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'Rome 1960': birth of a new era

Ideals clashed with reality in the 1960 Olympic Games.

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It was an American election year marked by a presidential candidacy defined by change and breaking barriers.
It was also an Olympic year that came during a time when it seemed clear one era was dying and another was being born. Performance-enhancing drugs cast a shadow, while human rights debates and the role of China in international athletics posed thorny questions.

That description fits 2008, but, in this case, the references are to 1960, when a young Roman Catholic named John Kennedy vied for the presidency and the Summer Olympics in Rome heralded the dawn of a new age.

During the course of 17 days in Italy, a Danish cyclist dropped dead during competition, felled by a combination of heatstroke and amphetamines; South Africa colluded with the International Olympic Committee to extend apartheid to the country’s national team, only to be rebuked by Olympic officials soon after the Games ended; and China was infuriated by the independent team from Taiwan, known as Formosa.

These groundbreaking events – and the people who played roles large and small in them – are explored in Rome 1960, David Maraniss’s marvelous account of the interminable clash between Olympian ideals and pragmatic reality.

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