It is not often that sports intersect with the larger world in any meaningful way. But 50 years ago this week, at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, it did.
That year may now be viewed through the soft-focus lens of romantic nostalgia for the "American Century" at its peak, but that was not the prevailing mood of the moment. National confidence was still reeling from the shock of the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, reinforcing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's boast the year before that "We will bury you." Pundits (not that they were called that at the time—there were so few of them that they could be identified by name) worried about America's loss of "national purpose" and lack of resolve to face the challenges ahead. A big power summit conference in May had broken up in the aftermath of the shoot down of the U-2 spy plane over Russia and the easily disproved cover story that had been the US's first response to that incident. The fate of two small islands off the coast of China ( "Red China," as we called it)—Quemoy and Matsu—was thought sufficiently momentous to merit going to the brink of all-out war. Cuba was slipping out of the American orbit, and it was Soviet collectivism rather than Western capitalism that was being embraced by the Third World as the surest route to economic development.
It was all grist for the presidential campaign that year of Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy. Kennedy pledged to get America moving again, and overcome the complacency and inertia that led people around the world (according to a poll that Kennedy cited over and over) to rate the future strength of the Soviet Union ahead of that of the United States. "We are losing the respect of the peoples of the world," Kennedy argued. It was a theme that would be echoed in Barack Obama's campaign—although in 1960 the Democratic candidate said that the cause of the problem was an America that was not assertive enough, and in 2008 the argument was that the United States had been too assertive.
It was in this atmosphere that the US Olympic team assembled in Rome in the first week of September 1960, opening another front in the Cold War. "We don't feel at all abashed about urging our boys in Rome to go out and beat the pants off the Russians and everyone else," Sports Illustrated editorialized. And American prospects were bright. The men's 100 meters was viewed as national patrimony—no American had lost that event since 1928, and top American sprinter Ray Norton was pegged as certain to maintain that streak. The only room for debate about the 4 x 100 meter relay was whether the US team would set a new world record. As for the high jump, "the only question is second place" according to Sports Illustrated's preview. John Thomas, the world record holder who had cleared 7 feet thirty-seven times, was "incomparably the best."
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Then in the space of a few days it all came apart. On September 1, 1960, the "darkest day in United States track and field history," the high jump was the scene for "the supreme upset of the Olympic Games" wrote Arthur Daley of The New York Times. John Thomas, the "surest of all American gold medal winners," barely cleared 7 feet but could go no higher than 7 1/4 inches (well short of his pre-Olympic personal best of 7 feet 3 3/4 inches). Thomas had to settle for bronze, behind two Russians who went over the bar at 7 feet 1 inch, the first time that gold medal winner Robert Shavlakadze had cleared 7 feet. "The invincible one had met defeat," Daley wrote. "How does anyone explain Thomas's failure?" Daley wondered.