We The Italians | Italian sport: The Olympic Games that changed Italy

Italian sport: The Olympic Games that changed Italy

Italian sport: The Olympic Games that changed Italy

  • WTI Magazine #131 Sep 19, 2020
  • 298

1960 is considered the most important year of the 19th century for the city of Rome. After two unsuccessful attempts, in 1904 and 1908, the Eternal City succeeded in organizing the Summer Olympics, the biggest sports and media event in the world. From August 25th to September 11th, 5338 athletes from 83 nations participated in the 150 competitions of the program.

Rome, a city half destroyed by German bombardments during the Second World War, was about to become the city of the "Dolce Vita". The city where the whole world wanted to spend a few days to visit the unique beauties realized during the 2700 years of its history, where the most famous directors in the world wanted to make a film, where the actors wanted to spend unforgettable evenings to be immortalized by the "paparazzi". But the city was still a big suburb where the modernity of the European capitals was a mirage.

The 1960 Olympic Games were a great opportunity to make Rome a modern city. In the previous years the city had began its transformation with the construction of important infrastructure, from roads to sports facilities to the Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport (which, however, was inaugurated three years after the Olympics due to delays in construction). So in 1960 Rome was ready to amaze the world. And it did. The competitions were held in new sports facilities and also in archaeological sites, such as the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of Maxentius, places that reminded us of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece. In fact there was a strong link with the ancient times, because when Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, there were sports competitions taken by the Greeks. At least until 393 AD, when Emperor Theodosius decided with an edict to interrupt the Games in Rome.

Besides the "great beauty" of the scenario, the Roman Olympic Games, whose organizing committee had been entrusted to a young politician who in the next 40 years would become the most important Italian statesman, Giulio Andreotti, is today still remembered for its humanity, social sense and for some great athletes.

This edition has been called "the last Olympic Games with a human face", because after the one in Rome the event began to become more of a business than a sporting celebration of the people and the restrictions for athletes became more and more important, up to the very recent prohibition of the use of social before and during the event. What contributed to the humanity of the Roman Olympics was the intuition (never repeated) to create an Olympic village open to the city. In the Flaminio district, near the stadium and the sports hall, was built the village where athletes and coaches would live. The athletes were free to walk around the village and the city, just as the Romans could enter the village and meet the athletes, talk to them, watch them train. The city and the citizens experienced the Olympic Games together with the protagonists, as never before and never again in the following editions.

The 1960 Rome Games were also the first to give impetus to the Paralympics. In previous editions, the competitions reserved for the disabled athletes were held in different periods or even in different cities. In Rome, for the first time, disabled athletes competed after the end of the Olympic Games, in the same facilities and in front of a large audience. It was an important signal for the world of disability in general and after 1960 all organizing cities followed the example, until the consecration of the Paralympic movement, arrived in the new millennium.

And then the great protagonists, the athletes, with their extraordinary performances and the "gossip" stories immortalized by the paparazzi in the evening in the central streets of the Eternal City, where they were free to wander around and live an unforgettable experience.

In Rome 1960 was born the legend of world boxing, Muhammad Ali. When he was very young, his name was still Cassius Clay and he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight, already making the world understand that he would become the greatest of all time. And also that of Nino Benvenuti, gold in the middleweight, who became the strongest Italian professional boxer in history challenging the strongest American professional boxers in the 70s.

Athletics, the queen sport of the Olympic Games, was the great protagonist of the Rome 1960 edition. Thirty-two Olympic records and seven world records were broken in the week of competitions. For the first time at the Modern Olympics, since 1896, the men's 100 and 200 meters were won by non-English speaking athletes, with the total collapse of the masters of speed, the Americans. The 100 were won by German Armin Hary, the 200 by Italian Livio Berruti at the end of a race remembered as the most beautiful and elegant in the history of the specialty. Berruti, in addition to his fame for his incredible victory, was also the protagonist of a gossip. He was immortalized hand in hand with Wilma Rudolph, with whom he claimed to have had a relationship during the Games. The young American Rudolph, in Rome, became the "black gazelle" thanks to her victories in the 100, 200 meters and in the 4x100 relay race. An incredible feat for an athlete struck by polio when she was a young girl.

And again the impossible feat of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian soldier unknown by almost anyone before, who won the marathon running barefoot, acclaimed by thousands of Romans along the fascinating path that closed under the Arch of Constantine, at the Colosseum.

For Italy, on a sporting level, it was a triumph with the third place in the final medal table after the Soviet Union and the United States: a result never achieved again. All this contributed to the new modernity of Rome and to the image of Italy, a country reduced to rubble and misery after the Second World War, which after only 15 years showed through television, which began to broadcast the Olympic Games in many countries around the world, as it had managed to rise again.

An extraordinary edition of the Olympic Games, as witnessed by the cinematographic masterpiece of the director Romolo Marcellini, entitled “La Grande Olimpiade” ("The Great Olympic games"), which immortalized the Olympic review. A documentary that was also nominated for an Oscar in 1962. Seeing is believing.