The 1960 Rome Olympics: Spaces and Spectacle
Brennan, T. Corey, Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research
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. These are topics that David Maraniss has covered superbly in his recent book Rome 1960 (2008, Italian translation 2010), where he makes an excellent case that the XVII Olympiad stands at the end of one era (namely, that defined by World War II) and at the start of new one (namely the current one, in which we live).
One uncontestable aspect of the 1960 Rome Olympics was that it served as a vehicle for Italy to transmit a new image of itself to the world. It was just 17 years after the fall of Fascism, and 15 after the end of the Second World War. Broadcast television had arrived in the country only in 1954. Rome deliberately (and cleverly) cast its Games not just as an international contest in sports but as a major cultural event, staged by a city with several millennia of unusually rich history, considerable cosmopolitan charm, and the economic and organizational capacity to execute a complex megaevent for a global audience. Italy's athletic success in the course of the Games further fueled the country's pride in the project. The "Azzurri" won 13 gold medals, and in overall medals finished in fourth place behind the Soviet Union, United States, and a combined (for the last time) East and West German team. Press coverage of the Rome Games in all media turned out to be overwhelmingly positive, with the cumulative effect of at least pushing to the side the all-too-familiar images of Italy as perpetrator and victim of the horrific events of World War II.
Behind the images were plenty of substance. Thanks especially to its antique history and significant links to ancient Greece, Rome of course had an outstanding claim as a natural Olympic city. It is telling that since the Amsterdam Games of 1928 the reverse of all Olympic medals had depicted a Colosseum remade whole, as representing the sporting venue par excellence. (One could be forgiven for forgetting that in antiquity the amphitheater was reserved for blood sports.)
The Olympic organizers for Rome 1960 went much deeper than such loose associations and popular perceptions and demonstrated with impressive erudition some of the actual cultural connections between the Hellenic and Italian worlds. For example, they set up the route of the torch so that it first landed on Italian soil in Sicily, at the fountain of Arethusa in Syracuse. That is the spot where the river of Olympia, the Alpheus, was believed, according to ancient legend, to bubble up after coursing under the sea from Greece. The torch's travels then took it through a long series of archaic Greek foundations in Sicily and south Italy. The final leg of the journey that led to the lighting of the main flame in the Stadio Olimpico was run by a 19 year old Italian of Greek extraction, Giancarlo Peris. What added poignancy to these elaborate and thoughtful arrangements was the (unspoken) fact that Italy had attacked Grecce within the past two decades--on 28 October 1940--with disastrous results for Mussolini's forces.
Greek-style games had found a permanent home in Rome as early as the first century AD, when the emperor Domitian built a stadium for his Capitoline Games (first in AD 86) whose shape is stunningly preserved by the present-day Piazza Navona. For the modern Games, it was only a series of historical accidents that kept Rome from hosting the Olympics until their 17th planned iteration. The Eternal City was slated to host the fourth Olympiad, for 1908. But …
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Publication information: Article title: The 1960 Rome Olympics: Spaces and Spectacle. Contributors: Brennan, T. Corey - Author. Journal title: Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research. Publication date: Annual 2010. Page number: 17+. © 2008 International Centre for Olympic Studies. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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