The Olympics that Changed the World
By David Maraniss
Thorndike Press, Large Print Edition (2009), 722 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 1, 2009
David Maraniss is an associate editor at the Washington Post and a 1993 and 2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner. He is not only a very good writer, but also a very entertaining one. He tells the tale of the 1960 Olympics in Rome just fifteen years after the Italians lost the Second World War, when the Italians were hiding the remains of their fascist regime from the hundreds of thousands of spectators who came to Italy to view the games.
This was a time when the US and the Soviets were fighting to show the world which nation was a superior regime; when the Soviets seemed to be superior to the US in science and physical strength. These were the days when there was a heated dispute over two Chinas – the mainland and Taiwan – and the blacks in South Africa were beginning to stir and express their human rights. The year 1960 was a terrible year when American blacks and women faced daily discrimination.
Maraniss tells what seem to be well over two hundred fascinating incidences that occurred at the Olympics, just before it and just after, incidences that began to open the eyes of the world to how badly too-many people were being treated. For instance:
The Olympic committee stressed verbally that all people may participate and that there should be no discrimination based on religion or color, but the head of the Olympic Committee was a vicious anti-Semite and bigot. He called the great athlete Jesse Owens "boy." He accepted the ridiculous statement of the white South Africans that there were no blacks in all of South Africa who could qualify for the Olympics.
One of the American participants was Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, who was eighteen at the time. He talked all the time. People tried to stop him from talking by giving him sleeping pills, but they didn't work.
The Americans tried to entice one of the Soviet stars to defect, without success.
The issue of drugs came to the front at this Olympics: a cyclist died during a race because of the drugs he took to help him win, and officials tried to cover up the truth.
President Eisenhower tried to beat the Soviet's Nikita Khrushchev's warm greeting to the athletes, but failed dismally.
Blacks discriminated against in the US were winners at the Olympics, but many returned to the US to face continued discrimination and abuse.
Black girls on their way to the Olympics were not allowed to pee in white establishments in the south. They had to do so in the fields, beside the road they took to the plane that would fly them to fame outside the US.
The US trying to belie what everyone knew, that its people discriminated against blacks, had a black man lead their athletes and carry the American flag in the initial march at the Olympics. The crowd applauded loudly.
However, the Soviets drew greater applause from the crowd by marching only their prettiest girls dressed in their most fetching attire.
While a great power, the US was clearly cheated out of winning a swim contest. The officials declared the person who came in second as the winner.
One of the most dramatic events was when a short black man from Ethiopia ran the 26 plus mile marathon against the best men that the world could produce without shoes, bare foot because he could not find shoes that fit him, and won.
Maraniss gives his readers many pieces of information. For example, the legend that the marathon race of 26 plus miles commemorates the run of an Athenian man from Marathon to Athens to alert his countrymen of impending danger, is not true; Lord Byron fabricated the story in the nineteenth century.
The soviets beat the US in metals achieved. This led the new American president Kennedy to speak about "the soft American." The US began to become interested in health and many studies confirmed the president's assessment. Studies showed that American children fared far worse in strength and flexibility than their European counterparts. The move to improve children's health was one of many changes that occurred as a result of the 1960 Olympics.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.