The XVII Olympiad opened in Rome last week with a Latin extravaganza of pageantry, a papal blessing and firm expressions of unalloyed good will on all sides. The pageantry began Thursday evening and never stopped. The unalloyed good will lasted 49 hours and 10 minutes.
The U.S. was involved in the sudden rupture of accord—not, as might have been expected, with the Russians, but with the Australians. The battleground was the Stadio del Nuoto, the time was Saturday night, and the event was swimming—specifically, the finals of the men's 100-meter freestyle. The Americans, cheered by a 400-meter medley relay qualifying time of 4:08.2 that surpassed the Australian world record of 4:10.4, pitted Lance Larson of California against Australian star John Devitt, who holds the world record of 54.6 seconds.
It was the closest race of the Games to that point, 1.1 seconds separating first place from eighth. The Stadio audience shrieked as the swimmers hit the 50-meter turn almost in unison, kicked off in torpedolike glides and flailed back toward the finish. A wave, caused in part by the inadequately filled pool, hit Larson in lane four at the turn and may well have cost him the victory. As it was, he and Devitt closed in what a horse track judge would have called a photo finish.
Larson said later that he saw Devitt to his left in the adjoining lane three, realized that he could not bring his trailing left arm over in time to touch home with it ahead of Devitt and so stretched out his right to touch the wall underwater. It seems likely that the judges, grouped at either side of the pool, did not see this underwater touch, particularly since not a single first-place judge was in direct line with the finish. Devitt touched above water, his hand clearly visible. Three timers huddled over lane four clocked Larson at 55.1 seconds. Three timers huddled over lane three clocked Devitt at 55.2 seconds. The judges, as they have a right to do under swimming's rules, ignored the timers and awarded the gold medal to Devitt, officially changing Larson's time to 55.2 also. This is an Olympic record that Devitt will have credit for in the books, because he won the race.
September 4, 1960
Larson, a tall and fiercely competitive blond, was victimized by the confusion of tongues that prevails at all Olympic Games. "Did I win? Did I win?" he shouted from the water, and one of the foreign judges beamed at him. Larson thought it was a smile of congratulations—it probably was amusement over his boyish eagerness—and flipped joyously backward, kicking off in a long glide to celebrate what he thought was victory. And so thought the crowd, which cheered him.
Then the official decision was announced. A few minutes later a grim Larson stood on the silver-medal level as the band played God Save the Queen and Devitt received the gold medal. The third-place bronze went to Manoel Dos Santos of Brazil. American team officials protested pro forma but expected nothing to come of it. Nothing did.
It is an old problem to the world's swimming fraternity, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 20 years in a futile effort to solve it. Electronic devices to record the winner's touch cannot be used in swimming pools, partly for fear of electrocuting the contestants. Photographs do not show underwater touches. The human eye and the human thumb, both fallible, determine winner and time, and since judges outrank timers, the eye usually prevails.
Australian fans, inappropriately surly for victors, accosted Americans with charges of poor sportsmanship for protesting. W. Berg Phillips, Australian vice-president of the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur, snarled at a group of American swimmers at poolside: "We rubbed your noses in it. And we'll show you some more before we're through." By the Sabbath the good will the Games are supposed to engender had yielded, at least temporarily, to a furious flap. It was settled, but only formally, by denial of the American protest.
The next day U.S. officials threatened to carry the dispute to the International Olympic Committee on the basis of new evidence, on film. They also claimed that the chief judge had participated in the decision for Devitt, contrary to Olympic rules.
The Americans also were disappointed in the women's three-meter dive, an event that turned up a rather poor general level of performance. Mrs. Paula Jean Myers Pope, the United States' best hope off the springboard and tower, got off to a low-scoring start. Despite a magnificent recovery in the closing dives, she took only a silver medal. The gold was won by Germany's Ingrid Kramer, a buxom 17-year-old with a brilliant style. The result was a shock to the U.S., which has never lost this event. Third went to Britain's Elizabeth Ferris, winner of the first British medal in diving since 1924. Not only that, Britain took its first gold medal of the 1960 Games when Anita Lonsbrough splashed home first in the 200-meter breaststroke, catching the leading German contestant, Wiltrud Urselmann, in the closing 25 meters.
The first big American cheer of the Games echoed off the velvet Roman sky when it was announced that the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team had broken the world record. It was set, to be sure, only in a qualifying round, but it was set by a reserve team and this boded well for later swimming events, individual as well as relay.
Swimming and diving dominated the first few days of the Games, just as track and field will dominate the closing days. But all over the playing fields of Rome, at Lake Albano and on the Bay of Naples athletes competed and trained for later contests, many of them in sports that America does not regard highly but Europeans and Asians prize.
There was, for instance, the dedicated little band of U.S. water-poloists. Its members are determined to raise the level of a sport that has only a score of clubs in the U.S. against 400 in Hungary, say, where a water polo star is a national hero. The U.S. team is made up of young fellows who sacrificed jobs in various parts of the country to take up others in Los Angeles so that they might train together as a team. They were beaten by Hungary's defending champions in their opening match, but they put up a fine battle. Then they astonished the sport's expert observers by beating the French and the Belgians—an achievement that kept the U.S. in the running.
There were the modern pentathletes, who simulate military couriers trained to carry messages through to an objective by skill in riding, fencing, shooting, swimming and cross-country running. They were engaged in a hassle that, in their small world, resounded almost as loudly as the Devitt-Larson dispute in swimming. It seems that the 4,700-meter, 25-obstacle course, run in gasping hot weather on the grounds of Italy's Cavalry School 21 miles northeast of Rome, was much too easy. First of the pentathlon events, the riding, left Russia and Hungary in comfortable spots from which to strike for team victory. By placing sixth and fifth they gave little away to the then fourth-place U.S., and jumped off ahead of the best of their other rivals, the Swedes (eighth) and the Finns (13th).
Lieut. George Lambert of Sioux City, who took fifth place individually in the Melbourne pentathlon, complained that the riding course was clearly designed to "flatten out the standings."
"They made it very fast and very-easy," he said. "Where you placed depended more on the horse than on the rider, and I didn't like that. We consider ourselves very good riders. We work hard at it. But they took the horsemanship out of it this time."
Nevertheless, Lambert gave his horse a thoughtful ride Friday. He spent most of the morning in a sweat suit to shed weight. By noon he had lost five pounds and was down to 176. His ride helped give the U.S. 3,228 points, behind Mexico's 3,393, Argentina's 3,369 and Poland's 3,315. After the weekend, with a strong showing in fencing and shooting, the U.S. was in second place, only 104 points behind Hungary's 8,314, and Russia was in fifth.
In the more familiar world of basketball, the U.S. team roared off to easy decisions over Japan, Italy and Hungary, while Brazil hustled the strong Russian team off the Palazzetto dello Sport court with a surprising 58-54 victory.
In most phases of the early Games, however, the U.S. was doing, as expected, less than well. Greco-Roman wrestling is not the American dish of tea. When an American gets into a canoe he usually takes along a girl and a six-pack. But in track and field, reserved for the closing days of the Games, U.S. partisans saw their best hope of a cluster of medals. Their opponents saw it much the same way and scouted them accordingly.
The U.S. track team arrived in Rome from Bern after a 13-hour hot train ride. Tired and listless, they recovered both spirits and form in a few days. Al Oerter, defending champion in the discus, had two practice throws over the world record of 196 feet 6½ inches, reaching 200 in the first throw, 203 in the second. Bill Alley, world record holder in the javelin, had trouble adjusting to the mandatory Olympic javelin but learned by watching Janusz Sidlo, the very good Polish thrower, at Bern.
Confidence bubbled almost everywhere in the U.S. ranks. The Germans hoped to beat sprinter Ray Norton with their Armin Hary, whose flat 10 seconds for the 100 meters was ratified as a world record only last week. But Norton thought otherwise. Interviewed for the German television network, Norton was asked if he expected to win any gold medals. "Three," he said. "Three?" asked the announcer, surprised. Then he explained in an aside to his viewers that "the Americans are very informal, and you must not think this young man immodest." Turning back to Norton, he asked, "Which events?" "The 100, 200 and the sprint relay," Norton told him.
John Thomas, our presumably unbeatable high jumper, put on a special exhibition for the Russians. The Russian and American teams had planned a joint workout, and Coach Bud Winter decided to jolt Russia's Valeri Brumel, who has done seven feet. Thomas jumped 6 feet 8 in his sweat suit, then motioned to have the bar put at seven feet. Stripped to his uniform, he cleared the bar by four inches. The Russians came running, cameras in hand, and Thomas did it again, again by four inches. The pit was sand and Thomas would not ordinarily jump into so hard a landing area for fear of injury but, he told Winter, "We got a job, we'll do it."
Winter arranged a baton-passing practice for the benefit of the Germans. The U.S. team, which has not worked together as a unit, has had trouble with its baton-passing, but Stone Johnson and Norton, at least, do work very well in this phase. Winter put them through what he calls a "whistler," a pass at absolute top speed. The watching German coach shook his head dejectedly.
"Thirty-nine point two," he said hopelessly, guessing at the time, well under the world record, that he expects the American team to run in competition.
There was tragedy at the Games, presumably brought on by the intense heat. Knud Enemark Jensen, Danish cyclist, collapsed of what was diagnosed as heatstroke, and died in a hospital. Two other members of the Danish cycling team also collapsed, and the coincidence of three men on a single team being so singularly affected led to speculation that they had been using stimulant drugs, a charge the Danish coach at first fervently denied and then admitted. However, the doctor whom the coach named as having prescribed the drug insisted he hadn't done so and never would.
The extreme heat seemed to have no particular effect on the American athletes. The swimmers, indeed, said they liked it. Two U.S. teen-agers, Carolyn Schuler and Carolyn Wood, won their qualifying heats in the 100-meter butterfly event in 100°-plus temperature. Schuler, 17, broke the Olympic record by more than a second, and Wood, 14, was only a tenth of a second over it.
The third day, the U.S. finally won its first gold medal of the Games when Gary Tobian, a 25-year-old ex-G.I., took the three-meter springboard diving title. Tobian upset his favored teammate, Sam Hall, who finished second. In the last round, Hall made a spectacular bid for victory with a daring optional dive, but Tobian immediately countered with an equally good execution of the same dive, which put him barely ahead on points. Then Mexico's Juan Botella, who also had a good chance to win, let the pressure get him. He flubbed his last dive completely and finished third.
A few hours later, U.S. hopes got another lift when Bill Mulliken broke his own three-day-old Olympic record in winning the first of the 200-meter breaststroke semifinals. He clipped eight-tenths of a second off his old mark of 2:38 flat.
But some of the day's yield of cheer for Americans was washed away when Chris von Saltza finished second to Australia's Dawn Fraser in the 100-meter freestyle final. Miss Fraser had been nearly everybody's favorite in this event, which she has now won for the second straight time, but Von Saltza partisans had still been hopeful. They could point out, at least, that Dawn was obliged to equal her own world record of 1:01.2 to win.
Meanwhile, the Russians began to demonstrate their strength in events which Americans, generally, consider minor sports, by capturing three gold medals in the seven canoeing finals. Russia's husky Antonina Seredina came from behind to win the 500-meter kayak singles by inches from Germany's Therese Zenz and set a new Olympic record of 2:08.08. Later she teamed with Maria Shubina and took another first in the 500-meter kayak pairs. The Russians' third gold-medal winners were Sergei Makarenko and Leonid Geishtor in the 1,000-meter Canadian doubles.
In the classic canoeing event, the men's 1,000-meter kayak singles, the aging Swedish champion, 40-year-old Gert Fredriksson, finally fell before younger opponents after winning three successive Olympic titles. Erik Hansen of Denmark and Imre Szollosi of Hungary—both half his age-beat Fredriksson, Hansen winning and Szollosi placing second.
Dramatic as the Games were, they hardly surpassed the spectacle that preceded them. On the evening before they opened, the athletes of the world, including a handful of presumably AWOL but curious Russians in sweat suits, were received in public audience by Pope John XXIII. An uncountable multitude, the largest some experienced Romans could remember, filled the vast St. Peter's Square to hear the Pope's welcome—one of the rare papal declarations on sport and one in which he used an expression pagan Romans used to know, mens sana in corpore sano. Then after interminable translations of his words into a variety of tongues Pope John walked through the crowd, smiling and waving at the athletes as the representatives of all races and nationalities were pointed out to him. He walked because he does not favor the sedan chairs of his predecessors or, for that matter, most of the ceremonial trappings that have become traditional. The American colony in Rome refers to him affectionately as "Johnnie Walker."
A few hours later the Olympic torch, lighted by the sun in Olympia two weeks before and carried to Rome on foot for the most part, arrived in the square before the Campidoglio—a square so jammed that no corn survived untrampled. There were pickpockets, fainting women and a pathetic liver-spotted dog of uncertain breeding but excellent manners which had somehow got caught up in the mess and accepted his fate with commendable resignation. There was a speech by the mayor of Rome ("He cannot speak, but he will," a Roman explained). The torch arrived in the hands of a runner who was pushed forward through the mob by insistent Italian police, all in excellent voice. Thus urged, the runner used the threat of his firebrand to clear his own path. A green brazier atop the high Campidoglio steps caught the flame like a balky cigarette lighter and flickered over the noble head of a bronze Marcus Aurelius in the square below.
The ultimate pre-Games ceremony, the formal opening, came next evening in the Stadio Olimpico, a construction of such delicately conceived architecture that it gives little impression of mass and raises doubt in the minds of cynics that it can really seat 100,000. But it was filled, and the crowd that filled it paid 170,014,000 lire to get in; This sum ($272,016) was announced as "the absolute record" for the stadium. The Games, indeed, will set a record for Olympic ticket sales. Before the competition started it was announced that $4,500,000 worth had been sold out of a possible $6,400,000. At Helsinki in 1952 the gate was $2,800,000, and four years ago at Melbourne the final figure was $2,500,000.
Spectacle-loving Romans were enthralled by the parade of athletes; and the athletes, many equipped with cameras, were enthralled, too. They broke ranks to shoot each other and the final torch-bearer, a Roman student runner named Gian-Carlo Peris, who gracefully ran up the 92 steps to the top of the stadium's eastern wall as if he had never heard of elevators. Before the parade began there was a ludicrous moment, the inspiration of a young fellow in Bermuda shorts who, with this crude simulation of a racing costume, burst onto the track and ran around it. He breasted an imaginary tape and then escaped into the crowd before the Italian police could decide that something irregular was going on. He was instantly assumed to be an American jerk, but his nationality was not actually established. He could have been an English, or French, or German jerk.
The parade was a study in national tastes in dress and ran a gorgeous gamut. The Russians bulked muscularly in blue single-buttoned suits that suggested something you might see at a lawn party given by Khrushchev. Their leader, a peerless type, bodaciously carried the flag with just one hand, a feat of strength that was awesomely ostentatious. The Bermudians wore shorts, naturally. The Cubans were oddly clean-shaven, not a Castro beard in the lot. The Liberians were grand in gold-braided fezzes, bright red jackets and white pants. The Pakistanis bloomed in plumed white turbans and green jackets. The Americans, led by Rafer Johnson as flag bearer, marched in blue jackets and white pants, but they topped these sensible garments with raucous straw hats that could be described as drunken sailors.
When these men and women, representing all the races of the world, lined up on the green Stadio playing field, humanity's most successful binding force, the love of sport, took over. Anyone who ever kicked a ball or swung a bat or placed a bet with a candy-store bookie must have been impressed by the sight. It brought to mind that man is an animal who likes to test himself to the utmost and in so doing has raised himself now almost to the stars, a fact brought home by the sight of Echo flying through the Roman sky.