1960: A Pivotal Year For The Olympics

The 1960 Rome Olympics were the first commercially televised games, saw the first doping scandal and the first commercial endorsement. David Maraniss, author of "Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World," calls the year pivotal for the games.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. For the people who organized the Olympics and those who broadcast the games, too much is never enough. The music all sounds like imperial fanfares, the games are part of a global movement that aspires to transcend to politics. Then there's the name itself. These are not mere athletes. They are Olympians. So set against that century-old tradition of hyperbole and self importance, David Maraniss' new book provides some corrective balance. Some Olympic games are more noteworthy than others. Some events are more historic than others, like this one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) final for the lady's 200 meters. There's Wilma Rudolph on the inside, closest to the pole. (unintelligible) Look at Wilma move up as she comes around that turn. She's already taken the lead as she goes down the stretch. It's Wilma Rudolph of the United States in the lead. Yetta Heine of Germany in second place. It's Wilma Rudolph, leading all the way. Yetta Heine moving into second place, running into a very strong headwind. Wilma Rudolph's the winner. There she is, number 117, the winner by about four yards over…

SIEGEL: Wilma Rudolph, winning one of her three gold medals in the 1960 summer games in Rome. Those games are the subject of David Maraniss' "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World." And David Maraniss, welcome.

Mr. DAVID MARANISS (Author): Thank you, Robert. Great to be with you. It gave me thrills just to hear that old radio account.

SIEGEL: I want you to put that back in some context. When Wilma Rudolph won her medals in Rome - first of all, in those days, Americans tended to regard the women's events as not the real Olympic Games.

Mr. MARANISS: Oh, absolutely, particularly the United States track and field establishment. They would often not even cover women's track and field. The Olympic trials for the women were not even reported in the Bible of track and field, The Track and Field News. But Wilma Rudolph came along at a very important time in sort of the rise of women in sports because it was the first televised Olympics. She was charismatic, had a beautiful way of running, and the story of her life was so compelling that she really helped set the stage for all of the women athletes to follow.

SIEGEL: She had polio as a child.

Mr. MARANISS: She had polio as a child. She wore braces on her legs for a few years. She was a teenage mother, had a baby before the Rome Olympics, although her coach would tell people that she had appendicitis, and that's why she wasn't around for earlier meets. So she overcame an enormous amount.

SIEGEL: Wilma Rudolph, like other star athletes of the 1960's games -the great decathlete Rafer Johnson, the light heavyweight US boxer, then Cassius Clay - these were African-American athletes, no said that in those days. They were African-Americans in 1960, at a time when race and global politics were barely beneath the surface of the games. They were right on the surface.

Mr. MARANISS: Well, they absolutely were. And it's sort of an obvious point in retrospect, but it really hit home to me in researching this book, the actual beneficial effect that the Cold War had on race and gender in the United States. It was very difficult for the US to go around the world proclaiming itself as a beacon of freedom with these star black athletes helping them along the way, while at the same time those same athletes were treated as second-class citizens in the US. And so the American State Department and the Eisenhower administration and all the levers of power in Washington put a lot of pressure on the athletic world and on other worlds to start pushing for more freedoms for the blacks, and then similarly more respect for women athletes.

SIEGEL: As you say, these were the first Olympic Games to be televised. But that process of televising Olympic Games was so incredibly different in 1960 than it is today. You have to describe how these events reached the American public.

Mr. MARANISS: Yeah. I had a wonderful interview with Jim McKay several months before he died, the great Jim McKay. And those were his first Olympics. And he was the studio host for CBS then. He had no sports experience, really. He had been the host of a daytime drama called "The Verdict is Yours." And he didn't even go to Rome. He was stationed in New York. CBS sent a skeleton crew to Rome of about 40 producers and technicians and only three announcers. This was before the satellite era. And so the film and video of the day's events were actually put on commercial jetliners and flown from Rome to Idlewild Airport in New York, were a messenger would pick them up and take them over to Grand Central Station. McKay described for me how the tapes would still be cold because they'd been the belly of the jet, and he'd put them under his armpit to warm them up. And he literally had a portable typewriter in the editing room as someone was editing the tape, and he would type out his scripts for that evening's show.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk a little bit about one of the great heroes of the 1960 Olympic Games: the man who won the gold medal in the Olympic marathon in Rome.

Mr. MARANISS: Abebe Bikila out of Ethiopia, the first black African ever to win a gold medal. This was the year of independence in black Africa. Fourteen nations were getting their independence that summer of 1960. Abebe Bikila running in Rome in the country that had conquered his homeland, Ethiopia, in 1935 and 36, and running barefoot. He'd brought some shoes to Rome, but they were new shoes and they didn't feel comfortable and he decided to run barefoot. Half of the race was on the cobblestoned, uneven path of the Appian Way. And no one had heard of him before, and he captured the imagination of the world with that incredible race.

SIEGEL: I'd like you to return to your thesis here, that these were the games that changed the world. There were, as you say - well, there was a medal won by an African athlete, a black athlete for the first time. US dominance of the games - which I guess had been true for a couple of Olympiads - was over at this point. Television was new. What else changed in these games? What's new about them?

Mr. MARANISS: Well, it was the first doping scandal. A Danish cyclist died during a road race, and it turned out that he'd had a taken some doping that affected his blood for that race. So everything that was to follow in terms of athletics and doping started with that moment. The old boy amateurism that had persisted in the Olympic movement for many decades was crumbling. German athlete Armin Hary was paid by Puma and Adidas, the shoe companies, to wear their shoes. And as we mentioned earlier, race and gender were transforming. So the world - the modern world was coming into view. You know, the subtitle of my book, "The Olympics That Changed the World," is just a subtitle. I didn't write the book with that thesis in mind. I wrote the book as a series of stories and themes about the world stirring at that moment. And so that's the way I like to look at it, that you could see the modern world - good and bad - all coming into view in Rome in those 18 days.

SIEGEL: Well, David Maraniss, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MARANISS: Thank you, Robert. Great talking with you.

SIEGEL: That's David Maraniss, author of "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World."

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