Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

December 2, 2009

All the World's Stage

David Maraniss traveled back to the Rome Olympics of 1960, when Cassius Clay and other global luminaries competed in the shadow of the Cold War.

Max Lakin

As social barometers go, the Olympics are still one of the most potent in our collective global laboratory. The Games absorb all the world's successes and shortcomings and refract them back upon itself. At their best, the Olympics work to accelerate progress among us; at their worst, they at least offer up a spectacle.

David Maraniss. Photo by Valerie Strauss.
"Bringing the entire world into such an enterprise is not as simple as one might think."

David Maraniss. Photo by Valerie Strauss.

In Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics That Stirred the World, Washington Post associate editor and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient David Maraniss puts the 1960 Summer Games under the microscope, drawing large the social and political microcosm that it became: a perfect storm of Cold War anxiety, civil-rights tension, and the budding of 1960s-era subversion.

Those Roman Games also introduced sport to more modern concerns, things regarded as trivialities now: television's all-seeing eye; corporate sponsorship; and doping—Rome boasts the only substance-abuse-related death in Olympic history, an ignoble honor held by the Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen, who fell from his bicycle, later died, and later still was determined to be on amphetamines.

Maraniss superstrokes a dense, visceral tableau of that summer, telling the stories of competitors like Rafer Johnson and a still-adolescent Cassius Clay, and dissecting the Olympics' particular talent for bleeding politics into sport. His zeal for the Olympic tradition at large, something he calls a "passion play that no other venue, not even the United Nations, can match," is bracingly clear, and ends up yielding a decidedly literary narrative.

Gelf spoke with Maraniss via email about redrawing the centrifuge that was those 18 days; why 1960's particular impact won't be seen again; and why the real Dream Team never had Scottie Pippen on the starting five.

Gelf Magazine: You repeatedly describe the Games in Rome as a transformation, at one point writing that it was "the beginning of the end" of a certain kind of mentality—those "old-boy notions." How much of that was restricted to athletics, and how much of that refers to what was going on outside of Rome?

David Maraniss: The world was changing in the sporting arena and beyond. One of the reasons I enjoy writing about sports is that they often reveal larger changes in culture and society, sometimes anticipating the changes, sometimes following them, occasionally helping to cause them. The subtitle of the paperback edition is "The Summer Olympics that Stirred the World"—which is what I had in mind when I wrote the book.

Gelf Magazine: Last year's summer Games in Beijing were of particular political import, too, with China's government getting more attention than its athletes; several heads of state pressured to boycott; and Michael Phelps ultimately uniting the globe in a multilingual rendition of Kumbaya. What is it about the Olympics, especially the summer Games, that heighten and dramatize the global zeitgeist? There are other world-inclusive events, say, political summits, or closer even, the World Baseball Classic, that are summarily ignored. David Maraniss: Where else is the entire world on the same stage for an extended period of time? The UN perhaps, but what happens there often seems removed, distant, boring, and infrequently dramatic, like Khrushchev pounding his desk or Colin Powell presenting what turned out to be a trumped-up case to invade Iraq. Beijing offered some of what Rome did—stirring sports and a larger political story.

Gelf Magazine: Why write about 1960 rather than any other Olympics? Do you think it was more dramatic than Nazi Germany's 1936 Games, or even Mexico City's 1968 turn, Games that featured the black-power display and the killing of demonstrating students?

David Maraniss: I chose 1960 precisely because it was under the radar, less well-known than 1936 with the Nazis and Jesse Owens; or 1968 with the black-power salutes on the medal stand; or 1976 with the tragic terrorist attack in Munich. But it was my contention that more change came in Rome, good and bad: The first commercially televised Olympics, the first doping scandal, the first black to carry the American flag, the rise of women with Wilma Rudolph, the first gold medal won by a black African, under-the-table payoffs to Armin Hary

Gelf Magazine: 1960 also featured the not-yet-mythological Cassius Clay, arguably its most arresting mark. But of course he wasn't alone. Whose is your favorite sports story that year? Wilma Rudolph seemed to overcome one of the most improbably difficult roads to the Games, translating a teenage pregnancy, bouts with polio, and lifelong poverty into three gold medals.

David Maraniss: Cassius Clay was not even close to my favorite character. I found Wilma Rudloph and the Tigerbelles far more interesting, and also Rafer Johnson, the great decathlete, and Abebe Bikila winning the marathon running barefoot through the streets of Rome, the capital city of a nation that had invaded his homeland of Ethiopia only 24 years earlier.

Gelf Magazine: Your narrative is peppered with interviews from not only participants in those Games, but also the journalists who were there to write about them. Did both sides share a similar retrospective in remembering the climate that year? Where did they differ?

David Maraniss: I come from a multilingual family (Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Slavic, Chinese) but did not inherit that gene, so to get the international flavor for the book, I used interpreters/translators in Russian, Italian, German, Chinese, French, and Danish. It took a lot of effort, but I thought it was worth it. Bringing the entire world into such an enterprise is not as simple as one might think.
Some of the journalists who covered the 1960 Games are dead. Of those I interviewed, many of them understood the significance of these Games and thought they had been underappreciated, as did most of the athletes. Athletes and journalists equally felt the long shadow of the Cold War hanging over the events. In many different ways, they sensed that the world was changing, though that became more apparent to them in retrospect.

Gelf Magazine: Along the lines of that kind of individual storytelling, your short sketch "Ritual" which appears in your upcoming collection Into the Story: A Writer's Journey through Life, Politics, Sports and Loss draws the intensity of the Friday night football games at a high school in Killeen, Texas. I'd say it echoes Bissinger, but it was published five years before Friday Night Lights. Given your penchant for fleshing out the narratives of your individual subjects, I'm wondering if you had considered expanding the Killeen story in the FNL vein, before the FNL vein existed?

David Maraniss: Not really. I can't fully explain it, but there are times I think I can say everything I want in a short column, or a paragraph, or even a single line, and other subjects or themes feel like they need a full book. I thought the column on Killeen said everything about the subject that I wanted to say.

Gelf Magazine: Your general insight into the Olympics as an ideal seems to be a positive one, at least as it was considered then. Do you think the ethos of the Olympics holds up in its modern era, or as some critics argue, is devolving into a Coca-Cola-red sea of Nike swooshes and Morgan Freeman voice-overs?

David Maraniss: Not really. The Olympics are mostly about marketing now. The US basketball team in 1960, with Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, was a real dream team, compared with the latter one that went by that moniker and was more the Nike team.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think we'll ever see another 18-day stretch as complete in its social reach as the ones in Rome?

David Maraniss: The Cold War has slipped into history for the most part, and with it the thinking that Olympic competition in some ways was a test of ideology and not just individual skill. And the marketing of athletes has become a global phenomenon in its own right, making it all seem a bit less meaningful, in my opinion. I thought the Beijing Olympics had an interesting political overlay, introducing the world of China in what might be its century, but I doubt if there will be another Olympic Games with as many different strands of change as there were in Rome.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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