While millions of people focus attention on the Summer Olympics unfolding in Beijing, bestselling author David Maraniss -- who wrote the definitive biography of Packers coaching legend Vince Lombardi, "When Pride Still Mattered" -- casts a spotlight on events that took place nearly five decades ago.
In his book, "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World," Maraniss tells the stories of standout athletes like Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph, Cassius Clay and Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila interspersed with sociological, political and historical context that make a fascinating time capsule.
OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Maraniss, a Madison native and Pulitzer Prize winner, just before the 2008 Summer Games to discuss his book and the characters in it.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me about your Madison roots.
David Maraniss: I grew up there. I went to Madison west high school and the university of Wisconsin in the late '60s early ‘70s. I came back 30 years later with my wife, who also grew up there, to research a book on Vietnam in the ‘60s, my book "They Marched into Sunlight."
We lived there for a summer and realized we could go home again. We bought a house there in 2003 and we've spent summers there ever since. It's just great. I love being there.
OMC: In the course of promoting this book, you've been traveling around the country, waking up in a different city each morning and answering many of the same questions over and over again. Do you feel like a presidential candidate?
DM: (laughs) No. The other day, a guy asked me if there were any parallels between the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1960 Miss America Pageant. I had never been asked that one before.
OMC: Were there parallels?
DM: Not that I'm aware of.
OMC: Is it true that the idea for this book came about while you were researching your biography on Roberto Clemente?
DM: It did. I did the book on Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirate, and his first great season was 1960, the year they won the pennant and took the World Series from the Yankees. As I was researching that book, looking through old sports sections from August and September of that year, I kept seeing these amazing names -- Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph, Abebe Bikela, Rafer Johnson, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson -- that drew me too it. When I realized that through those Games in Rome I could illuminate history and sociology at the same time and put together everything I love at the same time, that's when I really dug into it.
OMC: You're known for your biographies on Bill Clinton, Lombardi and Clemente. With all the great characters to choose from in the 1960 Olympics, were you tempted to focus on a single person rather than take a more broad focus?
DM: It was very tempting, you're right. There are probably four or five stories in this book that could have been separate books. What I specialize in and what I love to do is make the reader understand the context of a specific time through the drama of character and action.
In the Vietnam book, I did the same thing. I took stories about soldiers who survived a battle and protestors at the University of Wisconsin and sort of interwove them. I kind of did the same thing here, but in a much less grievous and deathly way than Vietnam.
OMC: Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) went on to become the most famous athlete in the world, but this was his first step into the spotlight, wasn't it?
DM: He was 18 years old. He won the light-heavyweight gold medal. He had the same personality then. This was before he was the most famous person in the world. Teammates on the U.S. team looked at him -- Rafter Johnson said he was kind of the bothersome little brother. He had the same braggadocio then. He was rhyming his words. He was saying he was the greatest. By the second day in the Olympic Village, I think everybody from every country had met him. By the third day, half of them were sick of him.
OMC: You say in the book that the 1960 Summer Olympics marked the passing of one era and the dawning of another. What do you mean by that?
DM: In so many ways, the 1960 Olympics marked a passing of one era and the birth of another. Television, money and doping were bursting onto the scene, changing everything they touched. Old-school notions of amateurism, created by and for upper-class sportsmen, were being challenged as never before. New countries were being born in Africa and Asia, blacks and women were pushing for equal rights. For better and worse, one could see the modern world as we know it today coming into view.
OMC: So much about the Olympics and the way they are presented has changed since 1960. What stories from the current Games will we be talking about 50 years from now?
DM: I think China is fascinating. They're saying this is the Chinese century. Everybody is focused on the Middle East now, but in the long run it's going to be China that we're all going to be dealing with. This, they look at as their introduction into this century. How they handle it with their human rights problems, their horrible pollution and thousands of journalists clanging around in Beijing looking for stories. It could be a disaster, or they could pull it off. That's going to be fascinating.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.