At the same time that the tumultuous civil rights era divided America, the rise of African-American athletes riveted the nation – and the world. Decathlete Rafer Johnson not only captured the gold medal in Rome, he became the first minority to carry the American flag during the opening ceremonies, leading the US team into competition on a global stage.
Johnson’s regal presence was at least matched, if not surpassed, by a small-town Tennessee sprinter named Wilma Rudolph. Part of a superb collection of runners at tiny Tennessee State, Rudolph and her teammates thrived despite the hurdles of racism and sexism that loomed over the Olympics in 1960. Rudolph captured the imagination of Italy with gold-medal runs in the 100- and 200-meter races, while anchoring the gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team.
For readers too young to have seen her compete, Maraniss’s account serves as a worthy reminder of why Rudolph’s runs were remarkable beyond sheer athletic achievement. Rudolph was part of an extended family of 22 children. As a child, she suffered from polio. She was discovered when her future Olympic coach happened to referee one of her high school basketball games.
Another inspirational figure was Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, the marathoner who ran barefoot through the streets of Rome and set a world record. That he did it running through the capital city of the country that had twice invaded his homeland, Maraniss writes, offered an overwhelming sense of poetic justice.