Madison gave a warm welcome to journalist and historian on Saturday night in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center. The hometown luminary introduced his new book Rome 1960 with a discussion that wedded the triumphs, intrigues, novelties, and most of all, change afoot in those Summer Olympic Games and the broader world at the onset of that tumultuous decade to the realities of 21st Century athletics and politics.
It was a particularly Madisonian affair. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz introduced Maraniss and his work, and quipped about the latest loss by the Badgers on the gridiron with front-row guest Governor Jim Doyle, a boyhood neighbor of the author. Maraniss opened his talk on a note familiar to many who discuss the identity of the city, contrasting it with Austin and declaring that the capital and collegiate hub of Wisconsin could no longer be considered a twin to that of its now overstuffed corollary in Texas.
This was the Maraniss' third appearance at the festival, appropriate since he grew up and went to college at the University of Wisconsin and continues to split his time between Madison and Washington, D.C., where he continues his Pulitzer Prize-winning work as a national political reporter for the Washington Post. The author first visited in 2003 to discuss They Marched into Sunlight, a parallel exploration of the Dow protests on the UW campus and the Battle of Ong Thanh in South Vietnam over one week in October 1967, and returned two years ago to present Clemente, his biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder from Puerto Rico.
While researching this latter book about the baseball great, Maraniss stumbled upon report after report on the Summer Olympics in Rome, and found that the story of these games was one that unified his intellectual interests of history, politics, sports, and race relations.
The seeds of much that is ubiquitous in contemporary sport were sown at the Games of the XVII Olympiad, which opened with a doping scandal upon the death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen, saw its first shoe endorsements in the Adidas- and Puma-wearing German sprinter Armin Hary, and closed with a marathon victory by Ethiopian runner Abebe Bilika in the capital of his nation's onetime colonial occupier at the close of a frantic summer of decolonization across Africa.
The Rome Olympics were also the first to be commercially televised, with CBS purchasing the broadcast rights for less than $400,000, more than 2,500 times less than what NBC paid for this summer's Games in Beijing. They were staged-managed by IOC president and conservative Chicago businessman Avery Brundage, a former track star and teammate of Jim Thorpe who was already infamous for his relationship with Nazi Germany in the context of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was also a supporter of South Africa's inclusion in Rome before it was banned in the following seven Olympiads due to Apartheid, a philanderer and opponent of women participating in the Games, and would go on to preside over the infamous 1972 Munich Olympics best remembered for the Black September massacre of 11 members of the Israeli team.
Media, commercialism, drugs, and the ever-present ebb and flow of international politics were all brewing to make for the familiar mix of controversies and opportunities seen across sports today.
Perhaps the most important elements to the 1960 Summer Olympics, though, were the ongoing confrontations of the Cold War around the world and the nascent steps of the American Civil Rights Movement during the first year of John F. Kennedy's presidency. The two were inextricably linked, with the Soviet Union condemning the regime of Jim Crow in U.S. as the two nations locked horns over building influence around the planet, particularly in non-white Third World nations in Asia and Africa.
Coming right after the U-2 incident in which U.S. Air Force pilot Gary Powers was shot down over western Siberia and just before Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev pounded his fists at the United Nations in New York City, these Olympics were replete with intrigue. Spies filled the streets of Rome, which also saw varied cooperation and competition between members of the then-unified East and West German team a year before the building of the Berlin Wall, as well as a high-profile controversy over the participation and presentation of teams from the Republic of China and People's Republic of China, the latter of which ultimately continued its boycott that would last for another quarter-century.
1960 was also the year of the sit-ins, which started in Greensboro, North Carolina in February, and subsequently spread across the South and beyond. These changes were reflected and magnified on the U.S. Olympic Team, when a trio of African-American competitors won the public's attention and admiration.
These were the Games of Cassius Clay, who captured a Light Heavyweight boxing gold medal, not to mention his fellow athletes' and the media's imagination, several years before renaming himself Muhammad Ali.
These were the Games of Wilma Rudolph, the onetime polio patient who won three gold medals and who along with coach Ed Temple helped define the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles as the definitive American collegiate women's track and field team.
These were the Games of Rafer Johnson, the team captain and media darling who won gold in the decathlon in a close battle with friend and UCLA teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan. Johnson was the first black athlete to carry the Stars and Stripes in an Olympics Opening Ceremony, and he was well aware of the dual role he inhabited as a symbol both of the African-American struggle for civil rights in the U.S. as well as for the nation as a beacon of freedom in the world.
All Olympics are memorable and historically meaningful, noted Maraniss, but the era of the Games in Rome represented the start of something new, of a change that not only reverberated and continued to unfold at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, but here in America.
This was the era of Camelot, of Projects Mercury and Gemini and the birth of the Apollo program, a time of change that would shortly be overshadowed in culture and politics by the later tumults of the '60s. While athletes were competing in Rome, a young student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa named Ann Dunham met a visiting student from Kenya in a Russian language class, with whom she would have a child one year hence. "At that key moment in American history," declared Maraniss, "Barack Obama was born."
Interest in various periods of history ebbs and flows, but it seems like the early '60s are capturing imaginations, from the popular and critical success of the AMC series Mad Men to the regular invocations of the JFK mantle by and for the Obama campaign for the presidency. "It's an incredible transformational moment that we're in," noted Doyle after the talk, "there's a feeling in the country that we're on the verge of a major breakthrough."
Maraniss concurred, revealing that the subject of his next book could be a biography of Obama or perhaps Dunham. "I share the feeling that this moment evokes that time," he said, "as we see the return of youth and energy and change."