The XVII modern Olympic Games began this week in a setting of unparalleled magnificence. American athletes, accustomed to the prosaically designed arenas and stadiums of their homeland and to facilities that are primitive by comparison, were awed and delighted by the spacious new stadiums and natatoriums the Romans have provided and by the immortal grandeur of ancient installations, like the Baths of Caracalla, that Rome had the wit and artistry to convert to the uses of modern sport.
Thus inspired, the U.S. swimming team, which preceded the track and field athletes to Rome, casually broke world records in practice, astonishing its coaches not so much by the fact of the records as by the ease with which they were made. Something of Rome's relaxed approach to life may have infected the athletes, but they were assisted, too, by physical conditions beyond their expectations. Brilliant sunshine by day and cool breezes by night, along with excellent food and accommodations at the Olympic Village, soon resolved all early doubts of a high-strung, spirited group.
Before the competition began there was Olympian camaraderie. Until lights out at 11 o'clock, the village recreation center bounced to recorded American jazz, and every kind of athlete from an Indian javelin thrower to a Russian weight lifter bounced with it. The jitterbugs of the world had united.
The only sour note of any consequence lay in a threat of weather. At this time of year the sirocco blasts up from Africa through Rome, sometimes with a force of as much as 20 desiccating knots. If it should spring up during the track events, some anticipated record performances may be prevented and some may be disallowed by officials. But otherwise all was serene.
There was precious little of the bickering that has marred other Games, although the Russians have charged from Moscow that the Western nations were planning unspecified "provocative" activities. This seemed to indicate some Communist worry that Iron Curtain athletes might defect as they did at Melbourne. They also complained a bit because the U.S. Olympic Committee planned to hand Russian athletes a pamphlet, printed in Russian, that answers questions about the American way of life.
In Rome, to be sure, the Russians were employing U-2 tactics, but no one minded too much. Their women's diving coach not only took movies of each American woman's practice dives but meticulously scored each performance as well.
"She even scores us when we fall off the board by accident," said Paula Jean Myers Pope, who is the U.S. No. 1 hope from both the three-meter springboard and the 10-meter tower.
Moderately irked by the Russian observers, Coach George Haines gave them something to ponder. After sending his girls through the usual fast 50-meter sprints, he put five of them up on the Stadio del Nuoto starting blocks.
"O.K., let's fool them," he ordered. "Go all-out, but stop at 25 meters, then turn around and come back side-stroke."
The girls clowned solemnly through the routine and the Russian observers grimly took notes.
Because of what is happening to the swimmers, a fad for green hair may sweep the world. Copper sulphate is used in Roman pools. It purifies the water and colors it a lovely blue but it turns blond hair green. The American girls have decided that the chartreuse coiffure is chic but they are not fond of the water's coppery taste.
"It's like sucking on a penny," Lynn Burke said.
The American women's track team had its problems, too. Training uniforms did not arrive in time, and the girls were forced to begin practice, despite intense heat, in sweat suits. Paolo Zingone, a ladies' haberdasher of some resourcefulness, was charged with finding enough shorts to cover the situation. Italian women wear the tightest shorts in Europe, a survey shows, and they are much too tight to be decorous, or even safe, on lady shotputters. With skilled tailoring, Zingone converted a supply of men's shorts to the girls' broad requirements.
The British were both amused and annoyed at the charge that one of their girl athletes (unnamed) was really a man. "Matters of this kind," said Jack Crump of England's AAU, "are extremely delicate and embarrassing. There is no doubt in my mind that our girls are all girls."
The Australians had more serious trouble. They were distressed by the loss of Stuart Mackenzie, by occupation a chicken sexer and by avocation the world's best singles sculler. A victim of stomach ulcers, who has undergone surgery, Mackenz√¨e suffered a stomach hemorrhage only three weeks ago.
"I am not fit to row," he told Syd Grange, Australian team manager. With Mackenzie out, the Russian sculler, Viatcheslav Ivanov, was given an excellent chance.
The importance of observing Olympic boxing rules, which include many a stringency ignored or forgotten in the U.S., was impressed on the American team by Julius Menendez, U.S. coach. He placed a rope across a corner of the ring, put a boxer on each side of the rope and clanged the starting bell. The rope prevented clinching, for which Olympic referees give only two warnings before stopping a fight. Menendez may have some difficulty, too, in controlling the showboating tendencies of some of his boxers. Cassius Clay, the best American prospect for a gold medal, likes to display supreme confidence by doing intricate dance steps between passages of boxing. Nick Spanakos likes, when he has the chance, to apply a playful toe to an opponent's seat. These are cute vanities that Olympic officials feel would make a travesty of the game. They just won't permit them.
All over Rome the athletes prepared themselves for supreme effort, some with intense seriousness, some merely joyful that they were present and caring not a hoot that their hope of medals was dim. These, competing in the spirit of the Baron de Coubertin, enjoyed the Elysian atmosphere of Rome's playing fields most of all.
Free drinks and happy Brazilians
Last Saturday morning in Centro Sport dell'Acqua Acetosa, northernmost of the Olympic training areas, athletes worked out in a snug, green valley, much like one you might find among the hills of southern California. Here there were a dozen or so playing fields of lush, strong grass, mostly for soccer, each field outlined by straight rows of willowlike trees whose long, thin leaves fluttered and rustled in the cool, puffy breeze. A pretty, dark-haired girl in a loosely wrapped dress of blue cotton passed a straw broom over spotless streets lest they be marred by a few fallen leaves or twigs. A bright-orange three-wheeler cart putted about, driven by a friendly man who passed out clean white cups of free "Ovaltina" to any coach or player. At the eight-lane swimming pool of sparkling blue, the Australian swimmers took their first Rome workout. Not far away, the talented soccer players of Brazil went happily through a fast, impressive offensive drill, guided by a paunchy man in a light-blue T shirt, gray cap and green sweat pants with gold stripe.
It was a warm, unhurried, comfortable morning filled with the gentle thud of the soccer ball, the rustle of leaves, the plop of swimmers' strokes, the lazy swish of the girl's broom, the putt-putt of the orange cart and the hiss and gurgle of lemon pop poured down thirsty throats.
All over Rome and at Lake Albano, on which Pope John XXIII could, if he liked, look down from Castel Gandolfo at straining crew men, the world's finest athletes were getting ready for the world's greatest games.