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The Gods on Mount Olympus: Rome 1960 - London 2012

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Message Carlo Ungaro

Rome , August 14, 2012




The Gods on Mount Olympus have been smiling on us over these past two weeks. For me they began smiling over half a century ago, in that distant summer of 1960, when the Olympic games were held in Rome.  At the time  Italy, no longer the  basket case it had been presented as in the immediate post-war years, was beginning to emerge as a political and economic power  in the Democratic world. There is little doubt that the Rome Olympics were instrumental in hastening this process, sometimes known as the "Italian Miracle".

I don't know at what point in their modern history the Olympic games took on the almost frightening dimensions they have today, but the  Olympics of my childhood and youth (London, Helsinki, Melbourne) were boy scout jamborees by comparison, encouraging an extremely low-cost and carefree  public participation to the events.

Some of the  personalities who emerged from the Rome games -- I'm thinking of Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), the late Wilma Rudolph, the Eritrean athlete, Abebe Bikila who won the Marathon running barefoot, and, of course, others -- were amazing phenomena to the Roman public, who adopted them almost as family members, and talked about them for years to come.

In those days Rome -- yes the Rome of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" -- was more of a village than a city, and even if few families had Television sets, news of Italian victories (I'm particularly thinking of the Water Polo team's triumph) were known  before being officially announced because  the roar of the jubilant crowd was audible all  across the town. This, of course, was made possible by the fact that Italians do have what could be called a carrying voice..

In 1960, just as in 2012,  the games were preceded by dire predictions of disaster, while learned and influential  sports writers (almost exclusively  British and American), having openly cast doubts on the ability of the Italians, generally viewed as despicable, or, at best, hapless and inefficient to organize such an important event,   then proceeded gleefully to pounce upon any perceived  organisational mishap, which, with an extraordinary lack of  imagination, would more than once be compared to "tangled Spaghetti".

The "dire predictions" ( here the American press bore  greater responsibility than the British) consisted mainly in the absolute certitude that the Italian Communists, who then had over 30% of the popular vote, would manipulate events, through strikes and public unrest, to create total, unmanageable chaos, perhaps violence.  This was a totally unrealistic assessment, owing more to prejudice than to judgement, since the Soviet Union, who controlled the Italian Communist Party, really wanted to participate in the Olympic games and win as many  medals as possible, sometimes through means which, today, would certainly raise eyebrows. It has to be recalled that at that time the Soviet Union seemed on the ascendant, even ahead of its American  rivals in the Space Race, with Gagarin's  historic flight only a few months in the future. There was, therefore, no social or political unrest, even though Italian governments (as was usual in those halcyon days) kept falling and being  formed all over again, arousing new, unfounded, fears of "political instability". The desire, for the Communists, to appear as "good guys" was such that even the two Germanys, Federal Republic and Democratic Republic, presented a unified team, and one of their protagonists, Armin Hary,   won the 100 metre sprint to great acclaim,  failing, however, in his attempt to beat the 10 second barrier. He still became one of the heroes and was greatly admired by the public.

Some things are difficult to say without appearing to be levelling totally unfounded accusations to the present-day organisers, but the last Olympics to be held before World War Two were hosted by National Socialist Germany. The desire to think big, to astound the populace and the world at large was one of the trademarks of this event, and that is perhaps why the succeeding, post-war,  versions were held in much lower key. The need to astonish and overwhelm the public has however, returned and will certainly shape the Olympic games of the future, perhaps even  leading some of the Host countries to bankruptcy (as, apparently, happened to Greece in 2004).

I don't think that Heracles and his peers on Mount Olympus could really recognize themselves in these gigantic, sponsor driven, media fests. Perhaps, instead, they felt more relaxed and appreciative as they -- the creators of the Olympic idea -- watched a bare-foot Eritrean run to victory in the Rome Marathon.


Carlo Ungaro

Via Campagnano 51

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).
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