Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Summer

High spirits mark successful Rome Olympics

For the first time in 30 years, Olympics are not affected by political or economic problems

Rome Games blend modern world and ancient history

The winners of the 1960 Olympic medals for light heavyweight boxing in Rome: Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali), centre, gold; Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland, right, silver; and Giulio Saraudi (Italy) and Anthony Madigan (Australia), joint bronze. ((Central Press/Getty Images))

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It took more than 30 years, but with the 1960 Games in Rome, the Olympics finally did not have a pall cast over them by political tensions or worldwide economic problems.

There were some political overtones -- China was not happy that Taiwan competed independently as Formosa, and following the 1960 Games, the International Olympic Committee would ban South Africa to express its displeasure over the country's racist apartheid system.

But what politics there were in Rome seemed relatively muted, especially in comparison with the fractiousness surrounding the 1956 Olympics. The atmosphere was much more buoyant, partly because Rome was so thrilled to finally host the Olympics, particularly since it was forced to give up the 1908 Olympics in the aftermath of the 1906 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

The Numbers

Number of countries: 83

Number of athletes: 5,338 (611 women, 4,727 men)

Number of sports: 17

Number of events: 150

Total medals won by Turkey: 7 gold, 2 silver (all in wrestling)

Second athlete ever to die at Olympics: Knud Eneberg-Jensen, Denmark, cycling

Cause of death: Combination of doping and exposure after 100-kilometre team time trial

Antiquity and modernity

The entire city's infrastructure, from transportation corridors to the water supply, were significantly upgraded, while Rome managed to bridge the best of the modern world and the rich, ancient legacy of the city.

The Villagio Olympico, which housed a record 5,348 athletes from 83 nations, was a true village, with parks, play areas and shops. After the athletes left, it became low-cost housing for government workers.

Meanwhile, the Italians used both ancient ruins and brand-new stadiums for the Olympics. The wrestling competition was held in the Basilica of Maxentius, the site of wrestling matches 2,000 years earlier, although this time it was Turkish athletes who held sway.

And overwhelmingly Catholic Italy had to watch the officially atheist Soviets, led by Boris Shakhlin and Larissa Latynina, completely dominate the gymnastics competition held at the ancient Caracalla Baths.

The Games weren't lacking for a Catholic influence though. Pope John XXIII bestowed a blessing on about a thousand athletes before competition started, and he took in the canoe-kayak semifinals from his summer home in Verano.

Multiple gold medallist

Boris Shakhlin (USSR)  Gymnastics:  4

Larissa Latynina (USSR)  Gymnastics:  3

Takashi Ono (JPN)  Gymnastics:  3

Wilma Rudolph (USA)  Athletics:  3

Chris von Saltza (USA)  Swimming:  3

Polina Astakhova (USSR)  Gymnastics:  2

Sante Gaiardoni (ITA)  Cycling:  2

Ingrid Kramer (GER)  Diving:  2

Winning streaks broken and extended

Another reason for the abundant high spirits was the sheer excitement and quality of the competitions. Overall, it seemed to be a memorable Olympics for everyone but the Canadians, who managed just one medal, a rowing silver by the men's eights.

Balmy temperatures helped records fall daily. Standards were so high that some medallists from previous Olympics failed to qualify in the finals. Olympic records were broken in every swimming event. Competition seemed wide open, at the expense of some Olympic winning streaks:

  • Germany won the coxed eight crews in rowing, ending the United States' eight consecutive gold medal record.
  • Germany's Ingrid Kramer won the women's springboard and platform diving events, ending U.S. streaks at eight and seven, respectively.
  • With a 1-0 victory, Pakistan ended the six-time field hockey winning streak of its bitterest rival, India.

At the same time, some of the Olympics’ all-time greatest athletes heaped on more laurelsa;

  • Gert Fredriksson of Sweden won his sixth gold medal, making him the winningest kayaker in Olympic history -- it also gave him gold medals in four straight Games.
  • Denmark's Paul Elvstrom won his fourth consecutive gold in yachting's Finn class.
  • Aladar Gerevich won gold with the Hungarian sabre fencing team for the sixth straight time.
  • Japanese-American weightlifter Tommy Kono won a silver medal for the third straight time. Impressive enough in itself, but it was the third straight time he won it in a different weight class, bouncing from lightweight in 1952 to light-heavyweight in 1956 to middleweight in 1960. Kono was also a two-time Mr. Universe.

Abebe Bikila

For most observers at the time, the Rome marathon was memorable for three things.

First, it was run at night with the route through the Eternal City lined by torchlight, certainly making it the most dreamlike marathon in Olympic history. Second Abebe Bikila set a new world record, while running the race barefoot. Third, it made Bikila the first black African Olympic champion.

It was fitting that it was run at night, because all the stars appeared to align for Bikila in a stunning constellation of coincidences. For starters, he was born on August 7, 1932, the day the marathon was run at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Then there was the intertwined history of Italy and Ethiopia. Bikila and his coach decided before the race that he should try to make his final attack for the finish about 1,500 metres from the finish. It happened that the signpost here was the Obelisk of Axum, which Italian troops had plundered from Ethiopia years before.

Bikila did pull away from pre-race favourite Rhadi Ben Abdesselem of Morocco at this point and coasted to victory by 200m. The finish line, at the Arch of Constantine, was the same spot where Mussolini had dispatched troops to conquer Ethiopia 25 years earlier. It had to be a satisfying quirk of history for Bikila, who made his living as a soldier at Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie's palace.

Wilma Rudolph and the Louisville Lip

But of all the surpassing figures of the 1960 Olympics, the most enduring may be Wilma Rudolph. The 20-year-old from Clarksville, Tennessee,  swept the 100 metres and 200m and anchored the winning American 4X100m relay team.

That assured her a place in Olympic history. What carved out her niche in Olympic lore was what she had to overcome to get there: poverty (she was the 20th of 22 children in her family); the racism of the segregated American south; and a devastating childhood bout of scarlet fever, pneumonia and polio that left her unable to walk without leg braces until she was nine.

Upon her return from Rome, she immediately made use of her iconic status to press for more civil rights for blacks in the United States. However, Rudolph was not regarded as a firebrand in the civil rights movement the way her fellow black American Olympian, Cassius Clay, was.

Clay was an 18-year-old from Louisville, in neighbouring Kentucky, who was as brash and charismatic a boxing champion as the Olympics ever produced. He wore his light heavyweight gold medal for two full days. But a year later, when he was refused service in a segregated restaurant in Louisville, Clay famously threw his gold medal into the Ohio River.

A name change later, Clay would go on to much greater fame worldwide as three-time heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, a friend of Malcolm X and a force in the civil rights movement.

Track and field trailblazers

There were lots of groundbreakers at the Rome Games, notably in athletics competition.

  • Ralph Boston of the U.S. finally broke Jesse Owens' 25-year-old long jump record with a leap of 8.21m. Boston's record wouldn't last quite as long.
  • Armin Hary of Germany became the first non-English-speaking person to win the men's 100m in one of the closest races in Olympic history.
  • The middle distance races opened a lengthy period of antipodean excellence: New Zealand's Peter Snell won the 800m, and John Walker won the 1,500m.
  • American Rafer Johnson turned in one of the great decathlon performances, narrowly beating his training partner from UCLA, Taiwan's C. K. Yang.
  • While Dawn Fraser of Australia defended her 100m freestyle swimming gold, Chris von Saltza came out of the pool with more medals than any other swimmer - three gold and a silver behind Fraser in the 100m.

Canadian medallists

Men's eight crew  (Rowing):  silver

Lance Larson was another American who lost a 100m freestyle gold to an Australian, albeit under more controversial circumstances. The electronic times had Larson winning, but judges overruled the electronics and handed the gold to Australia's John Devitt. The decision was widely seen as flawed, but never overturned.

 Country  Gold  Silver  Bronze Total
 1.  USSR  42  28  29  99
 2.  USA  34  21  16  71
 3.  Italy  13  10  13  36
 4.  Gemany  12  19  11  42
 5.  Australia  8  8  6  22
 32.  Canada  0  1  0  1
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