SI Vault
Martin Kane
August 15, 1960
The athletes converge, and despite the inevitable problems the ancient city is ready for a gay and gala show
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August 15, 1960

Olympic Roman Holiday

The athletes converge, and despite the inevitable problems the ancient city is ready for a gay and gala show

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A talent for indignation approaching the sublime is distinctive to the Roman soul. For the past year, as the city of Rome labored like Hercules to clear a path for the 17th modern Olympic Games, its 2 million citizens have picked a precarious way through demolished streets. Accustomed to street songs, vexed Romans have been deafened by the roar of trip hammers. In a city where water is often in short supply they have been deprived of it altogether at inconvenient hours. And they have contemplated with noisy gloom the inscrutable traffic problems of a late summer when something like 15,000 foreign cars will crawl into and about a city that was founded, as tradition has it, 23 years after the first recorded Olympics (776 B.C.) and 2,640 years before the invention of the automobile—to which may be attributed the incompatibility of cars and Rome. They were not made for each other.

"All this for the damned Olympics," fumed an angry Roman, regarding a street of rubble where a new traffic underpass was being built.

"Water for swimming pools and no water for the people!" scoffed an equally angry housewife. A new main in the Aurelia area of Rome had broken, intensifying the city's normal summertime shortage.

Along the tawny Tiber and in Rome's Central Park, the Villa Borghese, magnificent umbrella pines were sacrificed to underpasses. Lovers of urban beauty protested that the character of the city was being undermined.

The new Olympic Highway was slung just behind Vatican City. Communists howled that this was a gross favor to the Vatican, and bourgeois real estate owners squawked that the "natural axis" of the city was being shifted westward for the crass purpose of boosting land values where they did not own land.

But, while Rome grumbled, midsummer drew on, and the time of the Games drew near. Olympic flagpoles were raised over highways into the city. The Olympic Village, capable of housing 7,500 athletes, was opened to admiring view. The handsome Palazzo dello Sport, seating 16,000, was unwrapped. Some of the completed underpasses were testing out just fine. The new Peschiera Aqueduct drew a fresh supply of clear, cool water from the mountains beyond Rome.

As these changes took place the temper of the techy citizenry underwent a happy vicissitude. The sporting spirit began to take over. The Olympic insignia bloomed in cinemas, bars and shops. Bars named Nando and Otello changed to Bar Olimpico and Olimpiade Romana. A restaurant christened dishes after famous athletes. Manufacturers produced a jumble of "Olympic" suitcases, alarm clocks, shoes, cameras, binoculars, dresses, shirts, pants, folding chairs, Thermos flasks and handkerchiefs. The ultimate in deification was an "Olympic" wine.

Many a blasé Roman had planned to get out of town to escape the nuisances of a sudden 100,000 population increase. Now these sophisticates abruptly changed their minds. They decided to stay and enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime show. A government scheme to have state employees take vacations during the Olympics backfired. Instead of hurrying away to rural villas, most employees will remain at home to see the Games.

Traffic was the main problem, since housing accommodations seemed adequate, though hotels were booked solid. With its 400,000 motor vehicles, Rome is thought to have Europe's biggest traffic headache. One Olympic remedy will be elimination of the three-hour noontime siesta, during which Romans always have gone home to lunch, jamming the streets with their cars each way. Now workers will lunch on sandwiches and forgo naps. For the same traffic-easing purpose, staggered shifts of civil service employees will be tried. Wholesale meat' and vegetable markets, ordinarily open until noon, will close by law at 7:30 a.m. After 7 a.m. no trucks may enter the city.

Upsurge in sport

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