FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. It seems that wherever the Olympics go, politics follow. And the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome brought all sorts of culture clashes to the fore. Journalist David Maraniss has written the book "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World." David, welcome.
Mr. DAVID MARANISS (Author, "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World"): Thanks Farai. Great to be with you.
CHIDEYA: So this was the first nationally televised Olympics. And several African countries were fighting for independence, but no black African had won a gold medal thus far in the Olympics. That was about to change dramatically. So tell us about who changed that.
Mr. MARANISS: Who changed that was Abebe Bikila, a marathoner from Ethiopia. You're right, there had been no black African gold medalists before him. The summer of 1960 was a summer of enormous transformation in Africa. Fourteen nations got their independence that summer, throwing off the yoke of colonialism. And Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia sort of is the first of the great African runners.
He came to Rome not liking the shoes he had with him, so he actually threw them away and ran barefoot through the streets of Rome, winning the marathon in the capital city of the country that invaded his homeland 25 years earlier. Italy had conquered Ethiopia in 1935 and '36. So it was both a great athletic achievement, a sort of miracle running barefoot, and an important historical and sociological effort when he was the first black African to win.
CHIDEYA: And from here in America, we had Wilma Rudolph. And you start with the great story about how she was a teen mom and a bit ostracized. More so than she would have been otherwise. Who was she when she was part of the Clarksville, Tennessee squad the Tiger Bells?
Mr. MARANISS: Wilma Rudolph came from a family of 22 kids. She had suffered from scarlet fever and polio as a child. She had to wear a brace on her leg for several years when she was a pre-adolescent. She had been part of the 1956 squad that won the bronze medal in Melbourne, Australia, then came home to Clarksville, still a high school kid, and got pregnant, had a baby before she turned 18, and then joined the Tiger Bells of Nashville, Tennessee, actually. The Tennessee State, a historically black school there. And they went to Rome as a team. She won three gold medals, swept the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and she and her teammates, the Tiger Bells, won the relay race and really captured the imagination of the world, because these were the first televised Olympics.
She had a such an elan about her and a very strong figure as well. One thing she did that was of importance, it took a lot of guts, her home town of Clarksville wanted to honor her after winning those three gold medals, and she said she would only take part in a parade and a banquet if they integrated the event. So that had never been done before in Clarksville. This is 1960, the heat of Jim Crow segregation, the early stages of the civil rights movement, and Wilma Rudolph helped pave the way both in civil rights and for women from those events in 1960.
CHIDEYA: It's funny, it reminds me of Nina Simone, who as a child basically integrated a concert hall. You know, sometimes young people seem to have had this moxie that people who were older didn't have. But how do you think people perceived the Olympic Games at that point? What was the significance? You know, now we have all this sports marketing, but in 1960, what was the significance of the Olympics?
Mr. MARANISS: Well, the essence of my book is that you could see the modern world coming into view in those Olympics. For better and worse. I mean, for better in the ways that it transformed both racial issues and gender issues. For worse in the sense that the first doping scandal occurred at those Olympics, a Danish cyclist died during a road race, and all of the issues involving doping emanated from that single event.
Television then was not the saturation that it is now, nor was commercialism such - I mean, today, the American Olympic basketball team is essentially the Nike team, you know. They spend millions of dollars on the shoes and the uniforms. In 1960, the team, led by the great Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, was truly amateur, and all college players. So in many ways, the beginnings of what we see today was all happening in Rome in 1960.
CHIDEYA: You talk a lot about Cold War strategy and how that was, you know, kind of the invisible hand at these Olympics. Would - the Olympics we're having coming up with China, in Beijing, there's also a lot of talk of geopolitics. How do you compare then and now?
Mr. MARANISS: Well, I think the Olympics have always been political. You know, the Olympic ideal is one of just individual athletes competing to the best of their abilities. But in fact, the Olympics are steeped in politics, whether it was 1936, when the Olympics were held in Nazi Germany and the great Jesse Owens sort of disabused the entire notion of Aryan superiority with his remarkable performance, or 1968, with Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the Black Power salute. So that's always there. Beijing, I think, in the long run, no matter what happens on the athletic fields, whether the sprinter Gay sets a new world record or Phelps the swimmer wins seven or eight gold medals, it will be remembered for the politics and how the Chinese handled these Olympics in what they hope to be their century, the 21st century.
In 1960, similarly, there were many wonderful athletes. We haven't even talked about Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, who won a gold medal, Rafer Johnson, the best athlete of that era, the decathlete. But nonetheless, Rome was remembered for the politics of that moment, for what it meant in the Cold War, in its transformation of society. And I think China similarly will have that sort of resonance, for better or worse, depending on how the Chinese handle it in terms of human rights and how they deal with the world press and so many other issues.
CHIDEYA: David, it's great to talk to you. Thank you.
Mr. MARANISS: OK, Farai. Great talking with you.
CHIDEYA: That was journalist David Maraniss. His new book is called "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World." He talked to us from the studios of Princeton University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.