Sixty years ago this week, the Summer Olympics kicked off. From Aug. 25 to Sept. 11, Rome was the centre of international sporting attention as athletes from more than 80 countries competed for glory.
And there was more happening than athletic competition.
The Second World War had only concluded 15 years previously and the selection of Rome as host city was the first occasion of a defeated Axis power being given that distinction. Tokyo 1964 and Munich 1972 completed the rehabilitation.
It was also a first for North American television coverage, courtesy of CBS in the United States and CBC in Canada. Communication satellites being two years in the future, the coverage wasn’t real-time. But it was still pretty impressive.
Thanks to video feeds from Rome to Paris, jet transport from Paris to New York and trans-Atlantic time differences, same-day footage was often available to North American audiences.
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Ultimately, though, the Olympics were about the athletes, four of whom stood out. Two were Black Americans and two were white guys from Down Under.
Wilma Rudolph was a Tennessee native who overcame childhood obstacles to become “the fastest woman on Earth.” Polio, contracted at age five, left her using a leg brace for seven years. However, her innate running talent surfaced in high school and 1960 was her year.
Rudolph won three gold medals – 100-metre sprint, 200-metre sprint and as anchor leg for the four-by-100-metre relay. She was the first American woman to nail three golds in a single Olympiad.
Going by his birth name Cassius Clay, the boxer we later knew as Muhammad Ali was just 18 when he won gold as a light-heavyweight. There were four victories en route. After quickly dispatching a Belgian, he followed with points wins over Soviet, Australian and Polish fighters.
His impact extended beyond the ring. The flamboyant personality that could either charm or outrage was already apparent. There was no hiding his light under a bushel.
New Zealander Peter Snell was a multi-sport schoolboy athlete with a particular passion for tennis. The focus on running didn’t come until his late teens.
Known for his strength and stamina, Snell has been described as having “the physique of a rugby player.” He came to Rome as a relatively unknown 21-year-old and left with the gold medal for 800 metres. Four years later in Tokyo, he did the double – winning at 800 and 1,500 metres.
But if you were to pick just one star from Rome 1960, it would have to be Herb Elliott.
His event was 1,500 metres, then seen as the glamourous centrepiece. And Elliott totally dominated.
A native of Perth, Western Australia, Elliott was coached by Percy Cerutty, a man who believed that developing one’s aptitude to the fullest made you a better person. Cerutty was something of an eccentric and his world had no place for slackers.
Training was meant to be gruelling. With his charge directed to run up and down sand dunes, Cerutty was a hard taskmaster: “Faster, it’s only pain.”
Elliott arrived in Rome as the hot favourite. After all, he was the world record holder for both the mile and 1,500 metres. Still, being newly married and attending university, he didn’t feel as prepared as he’d have liked.
It made no difference. He won going away, finishing 30 metres in front and breaking his own world record.
Elliott quit racing in 1962. As he put it, “There was no money in it, I had a family, I wasn’t a wealthy fellow so I needed to go out and get a job.” And he did, ultimately making his way to a very successful business career.
Today, Elliott is the only survivor of the four who dominated the 1960 Olympics.
After retiring from competition in 1962, Rudolph qualified as a teacher. She was only 54 years old when she died of cancer in 1994.
Clay/Ali became one of the greatest professional heavyweights of all time and also one of the most recognizable people on Earth. After developing Parkinson’s, he slowly deteriorated and finally succumbed in 2016 at age 74.
Snell retired in 1965, eventually moved to the United States, became an academic and died from heart failure in December 2019. He was just days away from his 81st birthday.
Elliott, meanwhile, is in his 83rd year.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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