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'Rome 1960': An Olympic Turning Point

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

On the surface, the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome were a triumphant spectacle of a world united in sport and a delightfully stirring nod to the region's classical history. But behind the banners, the Rome games seethed with sociopolitical turmoil and ideological agendas.

Best-selling author David Maraniss makes a case in his latest book's title: Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World. He argues that the games' intrigue, anguish and triumphs marked a crucial evolution in an era wracked by the Cold War, post-colonial politics and the struggle against racial discrimination.

Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, has also written biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi. He's a marvelous storyteller and a deft handler of politics and sports alike. But you needn't care about either topic to fall in love with characters like Rafer Johnson, the first African-American captain of the U.S. Olympic team. Johnson's appearance bearing the flag sent shock waves through his own country, and Maraniss' detailed reporting brings you as close to the heart of the man as you're likely to get without meeting him.

The same could be said of David Sime, a red-headed Duke University sprinter recruited by the CIA to entice a Russian dissident athlete into defecting. Or the teenage Cassius Clay, who became an instant icon even before taking a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division, and who would, within a few years, take the name Muhammed Ali.

It's true, as some critics have pointed out, that Maraniss' tale relies largely on the stories of American athletes and centers mostly on the big-ticket sports. But his history resonates as the world readies itself once again for a display of strength and nationalism, and continues to hope for change.

This reading of Rome 1960 took place in July 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.