More than just a game, sport reflected wrenching changes in the 1960s — racial tension, the U.S. antiwar movement, women’s rights, decolonialization.
Spectacular aerial shots opening the Italian documentary “La Grande Olimpiade” juxtapose the torch relay from Mount Olympus with athletes’ parading across the Tiber before entering the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony of the 1960 Rome Games.
The U.S. team is headed by Rafer Johnson, the first black athlete to carry the American flag — at a time when the United States preached freedom abroad while tolerating blatant racial segregation at home.
Johnson went on to win the decathlon gold after a fluctuating two-day battle with his university team mate Chuan-Kwang Yang, which concluded with the American slumping exhausted on the shoulder of the Taiwanese athlete.
The film highlights Wilma Rudolph, a black American sprinter gifted with a gloriously fluid upright style, who captured three gold medals and helped raise the profile of women athletes whose numbers had been boosted in the U.S. team.
The decision to include more American women, though, was due solely to the battle for supremacy in the medals’ table with Cold War rivals the Soviet Union and not to any sudden feminist enlightenment among U.S. sports authorities.
Then, in a year when the winds of change blew through Africa and 17 nations won independence, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila is filmed padding impassively through the streets of Rome barefoot after dusk in the marathon to become the first black African to capture an Olympic title.
A precursor of tensions that would explode over the decade
Today “La Grande Olimpiade,” released in a golden age of Italian film, still looks startlingly fresh and vibrant. But behind the early 1960s optimism, tensions that were to explode over the course of the decade are clear with the benefit of hindsight.
The U.S. team included a loquacious 18-year-old boxer from Louisville, Kentucky named Cassius Clay, who would not have been allowed to dine at a downtown restaurant in his home town.
After winning the light-heavyweight gold, Clay turned professional and went on to win the world heavyweight title with an upset victory over the fearsome Sonny Liston, which only he had predicted. Clay then announced he had converted to Islam and changed what he called his slave name to Muhammad Ali.
By the end of the decade, he was a hero on the American campuses but condemned to sporting limbo after he was stripped of his title for refusing induction into the U.S. army while the Vietnam war was at its height.
Eight years after the Rome Games and near the end of a year in which Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered, two young men stood on the victory podium at the Mexico City Olympics, with black-gloved fists raised and heads bowed during the U.S. anthem in silent protest against the treatment of their fellow African-Americans.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos had finished first and third respectively in the 200 metres final. Unsurprisingly, Smith’s thoughts were not of his gold medal or his world record time.
“I prayed, prayed that the next sound I would hear in the middle of the Star-Spangled Banner would not be a gunshot and prayed that the next thing I felt would not be the darkness of sudden death,” Smith wrote in his autobiography. “I thought every gun in the world was pointed at me.”
The Olympic authorities’ response was swift and brutal. The pair were expelled from the Games, both struggled for years to earn a living and Carlos’s wife committed suicide.
Earning a living was a constant struggle for Olympic athletes, who were forbidden to accept any payment or gifts for their sporting struggles.
That requirement was adroitly sidestepped in the Soviet bloc. There, elite athletes were given jobs by the state that allowed them to train full time, whereas Johnson had been forbidden to accept a part in the film “Spartacus” before the Rome Games.
At the start of the decade, tennis was still an amateur sport. In 1962, Rod Laver, a red-haired left-hander from Australia — a nation with an astonishingly successful record over a range of sport — won the grand slam of Wimbledon plus the Australian, French and U.S. Opens.
Laver then joined the breakaway professional circuit and was still around in 1969 after his sport was finally declared open when he became the only man to complete two grand slams.
Charismatic individuals who became public figures
A series of athletes glittered during a decade that celebrated charismatic individuals who became public figures following the increased sophistication and spread of television coverage.
Spearheaded by Pele, who blended strength with artistry, Brazil won the 1958, 1962 and 1970 soccer World Cups.
Many thought the dazzling long-haired Northern Irishman George Best, dubbed the “Fifth Beatle,” was even better, while in the United States the equally glamorous New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, nicknamed “Broadway Joe,” guided his team to an upset Super Bowl win in 1969.
Even golf, a preserve of conservative country clubs, gained popular appeal through the rivalry between the flamboyant Arnie Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus still holds the record for the most major titles with 18, four ahead of Tiger Woods, whose hopes of overhauling his compatriot recede with each passing year since his U.S. Open victory a decade ago.
Decathalon champion Rafer Johnson went on to join Robert Kennedy’s doomed 1968 U.S. presidential campaign, where he helped wrestle the gun from the hand of the senator’s assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
A heavyweight with the speed and reflexes of a lightweight, Ali, who does not get a mention in “La Grande Olimpiade,” fulfilled his prophecy in Rome that he would become “The Greatest.”
By the time of his death in 2016, Ali was the most famous athlete in the world.
John Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.