Rome's Olympics Left Imprint on History, Society

By Behe, Regis | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

Rome's Olympics Left Imprint on History, Society


Behe, Regis, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


When writer David Maraniss was combing though old newspapers researching his book "Roberto Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," he found other notables on the sports pages. Athletes, long past their prime now but still glittering by dint of their accomplishments almost 50 years ago, stood out.

Wilma Rudolph, the sprinter from a small Tennessee town who would capture the heart of everyone she met.

Rafer Johnson, the regal decathlete.

Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian marathon runner who ran barefoot.

Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, basketball players on the U.S. team.

Cassius Clay, the young boxer from Louisville not yet known to the world.

Ingrid Kraemer, the young German swimmer who was called the Dresden Doll.

These were the stars of the XVII Summer Olympic Games in Rome. The more Maraniss read about them, the more he realized there were stories to be told, and not just about the athletic competitions.

"I wasn't thinking I would write a so-called sports book right after 'Clemente,'" Maraniss says. "But when I saw the political and sociological context of those times did not have to be forced into the story of the Olympics, that it was there organically and I could use the drama of sports to illuminate history and sociology, I just got excited. Those are things I love."

Thus began "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World." Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, traveled across the globe interviewing the famous and the forgotten, gold medalists and those who were happy just to have worn the national uniforms of their countries.

One thing that came into focus was how the 1960 Olympics would mark a divide between competitions where athletes would at least have an aura of amateur standing, and future games that would be rife with professionalism, the term "amateur athlete" a sham.

"It certainly was the beginning of the end," says Maraniss, adding that "by '68, forget it. By then Sports Illustrated had done a big investigative piece about what the various track and field athletes were getting under the table; 1960 was the earliest stage of that. After '60, because of the synergy of television and commercialism, it just became rampant."

The Summer Olympics from Rome were the first to be televised, but the coverage pales in comparison to what viewers now see. CBS ran a short highlights show after the late-night local news broadcast, hosted by Jim McKay (who would become the voice of the Olympics on ABC). Because there was no satellite technology, videotapes were flown on commercial flights from Rome to New York. McKay edited and spliced the tapes together himself, adding commentary while on the air.

Most notable was the backdrop of the Cold War being waged between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Both countries had operatives working the games; the United States enlisted Dave Sime, a sprinter, to make overtures to Russian long jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan about defecting. On the propaganda front, however, the Soviets held the upper hand, constantly hammering home points about how the U.S. unfairly treated women and black athletes back home.

"The U.S. was proclaiming itself as the beacon of liberty around the world, which it is in so many ways," Maraniss says.

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