading the US team into competition on a global stage.

Johnson’s regal presence was at least matched, if not surpassed, by a small-town Tennessee sprinter named Wilma Rudolph. Part of a superb collection of runners at tiny Tennessee State, Rudolph and her teammates thrived despite the hurdles of racism and sexism that loomed over the Olympics in 1960. Rudolph captured the imagination of Italy with gold-medal runs in the 100- and 200-meter races, while anchoring the gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team.

For readers too young to have seen her compete, Maraniss’s account serves as a worthy reminder of why Rudolph’s runs were remarkable beyond sheer athletic achievement. Rudolph was part of an extended family of 22 children. As a child, she suffered from polio. She was discovered when her future Olympic coach happened to referee one of her high school basketball games.

Another inspirational figure was Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, the marathoner who ran barefoot through the streets of Rome and set a world record. That he did it running through the capital city of the country that had twice invaded his homeland, Maraniss writes, offered an overwhelming sense of poetic justice.

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