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'Rome 1960': birth of a new era

Ideals clashed with reality in the 1960 Olympic Games.

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Maraniss’s examination of the 1960 Olympics includes the emergence of women (a record 617 female athletes competed in Rome, compared with 376 at the Melbourne Games in 1956) to the International Olympic Committee’s futile and often misguided efforts to separate sport from politics and financial reality. The painfully hypocritical reign of Avery Brundage, who ran the Olympic empire with a steel fist for 20 years, comes under severe, and deserved, scrutiny once again. Close Olympics watchers know the roll-call of Brundage sins well, from defending the 1936 Games in Berlin presided over by Hitler to favoring the exclusion of women from competition.

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Among Brundage’s biggest blunders: stamping out any form of financial assistance for Western athletes while ignoring the powerful subsidy programs in place for competitors from the Eastern bloc.

This being the era of James Bond and the cold war, plenty of East-West propaganda and spying burn with as much vigor as the Olympic torch. Here, too, are the future endorsement wars, embodied by German runner Armin Hary, who switches shoes between competition and medal stand in a successful bid to pit Adidas and Puma against one another while doubling his under-the-table payday.

The Rome Games were also the first to be televised. There were a whopping 20 hours of taped coverage, with film canisters flown overseas and delivered to CBS headquarters in New York, where a young broadcaster named Jim McKay anchored thousands of miles from the Olympic site. Broadcast rights sold for $600,000.
(This August, NBC’s coverage will encompass 3,600 hours and cost the network $894 million.)

“Rome 1960” also wonderfully recounts the stories of other prominent medalists from the US team: a brash boxer named Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), full of braggadocio and an ill-concealed crush on Wilma Rudolph; and a pair of basketball heroes, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, members of the true dream team.

Maraniss, a veteran Washington Post writer and editor, is best known for his political coverage, particularly his definitive biography of Bill Clinton. During the past decade, his forays into sports have been just as impressive, including a stirring Vince Lombardi biography and a graceful portrait of baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. With “Rome 1960,” he keeps his winning streak intact.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.


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