Rome vs. Beijing: Olympics that Change the World

In anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, debates have intensified over the appropriate role of politics during an international event meant to transcend exactly that. Numerous individuals and groups have promised to protest in Beijing, and in response, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) released a memo clarifying Rule 51 of the Olympics Charter, which prohibits demonstrations and propaganda in Olympic areas. Both Chinese officials and members of the IOC fear that protests will diminish the prestige of the Olympics.

But this year is no different than previous years. Author David Maraniss’ latest book Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World, examines an earlier Olympics and demonstrates how Beijing 2008 is simply another chapter in the quest for separation between sports and state. With careful analysis of not only the people involved in the 1960 Rome Olympics, but also of the historical developments surrounding it, Maraniss contextualizes those eighteen days and shows just why they had such a resounding impact.

By 1960, the Cold War situation had escalated, rendering U.S.-Soviet relations increasingly tense and hostile. The two competing superpowers used the Olympics as a battleground for propaganda, viewing each medal won, whistle blown, and smatter of spectator applause as a symbol of their superiority. The majority of Rome 1960 details the struggles of individual athletes, whose triumphs and failures were assessed in terms of their national contribution and translated by the press into symbols on a geopolitical scale.

The stories of many of these athletes are compelling by themselves. American Rafer Johnson, the gold medal winning decathlete, became the first black American chosen to bear the flag in the opening ceremonies. Another American, Wilma Rudolph, charismatic and globally beloved, overcame childhood polio to win three gold medals in track. Yet, the reverence for these black Olympic athletes contrasts with the unequal treatment they met at home. On a political level, the Soviet Union pointed to racial tensions in the United States as a fatal shortcoming to the capitalist system.

Other individuals were similarly scrutinized through the lens of the Cold War. C.K. Yang’s formidable decathlon performance was colored by the IOC decision not to allow Taiwan to compete under the name Republic of China, an act that met American accusations of pro-Communist leanings. Ingrid Kraemer’s sweep of the women’s diving golds was set against the drama of East and West Germany competing as a unified team, even as the Berlin wall was slowly assembled. Swimming in the 100-meter freestyle, U.S. swimmer, Lance Larson, was given the silver, in a race where the finish judges were split but the stopwatches timed him faster than his opponent, an Australian. His loss prompted rumors of global anti-Americanism, a token of Soviet empathy in a bipolar world.

Tracing the interactions between internal IOC politics, nations’ foreign policies, and media coverage of the Olympics, it becomes clear that these Olympics became inseparable from politics despite the best efforts of its organizers. The most memorable moments of Rome 1960 are still the spectacle of the athletic events, but Maraniss successfully weaves those stories with their political aftermath. Arguably, he concludes that Olympics do not change the world so much as act as a powerful reflection of a fluctuating global situation.

Inevitably, as he tries to capture the magic of the Olympics, Maraniss at times seems lost in a sea of nostalgia. The “Tigerbelles,” selected as the pivoting point of the book, are rendered with especial sentimentality. These five women from Tennessee State University who competed in Rome present an attractive underdog story which Maraniss fully accentuates with flourish.

Readers that expect a dramatic climax in Rome, a distinct point in time when all politics shifts in a radical direction, will also be disappointed. Various fragments of the games represent emotional ups and downs, but never quite fit together with political significance. As a historical account, Rome 1960 proves endlessly fascinating and inspirational, even if it lacks the epic narrative structure suggested by its title.

Forty-eight years later, the political storm brewing over the Beijing Olympics has the potential to rival that of the 1960 Rome games. Much like the United States and the Soviet Union then, China positions the Olympics as a metaphorical indicator of their importance. But it’s a risky gamble. China wants to use the games to spotlight their growing prestige, but that attention also leads to inevitable scrutiny of their shortcomings.

As Maraniss points out, even without direct protest or demonstrations, the athletes themselves will still be conceptualized as the symbolic representatives of their countries. Rome 1960 exemplifies how important the Olympics have become to many nations’ foreign policies. No matter what levels of censorship Beijing or the IOC tries to instill, there will be a strong mixture of sports and politics at these games, just as there was in 1960.

Shasha Zou is an intern for Foreign Policy In Focus and is a student at Northwestern University.