Rome 1960: Making Sporting History: The Modern Olympic Movement Was Inspired by the Classical World. but, Says Richard Bosworth, When the Italian Capital Hosted the Games 50 Years Ago, the Organisers Had to Offer an Image of the City That Also Took Account of Its Christian, Renaissance and Fascist Pasts

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These days, contests between nations are more likely to occur in the sports arena than on the battlefield, with successive Olympic Games offering the greatest opportunity for what has been called national 'sellebration': the ready marketing of a soft past to an uncritical audience. At Sydney, host to the 2000 games, sporting events were accompanied by a cultural display that emphasised unity between indigenous and immigrant, 'bush' and city, male and female, with 200 aboriginal women from the far outback singing into presence 'the mighty spirit of god to protect the games' (plainly a deity who, despite or because of its antiquity, was also national and was rooted in the soil). At the opening ceremony of the Athens games of 2004, a Centaur, composite beast of classical mythology and teacher of Achilles, greatest of heroes, offered cultural instruction. At Beijing in 2008 the equivalent of around 70 million [pounds sterling] was spent on a lavish inauguration, where for four hours the glories of Chinese culture across the millennia were celebrated. London in 2012 will need to be more parsimonious given the financial crisis, yet history is still bound to be invoked to justify a British games.

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This grand global sporting contest--204 nations competed at Beijing, with the Marshall Islands, Montenegro (but not Kosovo) and Tuvalu doing so for the first time--was, from its beginning, burnished with history. The modern games revived and restored the ancient. Our Olympics far surpass in scale those of classical Greece. Yet, just like the nation, each Olympic Games needs a past to make it legitimate.

The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), rarely forgot history when pressing his cause. He himself was a great collector of history books, especially studies of the classical era. His scrutiny of the past and, in particular, his reading of Seneca told him that the fall of the Roman Empire had been linked to 'athletic decline'. According to de Coubertin, in the first century AD 'athletics perished lamentably in the bestial drunkenness of the Roman circus'. As a result, the rising Christian church 'attacked physical culture' far more radically than it did the intellectual products of 'pagan genius: 'We need not become indignant,' he explained:

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In the eyes of History, its action is justified; the world of that time had need of asceticism; luxury and plutocracy were threatening it with death. In our day, on the other hand, we were bearing the over-heavy burden of that overlong period of ascetic philosophy, and it was necessary to return towards physical education.

Given de Coubertin's bond with the classics, it was predictable that the first modern Olympics, in 1896, would be held in Athens despite the undeveloped character of the Greek polity and economy. Where Athens ventured, Rome, it was expected, would follow. The tradition began of tabulating the games with Roman numerals--hence XVII for 1960 and XXX for London in 2012--and Rome was chosen as host for 1908. Paris had been a comfortable enough choice for 1900, but de Coubertin was unhappy with the move of the third Olympiad to St Louis in 1904. As he put it: 'I wanted Rome because there alone, after its excursion to utilitarian America, would Olympism be able to don the sumptuous toga, woven with skill and much thought, in which I had wanted to clothe it from the beginning.' Both King Victor Emmanuel III (r. 1900-46) and Pope Pins X (1835-1914) were won over to de Coubertin's project.

It was not to be. Giovanni Giolitti, the Italian prime minister, epitome of a bourgeois and a figure difficult to imagine partaking of any form of rapid personal locomotion, was lukewarm. Others of Italy's numerous and beautiful 'historic' cities disliked the idea of an event concentrated in Rome. Neither the financial nor the sporting infrastructure was available. …

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