SI Vault
Martin Kane
September 05, 1960
As the Olympics began, good will flourished amid awesome pageantry, but a flap was just hours away
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September 05, 1960

Splendor And Spleen

As the Olympics began, good will flourished amid awesome pageantry, but a flap was just hours away

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In the classic canoeing event, the men's 1,000-meter kayak singles, the aging Swedish champion, 40-year-old Gert Fredriksson, finally fell before younger opponents after winning three successive Olympic titles. Erik Hansen of Denmark and Imre Szollosi of Hungary—both half his age-beat Fredriksson, Hansen winning and Szollosi placing second.

Dramatic as the Games were, they hardly surpassed the spectacle that preceded them. On the evening before they opened, the athletes of the world, including a handful of presumably AWOL but curious Russians in sweat suits, were received in public audience by Pope John XXIII. An uncountable multitude, the largest some experienced Romans could remember, filled the vast St. Peter's Square to hear the Pope's welcome—one of the rare papal declarations on sport and one in which he used an expression pagan Romans used to know, mens sana in corpore sano. Then after interminable translations of his words into a variety of tongues Pope John walked through the crowd, smiling and waving at the athletes as the representatives of all races and nationalities were pointed out to him. He walked because he does not favor the sedan chairs of his predecessors or, for that matter, most of the ceremonial trappings that have become traditional. The American colony in Rome refers to him affectionately as " Johnnie Walker."

A few hours later the Olympic torch, lighted by the sun in Olympia two weeks before and carried to Rome on foot for the most part, arrived in the square before the Campidoglio—a square so jammed that no corn survived untrampled. There were pickpockets, fainting women and a pathetic liver-spotted dog of uncertain breeding but excellent manners which had somehow got caught up in the mess and accepted his fate with commendable resignation. There was a speech by the mayor of Rome ("He cannot speak, but he will," a Roman explained). The torch arrived in the hands of a runner who was pushed forward through the mob by insistent Italian police, all in excellent voice. Thus urged, the runner used the threat of his firebrand to clear his own path. A green brazier atop the high Campidoglio steps caught the flame like a balky cigarette lighter and flickered over the noble head of a bronze Marcus Aurelius in the square below.

The ultimate pre-Games ceremony, the formal opening, came next evening in the Stadio Olimpico, a construction of such delicately conceived architecture that it gives little impression of mass and raises doubt in the minds of cynics that it can really seat 100,000. But it was filled, and the crowd that filled it paid 170,014,000 lire to get in; This sum ($272,016) was announced as "the absolute record" for the stadium. The Games, indeed, will set a record for Olympic ticket sales. Before the competition started it was announced that $4,500,000 worth had been sold out of a possible $6,400,000. At Helsinki in 1952 the gate was $2,800,000, and four years ago at Melbourne the final figure was $2,500,000.

Spectacle-loving Romans were enthralled by the parade of athletes; and the athletes, many equipped with cameras, were enthralled, too. They broke ranks to shoot each other and the final torch-bearer, a Roman student runner named Gian-Carlo Peris, who gracefully ran up the 92 steps to the top of the stadium's eastern wall as if he had never heard of elevators. Before the parade began there was a ludicrous moment, the inspiration of a young fellow in Bermuda shorts who, with this crude simulation of a racing costume, burst onto the track and ran around it. He breasted an imaginary tape and then escaped into the crowd before the Italian police could decide that something irregular was going on. He was instantly assumed to be an American jerk, but his nationality was not actually established. He could have been an English, or French, or German jerk.

The parade was a study in national tastes in dress and ran a gorgeous gamut. The Russians bulked muscularly in blue single-buttoned suits that suggested something you might see at a lawn party given by Khrushchev. Their leader, a peerless type, bodaciously carried the flag with just one hand, a feat of strength that was awesomely ostentatious. The Bermudians wore shorts, naturally. The Cubans were oddly clean-shaven, not a Castro beard in the lot. The Liberians were grand in gold-braided fezzes, bright red jackets and white pants. The Pakistanis bloomed in plumed white turbans and green jackets. The Americans, led by Rafer Johnson as flag bearer, marched in blue jackets and white pants, but they topped these sensible garments with raucous straw hats that could be described as drunken sailors.

When these men and women, representing all the races of the world, lined up on the green Stadio playing field, humanity's most successful binding force, the love of sport, took over. Anyone who ever kicked a ball or swung a bat or placed a bet with a candy-store bookie must have been impressed by the sight. It brought to mind that man is an animal who likes to test himself to the utmost and in so doing has raised himself now almost to the stars, a fact brought home by the sight of Echo flying through the Roman sky.

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