The XVII modern Olympic Games began this week in a setting of unparalleled magnificence. American athletes, accustomed to the prosaically designed arenas and stadiums of their homeland and to facilities that are primitive by comparison, were awed and delighted by the spacious new stadiums and natatoriums the Romans have provided and by the immortal grandeur of ancient installations, like the Baths of Caracalla, that Rome had the wit and artistry to convert to the uses of modern sport.
Thus inspired, the U.S. swimming team, which preceded the track and field athletes to Rome, casually broke world records in practice, astonishing its coaches not so much by the fact of the records as by the ease with which they were made. Something of Rome's relaxed approach to life may have infected the athletes, but they were assisted, too, by physical conditions beyond their expectations. Brilliant sunshine by day and cool breezes by night, along with excellent food and accommodations at the Olympic Village, soon resolved all early doubts of a high-strung, spirited group.
Before the competition began there was Olympian camaraderie. Until lights out at 11 o'clock, the village recreation center bounced to recorded American jazz, and every kind of athlete from an Indian javelin thrower to a Russian weight lifter bounced with it. The jitterbugs of the world had united.
The only sour note of any consequence lay in a threat of weather. At this time of year the sirocco blasts up from Africa through Rome, sometimes with a force of as much as 20 desiccating knots. If it should spring up during the track events, some anticipated record performances may be prevented and some may be disallowed by officials. But otherwise all was serene.
There was precious little of the bickering that has marred other Games, although the Russians have charged from Moscow that the Western nations were planning unspecified "provocative" activities. This seemed to indicate some Communist worry that Iron Curtain athletes might defect as they did at Melbourne. They also complained a bit because the U.S. Olympic Committee planned to hand Russian athletes a pamphlet, printed in Russian, that answers questions about the American way of life.
In Rome, to be sure, the Russians were employing U-2 tactics, but no one minded too much. Their women's diving coach not only took movies of each American woman's practice dives but meticulously scored each performance as well.
"She even scores us when we fall off the board by accident," said Paula Jean Myers Pope, who is the U.S. No. 1 hope from both the three-meter springboard and the 10-meter tower.
Moderately irked by the Russian observers, Coach George Haines gave them something to ponder. After sending his girls through the usual fast 50-meter sprints, he put five of them up on the Stadio del Nuoto starting blocks.
"O.K., let's fool them," he ordered. "Go all-out, but stop at 25 meters, then turn around and come back side-stroke."
The girls clowned solemnly through the routine and the Russian observers grimly took notes.