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Monday, April 22, 2013

“Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World”, by David Maraniss


496 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1416534075

The world is changing so fast right now that most of us can barely keep up with the daily news that affects our lives, jobs and future. So, it's a rare and wonderful treat when a book comes along that carries us back to a time and place when the world changed more slowly – to show us one of those events that truly did change our global culture. When such books come along, they're usually about wars, but not this new gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Maraniss. In his book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, Maraniss shows how Rome in 1960 ranks right up there as a milestone in world culture.

Mr. Maraniss is a former reporter of the Washington Post and author of acclaimed biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi. He is a wonderful writer and storyteller. With the approach of the 2008 Summer Games, Rome 1960 takes us back to a simple era, without the terrorism threats, outrageous commercialism and non-stop TV coverage. The Cold War was the backdrop and the author weaves in the stories of the athletes, the familiar and the unfamiliar. I don't know that these Olympics changed the world as Mr. Maraniss argues (the 1968 Games in Mexico City or the Munich Games in 1972 have a better claim) but the world has changed since then.

The 1960 Olympics was held at a time when the world was on the cusp of great change. Not only in the United States were these changes about to take place, but the entire world was on the edge, and we were beginning one of those periodic watershed eras that come along every so often. New nations in Africa were being formed. The old Colonial powers had gasped their last and were no more. Governments were changing, attitudes were changing and the world was just beginning to become wired. There were two super powers at that time, the United States and Russia. These two countries were locked in a war, the Cold War and this war was at its height. These Olympics held in Rome, had this struggle of ideas as a constant backdrop and its presents was quite significant. The two Germanys, for the first time, were acting as a single team; not having completely split as they would soon do and the entire contest was not only the United States v/s Russia, but it was East v/s West.

Racism, sexism and all the other old evils of this world were alive and well. The games were still controlled by Avery Brundage and his band of Old Guard. Brundage was truly a horrid man and represented the worse of the ruling class of the time and treated the Olympic movement as a private fiefdom and all those who participated as his own flock of surfs. Truly, in my opinion, and the author's as well, you could not have found a man, or group of men, who personified racism, sexism, arrogance, privileged class ethos and egotism more than Brundage and his cohorts.

The author's easy writing style makes this an easy, understandable and enjoyable read. As has been pointed out, each chapter is almost a news report, cum essay, on different aspect of these games; addressing individuals, events and the ever present political background. Many of the great names appear is this work; Wilma Rudolph. Lance Larson. Otis Davis, Herb Elliott, Cassius Clay, Rafer Johnson, C.K. Yang, Abebe Bikila, Al Oerter, the Tigerbelles and their coach Ed Temple, and many, many more (to name just a few) of the truly greats are written about, assessed and discussed. The author has given us a real feel for the times and has given us much to reflect over. Communications, training methods, attitudes toward different sexes and races, the beginnings of doping, how the athletes were treated and how various fans responded are all covered in this fine work.

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