- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2008



Sporting events are often about more than just the game or race. They provide windows into the social and political events of their time.

The Olympics are by their nature strongly symbolic events. Some of them have been chronicled at great length, such as the 1936 games, when Jesse Owens disproved Adolf Hitler´s notion of white superiority and in 1972 when terrorists massacred the Israeli team.

The 1960 Olympics - the first modern games, complete with television broadcasts, Cold War propaganda and drug scandals - have not received equal attention in recent years. While those Olympics have been written about derivatively in biographies of some of the notable participants (e.g. Cassius Clay who would later become Muhammad Ali), there has not been a book about them in a while.

Fortunately, Washington Post editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss has saved the day. Few authors are as good as he at writing about the broader meaning of sports (the late David Halberstam was another) and Mr. Maraniss does not disappoint in this case.

His storytelling skills - so much in evidence in his earlier books on Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi - help bring the stories of the athletes and political leaders at the 1960 Olympics to life.

Mr. Clay made his debut on the international stage at the Rome games. Mr. Maraniss paints a vivid verbal picture.

“Early in his career, he exhibited an urgency to be in the spotlight that made him at once charming and irritating,” he writes of Mr. Clay. “Traditionalists thought his style in the ring could be obnoxious as well.”

His skills, however, were awe-inspiring. After he defeated Soviet boxer Gennady Shatkov in three rounds, he recalled: “I shook Clay’s hand. It was no disgrace to lose to a boxer like that.”

Track stars Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolph were also prominent members of the United States team. Mr. Maraniss traces their rise from humble beginnings in an engaging, but never melancholy manner. He also paints verbal pictures of their role at the Olympics.

“He sounded self-assured yet humble,” he writes of Mr. Johnson. He had a firm grasp of the occasion and his surroundings, once flawlessly calling out the name of each of the dozens of teammates who stood at his side … There could be no more valuable figure in the propaganda war with the Soviets, who wasted no opportunity to denounce the racial inequalities of the United States.”

The Soviets saw all of life as an ideological test and all international events like the Olympics as a propaganda opportunity. Americans were no less eager to score public relations points given their recent losses in the space war (Sputnik had taken place three years before) and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s warnings about a missile gap, though that turned out to be false.

“Whatever their dress, the Soviets arrived in Rome with instructions to exude an outward confidence. The doubts that nagged at (Soviet track star Igor) Ter-Ovaneysan and many of his teammates were smothered by a constant publicity drumbeat of inevitable socialist victory,” Mr. Maraniss writes.

He also quotes International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage´s concern about the “soft life” in the United States and the concerns among many Americans about the lack of attention to physical fitness. The following November, Mr. Kennedy, who loved sports and emphasized his own “vigor,” won the presidency and would turn athleticism and fitness into a personal crusade. Also, the U.S. Government became more active in supporting the Olympic movement because it saw the political value in having the nation’s athletes excel on the international stage.

All of these facts and stories are conveyed in an appealing manner that makes for an enjoyable reading experience.

Occasionally, Mr. Maraniss goes off on literary tangents that bog down the narrative, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. Reporters seeking to figure out how to make their writing more appealing to readers who have a dizzying array of journalistic options would do well to study Mr. Maraniss’ style.

Readers looking for an informative look at an important Olympics and who are eager to get in the mood for this summer´s games will find reading “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World,” to be a worthwhile experience.

Claude R. Marx is the author of a chapter on media and politics in “The Sixth-Year Itch.”

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