The 1960 Rome Olympics: Spaces and Spectacle

Article excerpt

For its winter 2010 number, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rome Summer Games, the journal Spaziosport assembled about three dozen prominent Italians to reflect on the significance of the Games of the XVII Olympiad. (1) These included medallists of the 1960 Olympics, and also political figures, architects, scholars, and journalists. Some of these individuals were intimately involved in the operation of the Games--most notably, Giulio Andreotti, president of the 1960 Organising Committee--while others knew the event only as history.

One assessment that the contributors repeatedly offered as practically self-evident was that Rome 1960 was "the last Olympiad on a human scale." The Olympic Village is illustrative. There, a perimeter fence and an elaborate system of checkpoints had limited effect in keeping the athletes separate from their admiring fans. The barrier that divided the quarters for men and women competitors allowed for easy scaling. The national delegations paraded directly from the apartment blocks of the Olympic Village to the opening ceremony in the Stadio Olimpico. That ceremony featured no pyrotechnics--just some Italian military bands, the lighting of the Olympic torch and associated formalities, the parade of athletes, and the release of doves. Human resources for the Games were pared down, even compared to Melbourne 1956 (for instance, the number of referees dropped by about 40%). The track events were run on a clay (not rubber) surface, for the last time in the Olympics.

Another common assessment, rather paradoxical in light of that point about "human scale," is that the XVII Summer Games mark a turning point for the history of modernity and in that sense "changed the world." To be sure, as the first Summer Olympics staged for television--21 countries received a broadcast, in almost half those cases live--the Rome Games signal the start of an important aspect of globalization. The images of competition at the Rome Games, both still and moving, remain memorable. These were the Olympics of US track stars Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph and boxer Cassius Clay; where the USSR powerfully asserted its dominance in women's gymnastics as did Italy in men's cycling and water polo; where the barefoot Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, just 25 years after the Italian invasion of his country, won a dramatic torchlit marathon competition that traversed the Appian Way and finished at the Arch of Constantine. (2)

Yet the new medium of television also cast into the spotlight some pressing political dilemmas of the day. At the opening ceremony, television and news cameras alike captured the image of the leader of the contingent for "Formosa" marching with a handwritten paper sign that read in approximately eight inch high letters "UNDER PROTEST." At issue was that the official name of the country was "Republic of China." The United Nations recognized Taiwan as such, but mainland China (which in this period held aloof from the Olympics) did not. The International Olympic Committee, looking forward to the day of communist Chinese participation, "was the first world body to tell [Taiwan] it no longer represented China and to march as Formosa or go home," as Robert Daley in the New York Times put it the next day. (3)

Many in the audience of 90,000 in Rome's Stadio Olimpico missed the point of the demonstration, for they could hardly have read the lettering. Yet when the debate on the Olympics' China question was still raging more than seven months after the Rome Games, it was evidently the "television show" of Taiwan's protest in the opening ceremony that was best remembered. (4) The incident shows concisely the power of television projecting even small-scale effects to world-wide attention.

Of course, friction between China and Taiwan was only a small part of the political "back story" to the 1960 Rome Olympics. These Games threw into high relief Cold War tensions between East and West, civil rights in the US, apartheid in South Africa, and anticolonial sentiment across a range of participating nations--as well as a host of newly emerging problems that ran the gamut from drug use by athletes to ethically questionable running shoe endorsements. …