To get ready for the Olympics, which start tonight in Beijing, I picked up a copy of the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Marannis, "Rome 1960, The Olympics That Changed the World."
As with most everything else associated with the Olympics, it turned out to be an exaggeration.
A better title would be "Rome 1960, The Olympics That Occurred When the World Was Changing."
Ever since their modern reintroduction in 1896 if we can still call that modern and no doubt in the ancient Games as well, the Olympics have been given way too much credit and way too much blame.
There is no empirical evidence that they start wars or stop wars, or start peace or stop peace, either. They do not crown kings nor elect presidents although Mitt Romney did give it a nice try and as the current version in China further attests, they do not significantly alter human rights one way or the other.
What they are is a great track meet.
But that doesn't stop poets and philosophers from trying to elevate the myths that the Olympics significantly effect cultural and societal change. And I can hardly blame them; heaven knows I've been guilty of it from time to time myself.
To be fair, Marannis a fine writer who authored the biography of Vince Lombardi, "When Pride Still Mattered," one of the most enjoyable biographies I've ever read doesn't come right out and say the Rome Games changed the world (the publisher probably wrote the title). But he does underlay the foot races and boxing matches with a strong undertow of political espionage and social unrest that is best viewed almost 50 years later so no one can scoff too much.
It's true, 1960 was a pivotal time in American and world history, ushering in civil rights from Birmingham to Johannesburg, shining a new light on feminism, dropping the temperature on the Cold War, and bringing technology in all its many facets like never before.
As Marannis details, the Rome Games were the first to be commercially broadcast (by CBS), the first to have a doping scandal (when a Danish cyclist died after allegedly ingesting blood medication), the first to involve more than a dozen new African nations barely released from European colonialism, the first to elevate the U.S.-USSR rivalry into something that went slightly beyond life-and-death, the first to let women run the amazingly taxing distance of, gasp, 800 meters; and it was Rome that crowned three iconic African-American gold medalists for the ages: sprinter Wilma Rudolph, decathlete Rafer Johnson and an 18-year-old boxer from Louisville named Cassius Clay.
In the ensuing years, Rome's reputation has expanded right along with Muhammad Ali's.
But the Olympics of 1960 reflected what was going on in the world; the world did not reflect what was going on in the Olympics.
To make it worse, Marannis writes like an historian who has never actually seen a sporting event. His descriptions of people and places is terrific, but his play-by-play makes the 100-meter final sound like a piano recital.
Never send a scholar to do the job of a sports writer.
The book is worth reading, though, if only for the re-telling of Abebe Bikila's triumph in the marathon.
Line up all the legendary Olympic stories, from Jim Thorpe to Mark Spitz, from Lasse Viren to Nadia Comaneci, and I'll take the one about the skinny palace guard from Ethiopia who shows up unknown at the starting line in bare feet and proceeds to cover 26.2 miles of Rome cobblestones as if the strongest runners in the world aren't even there.
Near the floodlit finish at the Arch of Constantine, Bikila passes the Axum Obelisk, an ornate monument revered in his homeland that stood on Ethiopian soil for 1,600 years until it was stolen by Mussolini's army and brought to Rome in 1937 when Italy occupied Ethiopia.
As the story goes, Bikila increases his pace as he passes the pilfered monument while throngs of Italians cheer him to the gold.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.