Rome 1960 by David Maraniss

The 1960 summer Olympics were the first “modern” games owing to the impact of geopolitics, performance-enhancing drugs, racial issues, and TV broadcasting.

Book cover: Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World by David Maraniss
Book cover: Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World by David Maraniss

The summer and winter Olympics are pretty much a snooze for me. Therefore it may seem unlikely how much I loved this detailed description of the summer events held in Rome in 1960.

In a book subtitled “The Olympics that Changed the World” author David Maraniss makes a compelling case that the 1960 summer games were a kind of fault line between old and new. That summer saw the seeds of much of what was to come later in later decades:

  • Cold War ideology started seriously overshadowing sportsmanship as both Moscow and Washington trumpeted their respective medal counts.
  • Performance-enhancing substances made their way into the subtext when Danish cyclist Knud Jensen collapsed during his race under the influence of the drug Roniacol and died shortly thereafter (although the exact cause-and-effect relationship here remains a matter of some debate).
  • Broadcast media exerted a greater-than-ever influence as these were the first Olympics to be widely televised.

On this last point, Maraniss describes the monumental daily logistical challenges of the era in terms of filming the events on the ground in Rome, getting the film onto an airplane headed to New York, transporting the film to the network studio, and editing the film quickly enough for replay on American prime-time television.

Rafer Johnson, Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph
(Left to right) Rafer Johnson, Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph

Finally, from the purely American perspective, there was one additional subtext. As a nation, we were conflicted. We watched and celebrated the athletic brilliance of our most gifted black gold medal winners like the young Louisville boxer Cassius Clay (known later in life as Muhammad Ali), runner Wilma Rudolph and decathlete Rafer Johnson. Yet despite these good feelings at another level there remained a huge racial divide in our country whose change was yet to register with most of us[⇒ Excerpt]