How the 1960 Olympics Changed America

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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."

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.

That same day—"Black Tuesday," it was instantly dubbed—Ray Norton was not only beaten in the 100 meters, but "unaccountably" finished last. Even worse was to follow for Norton, and the US track team, a week later, after Norton had matched his last place disappointment in the 100 meters with a similar losing effort in the 200 meters. In the 4 x 100 meter relay—an event in which the US had won eight straight gold medals—Norton took off prematurely in the second leg and received the baton from the lead off runner beyond the passing zone. The US team broke the tape in front in world-record time, but was disqualified for the faulty baton pass.

The American setbacks accumulated—not placing a runner in the finals of the 800 meters, world record holder Harold Connolly's eighth place in the hammer throw—adding up to the lowest total of track and field medals since 1928. An outpouring of indignation and anger was directed at American athletes, coaches and administrators. As Life magazine—then at the peak of its reach as both national megaphone and mirror—recorded in a tone far more measured than that in which its sister- in- Luce Sports Illustrated had heralded American prospects at the onset of the games:

The United States failed to win events which it had monopolized for decades. Defeat in the 100 meter race sent a United States trio trudging stunned and sorrowing off the field. High jumper John Thomas, who had gone over seven feet dozens of times, failed at the games and lost. There were grumblings that U.S, coaches had let some of their charges get out of hand and out of training. Some of the athletes seemed to consider the games as just a sightseeing jaunt and were too interested in having a good time to make a good showing.

Not that the Roman sun did not shine brightly on any United States competitors. The American hero of the games turned out to be a heroine—African-American sprinter Wilma Rudolph who captured gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters and also the 4 x 100 meter relay. Rudolph's starring role was inconvenient for the then often contemptuous prevailing American perspective on women's sports - that they were unimportant adjuncts to the men's competition and unfairly served to bulk up Soviet medal counts to the detriment of the US. Rudolph's success on the track also prefigured the civil rights and women's revolutions that would be the most enduring legacy of the 1960s. And her back story—that of a sickly premature baby who wore a leg brace as a child as a result of polio, double pneumonia and scarlet fever—set the template for the human interest soap opera approach to Olympic athletes that would come to define the way in which American television covered the games in the future.

By the time the Rome games ended, American fortunes in men's track and field had recouped somewhat, but it was the American setbacks during the first week that resonated the most—defeats and disappointments that meshed perfectly with Kennedy's successful campaign theme of a once-mighty America that was losing ground in the contest for the global preeminence that many Americans claimed as a birthright. It turned out to be very close election. Did Ray Norton's errant baton pass make the difference?