If there’s an Olympics that I identify with, it’s the Munich games in 1972. You got the sense of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, even with the athletes from the Soviet Bloc. (Well, maybe not the East German women, but that’s another matter.) Runners looked lean, not sculpted with CAD/CAM to maximize power and reduce wind resistance. And Olga Korbut looked cute, and not like a 5:8-scale model of a human.
If you’re like me and wonder where your Olympic spirit went – or if you’re still on a gold-medal high and crave more – it’s worth the time to read Rome 1960 – The Olympics That Changed The World by David Maraniss. It chronicles an event that’s just a bit too early for me to remember, but it reflects an Olympic ideal that I’ll always miss.
Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post and wrote an incisive biography of Bill Clinton (First in His Class), but he’s also written some of the best non-sports books about athletes, where you learn far more about the person than their performance. His biography of football coach Vince Lombardi (When Pride Still Mattered) is a classic study of a driven-but-curiously-insecure leader.
Rome 1960 shows that particular Olympics as a turning point, and not solely due to individual performances. There’s the emergence of African-American athletes, particularly women; the beginning of payola sponsorships with German sprinter Armin Hary; the breakout of the Soviet Union as a major track-and-field force; and the Olympics itself as a proxy Cold War.
Perhaps the best of the book comes with the final chapters on the marathon. It’s a story that anyone acquainted with the Olympics knows, as Ethiopian palace guard Abebe Bikila ran the entire distance barefoot and set a new Olympic record … in the city of a country that, less than a quarter-century earlier, attacked and subdued his own land in war.
As he’s done in the past, Maraniss has crafted a book about sports that shies away from jock talk and superlatives, and more on personal and political backstories that truly represent the human drama of athletic competition. (And, yes, there’s Jim McKay in the book as well.) Even for someone who wouldn’t know a dash from a decathlon, Rome 1960 is a captivating look at an Olympics – and a world situation – we’ll never see again.
“Diversion” is the once-a-month entry that’s totally devoted to something other than dimensional stone … sometimes, you gotta take a break.
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