The first big American cheer of the Games echoed off the velvet Roman sky when it was announced that the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team had broken the world record. It was set, to be sure, only in a qualifying round, but it was set by a reserve team and this boded well for later swimming events, individual as well as relay.
Swimming and diving dominated the first few days of the Games, just as track and field will dominate the closing days. But all over the playing fields of Rome, at Lake Albano and on the Bay of Naples athletes competed and trained for later contests, many of them in sports that America does not regard highly but Europeans and Asians prize.
There was, for instance, the dedicated little band of U.S. water-poloists. Its members are determined to raise the level of a sport that has only a score of clubs in the U.S. against 400 in Hungary, say, where a water polo star is a national hero. The U.S. team is made up of young fellows who sacrificed jobs in various parts of the country to take up others in Los Angeles so that they might train together as a team. They were beaten by Hungary's defending champions in their opening match, but they put up a fine battle. Then they astonished the sport's expert observers by beating the French and the Belgians—an achievement that kept the U.S. in the running.
There were the modern pentathletes, who simulate military couriers trained to carry messages through to an objective by skill in riding, fencing, shooting, swimming and cross-country running. They were engaged in a hassle that, in their small world, resounded almost as loudly as the Devitt-Larson dispute in swimming. It seems that the 4,700-meter, 25-obstacle course, run in gasping hot weather on the grounds of Italy's Cavalry School 21 miles northeast of Rome, was much too easy. First of the pentathlon events, the riding, left Russia and Hungary in comfortable spots from which to strike for team victory. By placing sixth and fifth they gave little away to the then fourth-place U.S., and jumped off ahead of the best of their other rivals, the Swedes (eighth) and the Finns (13th).
Lieut. George Lambert of Sioux City, who took fifth place individually in the Melbourne pentathlon, complained that the riding course was clearly designed to "flatten out the standings."
"They made it very fast and very-easy," he said. "Where you placed depended more on the horse than on the rider, and I didn't like that. We consider ourselves very good riders. We work hard at it. But they took the horsemanship out of it this time."
Nevertheless, Lambert gave his horse a thoughtful ride Friday. He spent most of the morning in a sweat suit to shed weight. By noon he had lost five pounds and was down to 176. His ride helped give the U.S. 3,228 points, behind Mexico's 3,393, Argentina's 3,369 and Poland's 3,315. After the weekend, with a strong showing in fencing and shooting, the U.S. was in second place, only 104 points behind Hungary's 8,314, and Russia was in fifth.
In the more familiar world of basketball, the U.S. team roared off to easy decisions over Japan, Italy and Hungary, while Brazil hustled the strong Russian team off the Palazzetto dello Sport court with a surprising 58-54 victory.
In most phases of the early Games, however, the U.S. was doing, as expected, less than well. Greco-Roman wrestling is not the American dish of tea. When an American gets into a canoe he usually takes along a girl and a six-pack. But in track and field, reserved for the closing days of the Games, U.S. partisans saw their best hope of a cluster of medals. Their opponents saw it much the same way and scouted them accordingly.
The U.S. track team arrived in Rome from Bern after a 13-hour hot train ride. Tired and listless, they recovered both spirits and form in a few days. Al Oerter, defending champion in the discus, had two practice throws over the world record of 196 feet 6� inches, reaching 200 in the first throw, 203 in the second. Bill Alley, world record holder in the javelin, had trouble adjusting to the mandatory Olympic javelin but learned by watching Janusz Sidlo, the very good Polish thrower, at Bern.