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Games people play

An account of the 1960 Olympics colorfully details personal dramas against the backdrop of Cold War rivalry and emerging social change.

August 03, 2008|Mark Bowden | Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of several books, including "Black Hawk Down," "Killing Pablo" and, most recently, "The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL."

Rome 1960

The Olympics That Changed the World

David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster: 464 pp., $26.95


The OLYMPIC GAMES are, quite literally, many things. Too many things, some might say. They are one of the great recurring television events in the world, the most significant global athletic competition, a premier international advertising venue, a biennial showdown between artificial performance enhancement and lab techniques to test for the same, a relic of the Cold War, a shameless exploitation of nationalism, a platform for prevailing ethnic, social and racial theories, a target for terrorists and (in light of most of the above) a naively idealistic exercise in the brotherhood of man.

But above and beyond the mindless flag-waving and tiresome product placement, the Games are thousands of compelling individual stories. No athlete makes it to the Olympics without lifelong effort. Few reach that platform without intense struggle. All of their stories converge in a whirl of competition crammed into about two weeks -- this year, in Beijing, the Games will run from Aug. 8 to 24 and will produce for NBC and its affiliated channels more than 1,000 hours of live programming.

The Games were not quite such a juggernaut 48 years ago, when the competition was held in Rome, but the challenge for anyone trying to tell the story is the same: How can you capture the breadth of an Olympics event while somehow doing justice to the thousands of smaller personal dramas? In his consistently engaging "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World," David Maraniss succeeds by choosing judiciously from the narrative smorgasbord. He blends his own exhaustive reporting with cherry-picked passages from the colorful accounts filed by an Olympian team of American journalists on the scene, including Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, Tex Maule and Shirley Povich.

Maraniss' account works as both a history of the 1960 Games and a revealing time capsule of the Cold War. American and Soviet propagandists worked to exploit the Games for ideological ends. The communist press refused to even acknowledge the existence of some athletes, such as those competing from the Republic of China on Taiwan or the West German portion of the supposedly "unified" German team. In what was a common Communist Party practice, winning athletes from the heretical regimes were simply airbrushed out of the record in Moscow and Beijing.

But there were also the seeds of change, from the emergence of charismatic black athletes like Wilma Rudolph and Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), to the death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen, who may or may not have been taking amphetamines (then, as now, the issue of enhancement is shrouded in mystery). Maraniss' portrait of Clay as a loudmouthed extrovert catches "The Greatest" before he exploded on the world stage, but with his outsized ego completely formed. Hindsight makes all the more poignant the irony of triumphant black American athletes carrying the torch of greatness for a country that still treated them as second-class citizens. They are the heroes of this book. Decathlete Rafer Johnson, who carried the American flag into the Stadio Olimpico in the opening ceremony, is clearly whom Maraniss regards as the greatest American athlete of those Games.

Some of the controversies in 1960 now seem quaint. Arguments raged over whether women's bodies and psyches could withstand the rigors of serious athletic competition. The issue of an athlete's amateur status was hotly challenged, with the International Olympic Committee not allowing Johnson to play a bit role in the movie "Spartacus" or suspending high hurdler Lou Calhoun for one year because he and his bride got married on the TV show "Bride and Groom." It was considered a breach of purity to profit in any way from one's athletic accomplishments.


Detail and character

Maraniss brings to this sprawling topic a newspaperman's eye for colorful, significant detail and a biographer's passion for character. "Rome 1960" is chock-full of deftly-drawn portraits, everyone from theatrical pole vaulter Donald Bragg -- whose goal in life beyond track and field (unfulfilled) was to play Tarzan in the movies -- to my favorite, Joe Faust, whose spiritual pursuit of excellence in high jumping entirely transcended competition, even Olympic competition. Maraniss finds this monk-like man still at it a half-century later, living alone with a makeshift high-jump bar and pit (a mattress) in his cluttered backyard, the discipline of the jump having become his personal form of prayer.

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