Rome 1960 Summer Olympics that changed the world 60 years ago | Sunday Observer

Rome 1960 Summer Olympics that changed the world 60 years ago

4 October, 2020
Wilma Rudolph of the United States winning the 100m Women
Wilma Rudolph of the United States winning the 100m Women

The Summer Olympics that changed the world is perhaps the most brazen subtitle to introduce the 1960 Rome Summer Olympic Games. It is a statement that is true of most Olympic Games, for all Olympics change the world of sport in some way and many of them make a mark on the larger world.

They were the moment when one era died and another was born, a watershed when the modern world was ‘coming into view.’ But what made the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, so influential? Politics, commercialism, doping and the continuous TV coverage had it all started in 1960.

The Games of the XVII Olympiad, the first of the modern era opened on August 25, 1960 amid the peeling of church bells in the Eternal City of Rome. A day before the Opening Ceremony, 5000 international athletes thronged to the precincts of St. Peter’s Basilica for a Special Blessing by His Holiness Pope John XXIII. The Games included 150 events in17 sports under 23 disciplines. A record number of 5,338 athletes - 4,727 men and 611 women, represented 83 nations. The Soviet Union won 43 gold, 29 silver and 31 bronze while the United States secured 34 gold, 21 silver and 16 bronze to earn the top two slots in the medals table. The Games ended on September 11.

The city of Rome was to host the 1908 Summer Olympics, but following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906, Rome had no choice but to decline. Later, Rome won the rights to host the 1960 Games, having beaten Brussels, Mexico, Tokyo, Detroit, Budapest and finally Lausanne. Italy, a country cursed by much of the world a few years earlier craved universal admiration. The Games were held at a pivotal moment in the history of Italy. At the height of the ‘economic miracle’, tourists, international movie stars, entertainers and international athletes, flocked to the city to participate. As a great ‘national’ project within a global context, the Rome 1960 Olympic Games was a marketing success.

The foremost among sports disciplines was athletics with 28 Olympic records and four world records. The world records came from the United States 4x100m women’s relay team (Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Wilma Rudolph), Otis Davis of the United States in the 400m men, the United States 4x400m men relay team (Jack Yerman, Earl Young, Glenn Davis and Otis Davis) and Herb Elliott of Australia in the 1500m men.

My effort in this illustration is to spotlight the most successful athletes of Rome 1960, who left behind legacies in the world of sports - Wilma Rudolph with three golds in sprints on the track; Otis Davis with his glorious victories in 400m and 4x400m; Herb Elliott in 1500m with one of the most dominating performances; Abebe Bikila winning the marathon barefooted, Rafer Johnson with a win in one of the greatest decathlons in Olympic history and Armin Hary who became the ‘Fastest Athlete in the World.’

Wilma Rudolph –First American Woman to win 3 golds

Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an American sprinter who became an international sports icon following her successes in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. She is the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games.

Wilma became a role model for black and female athletes and her Olympic successes helped elevate women’s track and field in the United States. For two years, Rudolph and her mother made weekly bus trips to Nashville for treatments to regain the use of her weakened leg and wore an orthopedic shoe for support of her foot for another two years. She was able to overcome the debilitating effects of polio and learnt to walk without a leg brace by the time she was twelve.

When Wilma was sixteen, she attended the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field trials and qualified to compete at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. She ran in the 4x100m and won the bronze, matching the world-record time of 44.9 sec. After Wilma returned home, she showed her high school classmates the medal and decided to win a gold at Rome 1960.

In Rome, she competed in three events: 100m and 200m sprints, as well as the 4x100m relay. Wilma ran the final in the 100m in a wind-aided 11.0 sec and became the first American woman to win a gold in 100m since the 1936 Olympics.

She won another gold in the final of 200m with 24.0 sec, after setting a new Olympic record of 23.2 sec in the opening heat. After these wins, she was hailed throughout the world as “the fastest woman in history.”

Then, with her teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones the foursome won the 4x100m in 44.5 sec, after setting a world record of 44.4 sec in the semifinals. Wilma had a special, personal reason to hope for victory - to pay tribute to Jesse Owens, the celebrated athlete and star of Berlin 1936, who had been her inspiration. Wilma’s victories in Rome also “propelled her to become one of the most highly visible black women across the United States and around the world.”

Wilma retired from track at the age of 22, still the world record-holder in 100m (11.2 sec), 200m (22.9 sec) and 4x100m relay. She wanted to leave the sport while still at her best. As such, she did not compete at the Tokyo Games 1964 saying:“I’ll stick with the glory I’ve already won like Jesse Owens did in 1936.”

Otis Davis – Wins 2 Golds breaking 45 secs barrier

Otis Crandall Davis, is an American athlete, winner of two gold medals with record-breaking performances in both 400m and 4x400m relay at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Davis set a new world record of 44.9 sec in 400m and became the first man to break the 45-second barrier. He was born in Alabama on July 12, 1932. He is a black and Native American. He served four years in the United States Air Force, during the Korean War. Then, he attended the University of Oregon on a basketball scholarship.

One day in 1958 while observing athletes running on the track, Davis, who had never run before, nor attended sports in his youth other than basketball and football, decided that he could beat the athletes he saw on the track. He approached track coach Bill Bowerman, who would later become the founding father of the Nike Inc. and asked to join the track team. He was flustered by the sprinting events. According to Davis, Bill Bowerman made the first pair of Nike shoes for him. In 1960, at the age of 28, Davis made the U.S. Olympic team.

Davis competed against the heavily favoured German athlete Carl Kaufmann, who was the world record holder in the 400m but won by a hair, setting a world record of 44.9 sec and becoming the first man to break the heralded 45 sec barrier.

The photo of the finish, with Kaufmann’s nose ahead of Davis, but his torso behind, has been studied and discussed by track and field officials for years. Both athletes were awarded the world record time, recorded in the 10ths of a second in those days, but Davis was awarded the win. Two days later, Davis and Kaufmann met again for the 4x400m final and he held off the challenge, anchoring home the gold with another world record of 3:02.2.

It was also at the 1960 games that Davis met and became friends with Muhammad Ali. Davis returned to Oregon, where he obtained his degree, a B.S. Health & Physical Education, in 1960. Then worked as an athletic director at United States military bases, including McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. In 1996 he was a torch-bearer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Herbert Elliott–World’s greatest middle distance runner

Herbert James Elliott, born February 25, 1938 is an Australian athlete and arguably the world’s greatest middle distance runner of his era. In August 1958, he set the world record in the mile run, clocking 3:54.5; later in the month he set the 1500m world record, running 3.36.0. In the 1500m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he won the gold and bettered his own world record with a time of 3:35.6. Few people have ever exercised such absolute authority in any branch of sport as Elliott did in middle distance running from 1957 to 1961. During that span he never lost a 1500m or one mile race.

During his career, he broke four minutes for the mile on 17 occasions. At the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, he won gold in the 880 yards and the mile. Elliott credited his visionary and iconoclastic coach, Percy Cerutty, with inspiration to train harder and more naturally than anyone of his era. Cerutty was known to avoid the track, talk about role models outside athletics (such as Leonardo da Vinci and Jesus), and bring his athletes to the unspoiled seaside beauty of Port sea training camp south of Melbourne, where Elliott would sprint up sand dunes until he dropped. “Faster”, Cerutty would say, “it’s only pain.”

There is a biography covering his career, “The Golden Mile” (Cassell, 1961). After winning in Rome 1960, he started a degree at the University of Cambridge. Elliott carried the torch of peace when Pope John Paul II visited Melbourne in 1986.

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 1964, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Eliott was one of the Olympic Torch bearers at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2002, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia. He is an Australian Living Treasure.

Abebe Bikila – Back to back Olympic Marathon Champion

Shambel Abebe Bikila (August 7, 1932 - October 25, 1973) was a back-to-back Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia. He is the first African Olympic gold medalist, winning his first gold in Rome 1960 running barefoot. At Tokyo 1964, he won his second gold becoming the first to defend an Olympic marathon title. In both victories, he ran in world record time.

He joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard as a soldier. Abebe participated in sixteen marathons. He was placed second on his first marathon in Addis Ababa, won twelve other races and finished fifth in the 1963 Boston Marathon. In July 1967, he sustained the first of several sports-related leg injuries that prevented him from finishing his last two marathons.

In Rome, Abebe purchased new running shoes, but they did not fit well and gave him blisters. He consequently decided to run barefoot. Due to Rome’s heat, the race started late.

In the early-evening darkness, his path along the Appiyan Way was lined with Italian soldiers holding torches. Abebe’s winning time was 2:15:16.2, a new world record and returned to his homeland a hero. He was gifted a chauffeur-driven Volkswagen Beetle and a house. He again won the 1961 Athens Classical Marathon, running barefoot. The same year, he won the marathons in Osaka and Kosice.

Forty days before Tokyo 1964, Abebe began to feel pain while training. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Back on his feet in a few days, he left the hospital within a week and entered the marathon wearing Puma shoes. This was in contrast to the previous Olympics in Rome, where he ran barefoot.

Abebe began the race right behind the lead pack until about the 10km mark, when he slowly increased his pace. At 15 kms, he was in third place and shortly before 20 kms, Abebe took the lead. By 35 kms, Abebe was very much in front and entered the Olympic stadium alone and finished with a time of 2:12:11.2.

For the second time, Abebe received Ethiopia’s only gold and returned home to a hero’s welcome. The emperor promoted him to a lieutenant with a national honour. Besides, his second Volkswagen Beetle and house. Seeking a third consecutive gold, Abebe entered the Olympic marathon in Mexico City 1968. Symbolically, he was issued bib number 1. A week before, Abebe developed pain in his left leg and doctors discovered a fracture in his fibula. Abebe faced the starter but had to drop out after16 kms. This was his last marathon and was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of captain.

Abebe was invited to the Munich 1972 Olympics as a special guest and received a standing ovation during the opening ceremony. He died at the age of 41 and was buried with full military honours. He is a national hero and a stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honour.

Rafer Johnson – Decathlon Gold

Rafer Lewis Johnson was the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in decathlon, having won silver in 1956. He was recognized as a symbol of racial equality in the United States and was appointed the country’s flag bearer at the Athletes’ Parade of Rome 1960, the first African-American athlete to do so. Johnson was born in Texas on August 18, 1935 but the family moved to Kingsburg, California, when he was nine.

For a while, they were the only black family in the town. A versatile athlete, he played in Kingsburg High School’s football, baseball and basketball teams and was elected class president in both junior and high schools.

In 1954 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), his progress was impressive; he broke the world record in his fourth competition. He pledged Pi Lambda Phi, America’s first non discriminatory fraternity and was class president at UCLA. Johnson qualified for both decathlon and long jump for the Melbourne 1956 Olympics.

However, he was hampered by an injury and despite this handicap, he managed to take second place in the decathlon. It would turn out to be his last defeat in the event.

Johnson broke the world record in decathlon in 1958 and 1960. The crown to his career came at the 1960 Olympics where he won the gold with an Olympic record of 8,392 points. With this victory, Johnson ended his athletic career. Johnson began acting in motion pictures and working as a sports caster.

He made several film appearances, mostly in the 1960s. He was a weekend sports anchor on the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, KNBC and eventually moved on to other things.

On June 5, 1968, he worked on the presidential election campaign of Robert F. Kennedy and apprehended the assassin of Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

He discusses the experience in his autobiography ‘The Best That I Can Be,’ published in 1999. Johnson was named Illustrade’s Sportsman of the Year 1958 and won the James E. Sullivan Award 1960. He was chosen to ignite the Olympic Flame at Los Angeles 1984. In 1994, he was elected to the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was named one of ESPN’s 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century. In 2006, the NCAA named him one of the 100 Most Influential Student Athletes of the past 100 years.

Armin Hary – Incredible reaction time in 100m start

Since winning the 1958 European Championship, Armin Hary was a known commodity. His incredible reaction time supposedly had been clocked using high-speed cameras at 0.03 of a second, while normal humans react from 0.15 upward. Some of his competitors thought he was using some sort of trickery.

On June 21, 1960, he set the 100m world record on 10.0, on the Letzigrund Stadium’s cinder track after narrowly missing out on the historic record twice before.

In men’s100m at Rome 1960, nations were limited to three athletes each under rules set at the 1930 Olympic Congress. The event was won by Armin Hary of the United Team of Germany, breaking the United States’ streak of five straight wins and earning the first Olympic title by a German runner in the event that determine the ‘Fastest Man in the World.’

This was the fourteenth time the event was held, having appeared at every Olympics since the first in 1896.

(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; he endeavours to highlight spectrum of sports extravaganza and spotlight athletes; he is a recipient of the National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits)