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Wednesday, November 26, 2008 10:56 pm
Olympian Achievement
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Rome 1960A sports book, you say, and one about an event held almost 50 years ago at that… that’s not the book for our group.

But before you turn away from David Maraniss’s Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World, hear me out. The joy of reading sports books, as my friend Kaite Mediatore Stover would say, is not just about the sports. Maranniss weaves the history of our world at a crossroads, a crossroads that was encapsulated by the events of the 1960 summer Olympics.

That summer, the games were held in a Rome full of echoes of the classical past, but also tragic reminders of fascist mistakes and the poverty that followed WWII. To this stage came two superpowers–the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.–whose symbolic rivalry on the athletic field was heating up. In fact, the Soviets would outmedal the U.S. for the first time at these games. Both sides tried to win propaganda victories at the games and recruit potential defectors. This East vs. West competition was mimicked in the German squad, still competing as a unified team, but with tensions rising to the surface.

The strength of the American team lay largely in black athletes for the first time, with decathlete Rafer Johnson carrying the flag, Cassius Clay finding his first world stage, and particularly with the Tigerbelles, the women of the Tennessee State track team led by the charismatic Wilma Rudolph. The unequal treatment these athletes received at home and abroad would underline the need for the growing civil rights movement. Women, in particular, had to face not only racial discrimination, but the gender-based discrimination of sports institutions, who continued to treat them as girls and were unsure of their ability to run even 800 meters.

These games also featured athletes from other parts of the world: a rising rivalry between Indian and Pakistan in field hockey, a bearded Sikh sprinter, controversial squads from Taiwan and South Africa, and particularly Abebe Bikila, the barefoot Ethiopian marathoner who returned to the capital of his country’s Italian oppressors to win the first gold medal by a black African athlete.

The games reflected major trends in international sport. A Danish cyclist became an early casualty to the use of doping drugs, collapsing during a race and landing on his head (although the inquest into his death would hide the blood thinners he was using). Steroid use was also just beginning to seep into the games. Wealthy Olympic officials were trying to hold inconsistent lines of amateurism, punishing impoverished athletes in some countries for minor violations while athletes in other countries were supported comfortably by their governments.

Maraniss tells these stories and more in 420 fast-paced pages. This is a book full of hooks onto which a book group discussion can latch. Whether or not you like sports, the history, the fascinating characters, and the drama of the 1960 Olympics will capture your imagination.


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