Rome 1960: When the Olympics went modern

August 25, 2010

They were the Summer Games that ushered in the Olympics as we know them today.

Starting 50 years ago on Wednesday, Rome hosted the first Summer Olympics to be commercially broadcast.

They were the first games with a major doping scandal, as Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed during his race under the influence of Roniacol and died the same day.

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia ran barefoot and won a night marathon in front of the Colosseum, starting the age of African dominance in long-distance races.

And they served to introduce the world to an athlete who would become a global superstar - Cassius Clay, the man who would later become Muhammad Ali.

It all began with an Italian teenager named Giancarlo Peris, who won a regional scholastic race that came with the prize of being the final torchbearer at the Rome Games

''I didn't believe it,'' Peris, now 68, said in a phone interview. ''It seemed like something too big for me.''

Shaking away nerves, Peris ran the final 350 meters of the torch relay and lighted the cauldron in the Stadio Olimpico on Aug. 25, 1960. The games were on.

Many participants, both foreign and Italian, have been invited to take part in the main anniversary celebration Wednesday in Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio - where Peris, now a retired teacher, will re-light the flame.

When organizers asked Peris to take part, he gave them one condition.

''I told them I'll do it as long as I don't have to run,'' he joked.

Other events over the next few weeks include a fencing exhibition by the Spanish Steps, a youth soccer tournament at the Stadio dei Marmi and an amateur boxing meet between Italy and the United States in all categories at the Foro Italico.

As David Maraniss documented in his recent book ''Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics that Stirred the World,'' CBS paid $600,000 to the Rome organizing committee - not the International Olympic Committee - for the rights to televise the games.

The American network sent three on-air reporters to Rome and had Jim McKay as studio host back in New York.

Video tapes were sent back to New York daily on commercial Alitalia flights and if all went according to plan - taking advantage of the time difference between Rome and New York - the network could show footage of morning events in prime time.

McKay recalled having to hold the tapes close to his body to thaw them out from the freezing temperatures of the airplanes' cargo holds and hastily write his own copy.

Meanwhile, Jensen's doping case got stuck in a maze of bureaucracy and an autopsy report seven months later said that the cyclist died from heatstroke. Decades later, an Italian doctor involved in the case said they found traces of several substances, including amphetamines.

The IOC created a medical committee in 1961, issued its first list of banned substances in 1967 and started testing athletes a year later.

The Rome Olympics came at a time when the Cold War was in full force, but Italy was rather tranquil - and still rebuilding after the destruction of World War II.

''Rome is the city of history and nice weather. Athletes arriving from all over were excited just at the fact of coming to Rome,'' said former boxer Nino Benvenuti, who won the welterweight division in 1960.

''When you're excited about being somewhere it translates into motivation,'' `Benvenuti said in an interview. ''I really think that part of the reason the athletes in Rome got the best out of themselves was their psychological state - they were happy to be here.''

Benvenuti beat out Clay for the Val Barker trophy as the games' best boxer.

''I only realized the importance of that award in the years that followed the games, when Muhammad Ali really became Muhammad Ali and the best boxer in the world,'' Benvenuti said.

Benvenuti recalled how startling it was to see Clay in action for the first time.

''He had a different style from everybody else. We were all standing still compared to him,'' the 72-year-old Italian said. ''He had unbelievable quickness not just with his punches but with his legs, too. He was years ahead of everyone else.

''His style had nothing to do with the basis of boxing as we knew it - left, right, upper cut, hook. That was it, there weren't many variations. He developed all sorts of things, like those movements where he put his arms down to invite the opponent to attack. We all learned from him. I adapted that style, too, when I turned professional.''

Benvenuti later became the world light middleweight and middleweight champion (twice), but he said those titles pale in comparison to his gold medal.

''When you win the Olympics you're an Olympic champion for the rest of your life,'' Benvenuti said.

Benvenuti has lived in Rome for years and often drives by the site where he competed in 1960, the Palazzo dello Sport arena, now renamed the Palalottomatica after a sponsor.

Both the Palazzo dello Sport and the smaller Palazzetto dello Sport were designed by Pier Luigi Nervi, a master of reinforced concrete, and are architectural gems. By contrast, the 1960 Olympic Village is badly deteriorating under the strain of residential housing.

Another Italian star of the games was 200-meter champion Livio Berruti, who upset a trio of Americans - Les Carney, Stone Johnson and Ray Norton.

The Americans' reactions still stick in Berruti's mind.

''They had very smug faces afterward and they wouldn't talk,'' Berruti said. ''Before the race, as the host, I wished them all well. Afterward they didn't behave with that same carefree attitude like the American athletes usually did.''

Like many athletes, Berruti attempted to court Wilma Rudolph, who sprinted to three gold medals for the United States.

''I had a nice feeling with her, because she really expressed a lot of joy and loved life,'' the Italian said.

''You could see it in the way she smiled. She offered to exchange warmup suits with me in the Olympic Village and I didn't know that someone by the name of Cassius Clay was one of the athletes chasing her, and he was very dangerous,'' Berruti added with a laugh.

Oscar Robertson, one of the captains of the Unites States' winning basketball team, also noticed the attention surrounding Rudolph.

''Everybody had a crush on Wilma. (Clay) wasn't the only one. This was a lovely young lady, but they couldn't catch her,'' Robertson said when his 1960 team was enshrined into the basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month.

Robertson's 1960 co-captain Jerry West looked back on the games as a tremendous opportunity.

''We were much more nationalistic as a country,'' West said. ''It was an incredible time for me, someone from a town of 500 who had hardly ever been out of the state of West Virginia except to play basketball, to travel overseas and represent our country as an amateur was truly the highlight of my life.''

West led the Americans with 19 points in a tense win over the Soviet Union before the final-round victories over Italy and Brazil. Besides Robertson and West, the United States team also featured three other future individual Hall of Famers - Jerry Lucas, Walt Bellamy and coach Pete Newell

''There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about those days,'' West added. ''The single proudest moment of my life was to (win) a gold medal for the United States in 1960.''


AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report from Springfield, Mass.