Book Review

Heroes Once More

Reviewed by Jamie Malanowski
Sunday, July 20, 2008

ROME 1960

The Olympics That Changed the World

By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster. 478 pp. $26.95

Seldom is a book as ill-served by its subtitle as is David Maraniss's Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Maraniss resolutely illuminates every long-running story that enjoyed a chapter at these summer games, and there are many: the Cold War rivalry, waged not only between the United States and the U.S.S.R. but also between their satellites and surrogates; the struggle for racial and gender equality in sports and in American society writ large; the assertion of pride by newly independent Third World nations; and the burgeoning influence of drugs, money and television on athletics. It's true, as Maraniss writes in his preface, that "in sports, culture and politics -- interwoven in so many ways -- one could see an old order dying and a new one being born" in August 1960. But some 400 pages and weeks of exciting events later, one sees these games less as a turning point than as just another step along the road.

Aside from the overreaching subtitle, Maraniss has written a colorful, fast-moving and often dramatic book. He chose an underexposed subject: Despite the tremendous performances of American athletes such as the young and irrepressible Cassius Clay, as well as the legendary triumph of the barefoot Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, the Rome Olympics are not remembered as vividly as the games in Mexico City, Montreal or Munich. Television, and its ability to turn medal winners into superstars of sport and advertising, made the difference; the Rome Olympics were the first to capture a significant TV audience, but coverage was still slight by today's standards. In 1960, as Maraniss explains, film of events was flown across the Atlantic via commercial airliner to New York, where it was cut, if it arrived in time, for the CBS Evening News, or for a 15-minute late-night recap narrated by Jim McKay. In that way, the games in Rome certainly changed television history: A then little-known ABC producer named Roone Arledge saw the programs, which led him to create "Wide World of Sports" with McKay as host.

Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor at The Washington Post, set a very high standard with his excellent books on Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. His great strength as a biographer is his ability to dig deeply into his subject's story and bring out important themes over time. The nature of the Olympics, in which so many events are held in rapid succession over a compressed period, and in which most athletes perform only a few times on a few days, deprives him of his best asset. In his biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, Maraniss showed how the coach honed his approach during stops at Fordham, West Point and with the New York Giants long before he reached the frozen tundra of Green Bay's Lambeau Field. In Rome 1960, the author simply lacks the space to build, even though he begins the stories of some of his central figures, including the effervescent sprinter Wilma Rudolph and the dignified decathlete Rafer Johnson, years before the games. Their victories, which are tales not only of athletic prowess but also of triumph over racial bigotry, are uplifting. But even so, Maraniss has to spread his attention around, and his stars become ensemble players. The book is like a dim sum brunch: lots of dishes that come and go, some before you're altogether ready to move on.

Because of this, oddly enough, the stories in the book that stand out are those of performers whose efforts have faded from memory, among them C.K. Yang, the decathlete from Taiwan who almost beat his friend Johnson; India's Milkha Singh, the "Flying Sikh," who became a national hero after he broke the Olympic record in the 400-meter dash, even though three other runners were faster and he did not win a medal; and hard-luck American sprinter Dave Sime, who, after missing the 1956 Melbourne games with an injury, and after being nipped at Rome in the 100-meter dash, led his team to victory in the 4 x 100 relay, only to have the performance disqualified because of a teammate's error. (Sime did come home with a story even rarer than that of a triumphant athlete: He was approached by the CIA to act as an intermediary in an effort to persuade a Soviet athlete to defect; Sime was a reluctant conspirator and, in any event, the effort failed. But it adds a bit of Cold War suspense to the book.)

Maraniss does a splendid job of resurrecting these heroes from almost a half-century ago, and of reminding us why we like the Olympics: They are days devoted to spirited young people with rare talents and tremendous discipline who vie for a moment in the sun that, for all but a few, is swiftly eclipsed by the triumphs of another day. ยท

Jamie Malanowski is the managing editor of Playboy magazine and author of the satirical novel "The Coup."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company