On the final evening of the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, a little-known Ethiopian stepped to the starting line of the marathon, barefoot. He raced in the shadows of ancient ruins, including the Axum Obelisk, which Mussolini's Army had looted from his country more than two decades earlier. "In bare feet, dark red trunks, bright green shirt, the two vertical lines of No. 11 defining his narrow, bony back—that was Abebe Bikila," writes David Maraniss in his fact-packed new book, "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World" (Simon & Schuster. 496 pp.). Bikila set a world best of 2:15:16 and became the first black African to win a gold medal.
Since the modern Olympics began in 1896 in Athens, the international Games have regularly made history—and not always for what happened on the track or playing fields. In 1936, Nazis shrouded the games in swastikas despite prohibitions of propaganda in the Olympic Charter. Massive social protests in Mexico City in 1968 culminated in the Tlatelolco massacre. And in the second week of the 1972 Games in Munich, the radical group Black September took Israeli athletes hostage, prompting a standoff that ended with 17 dead. As for Rome, Maraniss makes his case in the subtitle: the 1960 Games "changed the world."
That may be pushing it, but they certainly reflected the dramatic ways the world was changing. The 1960 Olympics were the first ever to be televised. Light heavyweight Cassius Clay—years before he would become Muhammad Ali—won boxing gold for the United States. Rome's Games were also corrupted by the first doping scandal. On a sweltering Friday, Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen dropped dead. It wasn't the heat, though; before the race, his trainer had given him Roniacol, a drug designed to increase blood circulation. An uproar ensued. Consequently, Maraniss writes, "imperfect and controversial as it was, a system evolved over the decades for testing Olympic athletes for banned substances."
The Games also magnified a charged geopolitical moment. Bikila's barefoot marathon victory (his new shoes, bought in Rome, apparently hurt his feet) came at an unprecedented time for Africa. Decolonization was giving rise to a crop of new states. "The world order was transmuting, with nations being born, regressing, progressing—and out of all that an unprecedented eighty-three National Olympic Committees were sending a record total of 5,338 athletes to Rome," Maraniss writes. The cold war had filled the city with spies, and the Games served as a constant showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China withdrew from the Games entirely after a long and arduous political row with the IOC.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, Maraniss writes in great detail, chronicling the 18 days of the Games. While at first it may seem gratuitous to go so far as to review the passenger manifest for each planeload of American athletes departing New York, the work pays off when he writes that Clay's "fear of flying was so strong that it took the persuasion of all his teammates to get him to board the plane."
Maraniss's previous sports books have centered on personalities like baseball player Roberto Clemente and American football legend Vince Lombardi. But with the Beijing Games looming, his account of the 1960 Olympics seems especially apt. In Rome, CBS was the first network to televise the Games, broadcasting 20 hours over two weeks. NBC promises this summer's will be the biggest broadcasting event in history, with 3,600 hours of coverage. Reading Maraniss's vivid history makes clear that the tectonic shifts underway today—China's growing global power, America's lagging leadership and the spreading economic recession around the globe—won't be transformed as much as elucidated by the acts of human greatness on display. Rome welcomed the athletes of several new nations; in Beijing it may well be their time to shine.