1960 — The Rome Olympics and the Modern Games

The modern Olympic Games are barely a century old, but even within that relatively brief span the games have been transformed. Along the way, notions of athletic achievement, nationalism, individual rights, patriotism, gender, and race have been transformed as well.

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, takes us back to the 1960 Olympics where so many of these changes began in Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (Simon and Schuster). Those games started just one week after the espionage trial of Francis Gary Powers ended with his conviction in Moscow. The Cold War was at its height and the old order of the colonial age was breaking up. New ideals of individualism and new ideas of the role of sports in the culture and the economy were coming to the fore. All of these changes were on stage in Rome as the Olympic Games began.

Maraniss offers here a book that surprised me at many turns, and I found that reading Rome 1960 was a good way to watch the current games in Beijing with greater insight. As Maraniss argues, the shape of the modern games as we know them now was “coming into view” in Rome.

An excerpt:

Television, money, and drugs were bursting onto the scene, altering everything they touched. Old-boy notions of pristine amateurism, created by and for upper-class sportsmen, were crumbling in Rome and could never be taken seriously again. Rome brought the first commercially broadcast Summer Games, the first doping scandal, the first runner paid for wearing a certain brand of track shoes. New nations and constituencies were being heard from, with increasing pressure to provide equal rights for blacks and women as they emerged from generations of discrimination and condescension.

The singular essence of the Olympic Games is that the world takes the same stage at the same time, performing a passion play of nations, races, ideologies, talents, styles, and aspirations that no other venue, not even the United Nations, can match. The 1960 Games came during a notably anxious period in cold war history; almost every action in Rome was viewed through the political lens of those tense times.

Child’s Play? A History

Howard P. Chudacoff has done what someone needed to do — write a history of children’s play.  In Children at Play: An American History, Chudacoff, who teaches at Brown University, traces how play has changed over time.  These changes reflect everything from the development of new technologies to big shifts in the understanding of childhood itself.

The fact is that children will play.  As Chudacoff remarks, “Kids still find ways to be kids.”  In the colonial era, children were more likely to be involved in “roving about” the outdoors and improvising games.  Later generations of parents encouraged more formal play and childhood itself was more celebrated.  Over time, play would be transformed by efforts to keep young boys off the streets, to teach adult roles through gender-specific play, and to free the natural creativity of the child.

More recently, play has been redefined by the development of technologies like computer games, by concerns about gender and child safety, and by changes in family structure and parenting.  The book is thought-provoking and insightful.

This excerpt suggests how changes in family life lead to changes in play — and in the relationships between parents and children:

In the twentieth century, two related forces converged to alter the playtime of preadolescents in significant ways.  Fist, the extension of compulsory schooling filled much of all children’s daytime hours, regardless of social class, incidentally strengthening peer cultures that increasingly socialized young people in play choices.  A partial reduction in a child’s family responsibilities, resulting in part from smaller family size and the spread of labor-saving electric appliances, helped create time after school and in the evening during which youngsters could interact with their peer group or play alone with a new cornucopia of commercial playthings.  And during the first half of the century, at least, this playtime often took place away from adult supervision in private bedrooms and other secluded areas of the home.