David Maraniss Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

David Maraniss
Author photograph by Lisa Berg

David Maraniss

An interview with David Maraniss

David Maraniss discusses his 2008 book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World.

What is especially compelling about the 1960 Summer Olympics?

What attracted me to Rome, what made it special in my mind, was the uncommon combination of legendary athletes, the tension of the cold war, the beauty of the setting, and the issues that arose during the 18 days of competition. With the entire world on the same stage at the same time, I saw the opportunity to weave the drama on the playing fields with the political and cultural issues that were emerging then.


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?

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.


The Berlin, Munich or Mexico City Summer Olympics were arguably more controversial or meaningful than Rome. Why should people care about Rome?

Berlin was the Nazi Olympics. Mexico City was the black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Munich was the terrorist tragedy of the slain Israelis. All important events that transcended sports. But all defined by that one event. What was so powerful about Rome was the totality of it. It was a richer canvas, with more stories, more changes, more ways of looking at the modern world, than any of those others. It had not only more issues, but more compelling characters.


How did you get the idea to write this book?

The idea came to me as I was researching my last book, on the baseball player Roberto Clemente. An important stretch in Clemente's career was the late summer and early fall of 1960, when his Pittsburgh Pirates were on their way to winning the National League pennant and the World Series. As I was scouring old newspaper sports sections from that time, looking for stories on Clemente, I kept seeing these amazing names – Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson – all athletes who were competing at the Rome Olympics. My first thought was that I did not want to write another sports book, at least not then. But I could not shake the magic of those names, and that forced me to take a closer look at the Rome Olympics, and the more I looked, the more I realized that along with the athletic drama there was a much deeper story there.


Do you need to be a big sports fan to enjoy this book?

As I'm finishing a manuscript, I make a point of giving it to a) experts who can check facts and catch errors, b) sports fans who have a keen interest in the subject, and c) someone who knows nothing about the subject and has little or no interest in sports. If I have done my job right, the book can appeal to all three. I want to write it so that people who love the sport think I got it right, but also in a way that draws people to the characters and the history.


The book focuses on some well-known athletes like Wilma Rudolph, Cassius Clay and Rafer Johnson, but also on some lesser-known Olympians. Who are some of your favorite characters in the book?

Along with the legendary figures who competed in Rome, the book teems with other characters. One of my favorites is Ed Temple, who was the coach of Wilma Rudolph and her Tigerbelles. Temple still lives in Nashville not far from the campus, and is a great storyteller with a lively sense of humor, so his memories of Rome help bring it alive. He worked without scholarships, without his own office, and from the threadbare facilities at little Tennessee State built a powerhouse women's track team that changed history. I also love the story of Dave Sime, a medical student at Duke who lost a photo-finish in the 100-meter dash and had been recruited by the CIA to try to get a Soviet athlete to defect in Rome. And then there is Joe Faust, who finished 16th in the high jump, whom I used as a typical athlete – most don't come close to winning – but an uncommon human being. When I tracked him down at his little adobe house on the edge of L.A., he still had an old mattress in his backyard that was part of his makeshift high-jump pit.


Of the major characters, who did you come to admire the most and why?

Hard to choose. I admired Wilma Rudolph for the courage she showed upon returning from Rome and insisting that her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, not hold a banquet for her unless it was integrated, the first of its kind in that city. I admired Abebe Bikila for the sheer courage of running the marathon through the streets of Rome barefooted, and for doing it in the capital city of a country, Italy, that had invaded his Ethiopian homeland a few decades earlier. I admired Rafer Johnson perhaps most of all, just for his integrity as a human being. Cassius Clay was the same then, in 1960, at age 18, as he would later be as the world-renowned Muhammad Ali, the same personality at least; his larger meaning was not there yet.


Rafer Johnson is on the cover of the book and gets more attention in the book than Cassius Clay. Do you think Johnson is underappreciated?

Rafer Johnson is one of the most underappreciated athletes in American sports history. He was the best of his era, the most revered athlete in Rome, and a human being of intelligence and integrity. I am delighted to have the chance to try to give him his due.


As a writer, you're known more for your work in the political realm than in sports. Why have you written books about Vince Lombardi, Roberto Clemente and now the Olympics?

I love sports, just as I love politics; but I am no more interested in writing a one-dimensional sports book than I am in writing a one-dimensional book about a political campaign. In each of my three sports books, in different ways, I saw a chance to write not just about sports, but about deeper subjects. With Lombardi it was the mythology of success and the role of competition in American life. With Clemente it was not just a dramatic story but a way to write about the rise of Latinos and the roles of race and language in our culture. In some sense, Rome 1960 represents the culmination of my work, combining all the themes of sports, politics, culture and sociology that interest me. In this book, too, there is a dramatic story on the playing fields, but so much more surrounding the Games.


Tell us a little about how you went about researching this book. How many people did you interview? How much travel was involved? Where did you find the best material?

My first rule in writing books is: Go there. Wherever there is. This meant going to Rome and revisiting the sites of the Games, including a memorable day tracing the route of the marathon through the ancient streets of the Eternal City.  It was much easier to ask my wife to go to Rome than to persuade her to move to Green Bay for the winter to start the research on the Lombardi book. My second focus is on primary research – documents and interviews. My search for primary documents took me not only to Rome, but also to the National Archives at College Park, the IOC archive in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Avery Brundage archive at the University of Illinois (Brundage was IOC president in 1960), and the LA84 Foundation archive in Los Angeles, among others. I also interviewed scores of athletes, journalists and others who were in Rome for the Olympics, most from the U.S. but some from Italy, Germany and the USSR.


Do you have any writing superstitions? What's your daily routine like when you're writing a book?

No superstitions. I'm lucky that I've never suffered from writer's block. I tend to write in the morning, take a break to read, maybe exercise, then write some more until lunch break. I don't have a daily goal, but a weekly one. Some days I can write only a few paragraphs. One day and night I wrote the entire ice bowl chapter for “When Pride Still Mattered.” I often stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph where I know exactly what comes next, so I don't have to worry about where I will pick it up.


Have you always been interested in the Olympics? What are your first memories of the Olympics?

I loved the Olympics as a kid, and it is fitting that my first memories are of the 1960 Rome Games, since those were the first ones televised. I remember the decathlon contest between Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang, and I remember the wonder of Wilma Rudolph; but my strongest memory, for some odd reason – you can never fully explain what strikes your fancy as a kid – is of the field hockey match between India and Pakistan. I was rooting for Pakistan, why I cannot say, and when they won, 1-0, I remember dancing around my living room shouting “Ya-hoo! Ya-hoo! Pak-i-stan! Pak-i-stan!” mimicking the celebration I saw on TV.


Were you surprised that issues we think of as “modern” (performance-enhancing drugs, television, celebrity, sponsorships, racial and gender equality, etc.) were so central to the story of the 1960 Summer Olympics?

Yes, at first. But the more I looked, the more I saw how much of the present you could trace back to those days in Rome. That connection is what compelled me to do the book.


Your biographies inherently focus on one character. This book deals with many characters. What challenges does that pose?

The comfort of writing a biography is that a life provides you with a natural chronology, a skeleton around which the flesh of the book can form. This story was more challenging in that sense. But I used the place, Rome, and the time, 18 days, to give the story a chronological coherence. The challenge was to bring so many characters onto the stage and not make it too much, too complicated. But I look forward to challenges in writing my books, and I had dealt with that same challenge once before in “They Marched Into Sunlight,” my book on Vietnam and the ‘60s.


Do the Olympics actually represent any sort of ideal (then or now) for mankind, or is it just another sporting event?

I'm of mixed minds about that question. Any event that brings the entire world together in a peaceful way hints at the ideal of world peace and cooperation. And in 1960 as today, athletes can build personal friendships from sports competitions that transcend the tensions between the nations they represent. But the notion that the Olympics is free from politics was untrue in 1960 and is equally unattainable today.


Is the city of Rome a central character in this book, or could this story have taken place anywhere?

Rome adds a certain poignancy to the story, I think. The Olympic organizers made good use of the ancient city – wrestling and gymnastics were held outdoors amid the ruins; the marathon began at the Capitoline steps and ended at the Arch of Constantine. But beyond that, the sensibility of the Rome Games' representing a turning point in history was enhanced by the literal golden glow of those days.


What's your favorite piece of trivia you picked up while researching this book?

That the only athlete representing Surinam either overslept or was told the wrong time and missed his only race, an 800-meter heat. Poor guy.


Both of your parents were writers and editors. What influence did they have on your writing style?


My parents, Elliott and Mary Maraniss, were enormous influences in my writing. Both were professionals, my father as a newspaperman, my mother as a book editor. Though my mother was skilled in grammar, and was my best copyeditor, both she and my father emphasized that the most important rule in writing was to follow your ear. What sounded best was usually the right way to go, even if that meant breaking some picky grammatical rules. My father had an easy, natural style that was both intelligent and accessible.


You dedicated this book to your wife and mentioned that she travels with you when you research your books. What's it like to have her by your side?

Linda is invaluable. She is my nose, since I lost most of my sense of smell. She is my eyes, taking pictures and videos on all our trips. She helps find documents and photocopies materials with me. Wherever we go on our research trips, she makes more friends than I do and keeps up with people from around the world that we've met. I couldn't do any of it without her. Writing books can be a lonely process, but having her as a partner makes it much less so.


What do you enjoy most about the process of touring the country talking about your book?

I consider it an honor to explain a book to which I've devoted so much of my life. I love the stories I hear from people who have some personal connection to the events of the book. I also enjoy getting the time to talk about the book in depth.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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