God knows the Olympics have been riddled with politics, commercialism and drug scandals since ancient Greece, but until 1960, those issues pretty much stayed in the background. Now, with the Beijing Olympics approaching, the sociopolitical subtexts threaten to drive the actual games off the front page. How the Olympics reached this point can be seen in two new books that chronicle the two most important Olympic years in the past half-century.
In "Rome 1960," David Maraniss has chosen to write about the most colorful and perhaps most pivotal Olympics ever. The book offers the Olympic vices in forms first recognizable to modern sports fans. Bookended by the Soviet spy trial of American U-2 pilot Gary Powers and "Khrushchev's threat to stir things up at the UN," the 1960 games were right in the thick of "the eruptions and disruptions of the modern world." Indeed, they seemed to reflect them: Rome teemed with spies, Maraniss writes, as the Russian KGB frantically tried to head off possible defectors. And for the first time, steroids and amphetamines were detected during routine testing.
Racial tensions boiled while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) tried to avoid the issue of South African apartheid. (Several Western nations wanted to ban South Africa for its separatist policies, but the IOC refused to get involved.) While a "movable feast" of sportswriters roamed from event to event on motor scooters, helicopters and "little Fiat 500 cars with Italian sailors behind the wheel," legendary athletes such as light-heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), and Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics, enthralled millions who were the first to watch the games on television.
Throughout the 17 days, writes Maraniss, "one could see an old order dying and a new one being born." Avery Brundage, the iron-fisted president of the IOC, saw the first cracks in his pristine amateur domain as athletes complained -- and journalists supported them -- about "everyone making money from their efforts but themselves."
As always, Maraniss, author of dead-on biographies of Bill Clinton ("First in His Class") and Vince Lombardi ("When Pride Still Mattered"), constructs the big picture from a thousand vivid details. "Before the Olympics, the Eisenhower administration argued that it was not necessary to keep pace in ancillary interests such as sports ... " After, the Kennedy administration decided that some Soviet sporting activities "'have certain propaganda benefits' that needed to be counteracted." From then on, politics played an increasing role until, in 1980, the political tail wagged the Olympics dog in the U.S. refusal to participate in the Moscow summer games, the subject of "Boycott" by Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli.
"Boycott" effectively fills in the background of the Carter administration's decision to pull U.S. athletes out of the Olympics in response to the Soviet Union's brutal repression of Afghan independence. In the process, the book also serves as a poignant tribute to hundreds of U.S. athletes caught in the middle of "a geo-political chess match between superpowers." For many of them, this book is their only chance to recount their Olympic dreams, most of them bittersweet: Wrestler Gene Mills laments, "I was probably the most dominant wrestler in the world for years, and I can't even get recognized for it because I don't win an Olympic gold medal. I think about it a lot."
The Caraccioli brothers, authors of "Striking Silver," the story of the 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team, do a fine job representing the pros and cons of the boycott. One wishes, however, for a little less spin-doctoring of the sort done by Walter Mondale, vice president at the time, who defends the decision by comparing the U.S.S.R. to Nazi Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Hitler "tried to use the games to legitimize his hideous government." Mondale should have thought that argument through: Thanks to Jesse Owens, U.S. participation in 1936 resulted in an enormous humiliation to Hitler.
It's hard to close this book without agreeing with swimmer Glenn Mills, who, 28 years later believes that the Carter administration's only function should have been to "butt out ... Anyone who has ever been involved in international athletics will realize the way we're going to bring this world together is by kids coming together to compete."
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. His book "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee" is due out in 2009.