Rome 1960: The Olympics That changed the World
By David Maraniss
(Simon & Schuster, 478 pages, $26.95)
Reviewed by Alan B. Somers
In 2004, NBC presented a program titled “1960: The Last Olympics of Innocence,” and in 2008 David Maraniss gives us Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Why the fascination for this Olympics exists escapes me, and I was there as a participant. I was not aware either of our fleeting innocence or of our role in changing the world.
As editor in chief Tyrrell has reported in these pages before, I certainly tried to change the world, at least the world of swimming. The 1960 Olympiad was the first in which swimmers shaved their bodies. Competing in the 400-meter freestyle, I refused to shave, insisting that it would have negligible consequences while doing irreparable damage to my dignity. I qualified first and in doing so set an Olympic record. Admittedly, something went wrong in the finals, and I finished last. But I did make worldwide headlines, and frankly I am disappointed that Maraniss, in the welter of facts and anecdotes he brings to this book, never mentions my heroics. Possibly that is because I figured outside his theme.
Rather than change the world I endeavored to prevent change. Maraniss makes clear that he is one of those liberals always eager for change. As befits a longtime member of this magazine’s board of directors, I am dubious of change.
Back to Maraniss. He does explode NBC’s view of the 1960 Olympics; Olympic innocence ended long before 1960. However, he does not make a very good case for his thesis that this particular Olympiad changed the world. The world was changing whether 1960 was an Olympic year or not.
Actually, after reading this book I got to wondering why the author became so intrigued by the 1960 Olympics. As I figure it, he was 11 years old when these Games occurred. It was probably the first Olympics he was aware of. Moreover, it was certainly the first with any significant television exposure. That is a matter he well documents. The images of the athletes (he mostly focuses on track and field) were probably seared deeply into his bright prepubescent mind and created a lifelong interest. Despite my dissatisfaction that he missed my hairy performance, I am indebted to him for stoking old memories. Moreover, he does provide information that I either never knew or had forgotten, for instance that my lifelong friend and Indiana University teammate, Mike Troy, carried the American flag at the closing ceremony.
Maraniss suggests the Olympics had an impact on the Red China–Nationalist China (aka Taiwan) issue, regarding rights to the name China. He also believes that the Olympics affected South African racial policies. In reality it is the other way around. These were worldwide political and social issues that affected the Olympics. The Red Chinese imposed on the International Olympic Committee to force the Nationalist Chinese to adopt the name Taiwan for their team. Equally powerful political forces prevailed on the IOC to demand integration of the South African Olympic team. The South Africans resisted and were banned from competition in 1964. South Africa was not readmitted until 1992. A generation of South African athletes, both black and white, bore the brunt of these impotent policies, much as the 1980 United States and 1984 Soviet teams would when a tough Jimmy Carter and even tougher Leonid Brezhnev would prevent their countries’ teams from participating as an extension of their foreign policies.
Maraniss states that “the contest shimmered with performances that remain among the most golden in athletic history.” I recall some great performances, but what Olympics does not abound with great performances? That is why we watch them for two weeks every four years. He sees some special poignancy with political overtones in the great black athlete Rafer Johnson carrying the United States flag at the opening ceremonies while civil right demonstrations were agitating the home front. But why would Johnson not lead the American contingent into the Games? This wonderfully genial and accomplished athlete was a two-time Olympian, a world record holder, and student body president at UCLA. Maraniss makes much of the Soviet-USA rivalry. Rivalries have always existed and always will, as witnessed by the current China-USA comparisons, or as we might recollect from the rivalry between the USA and the Nazis in the 1936 Games.
Baron De Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics, tried to deemphasize such chauvinism in the Games, but the combination of the nationalistic press and the seemingly hard-wired nationalism of the spectators will not allow the old baron’s transnational ideal to take hold. Maraniss has uncovered antics worthy of the Keystone Kops surrounding our State Department, the CIA, the KGB, and the Soviets, which reveals some of the fatuousness of the Olympics as an extension of the Cold War.
Avery Brundage, president of the IOC in 1960, is savaged by Maraniss for allegedly being a Nazi sympathizer, an autocrat, a plutocrat, delusional, and a philanderer of the sort that Maraniss never found particularly offensive when he wrote his Clinton biography. Brundage was a stickler for amateurism. Thanks to his severity, young swimmers, like myself, were prevented from even checking clothing baskets into swimming pools, as that would make us professional athletes. Yet he accepted at face value Soviet assurances that their state-supported athletes were amateurs.
Perhaps Brundage was just around too long. Back in 1912 his simple interpretation of amateurism motivated him to turn in his fellow competitor in the 1912 decathlon, Jim Thorpe, as a professional. As the century wore on and totalitarian states entered the Olympics, this old gent may have lost sense of how the world was changing. Before he ignored the professionalism of Soviet athletes, he ignored the heinousness of Nazism and allowed the Games to go on in 1936 in Berlin. At least from those Games we now have the stirring images of Jesse Owens displeasing Hitler.
To put Brundage into perspective, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1909 as a civil engineer. Three years later he made the Olympic team in the decathlon and pentathlon, finishing 16th and 6th respectively. He then competed for another nine years, and one suspects he was not subsidized in any way, thus contributing to his austere vision of amateurism.
Brundage then went on to become quite rich running a Chicago construction firm. Wealthy people were necessary to manage the Olympic movement. Today money abounds from television, commercial endorsements, and government. These factors have had more to do with changing the Games than anything, and Brundage might be more deserving of the idealistic sports fan Maraniss’s admiration than his contempt.
If the reader is expecting a comprehensive report of the 1960 Games, he will be disappointed. Many sports are reported anecdotally. On track and field Maraniss writes vividly and the book becomes a page-turner. On other sports the book frankly bores. More importantly, on the large issues Maraniss want to take up—politics, race, and Avery Brundage—the author is unpersuasive. Unless you have a burning interest in the subject, your time could be better spent on other pursuits. Like a biography of Avery Brundage written by David Maraniss.
Alan B. Somers, a former American and World record holder, was a Pan American Games champion and member of the 1960 Olympic swimming team.