David Maraniss, who speaks at the LoDo Tattered Cover on Thursday, July 31 (click here to learn more), is a staffer and Pulitzer Prize winner who’s penned some acclaimed political books, including First In His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton. But in recent years, he’s also established his reputation as an excellent writer of sports tomes – among them, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi and Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. In his new offering, Rome 1960, he combines these passions, examining the summer Olympics that took place on the fields of the Eternal City nearly half a century ago from an athletic perspective even as he puts the events into the context of historical developments before and after. He explains how in the extended Q&A below.
Maraniss details the factors that led him to write about Lombardi, his first sports-bio subject; the ways in which his research about the late Roberto Clemente led him to Rome; the moment from those games he most remembers from his youth; his fascination with characters such as decathlete Rafer Johnson, runner Wilma Rudolph, marathoner Abebe Bikila and Olympics overseer Avery Brundage; his reasons for not interviewing Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) about his Olympic experiences; the little-known death of a Danish cyclist that prefigured doping scandals in subsequent decades; his discoveries of unlikely athletes such as David Sime, a runner who was asked by intelligence agents to help convince Russian long-jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan to defect, and Joe Faust, a high jumper who was still obsessed with clearing the bar in his sixties; other key characters, like Ed Temple, coach of the Tigerbelles, a squad of runners from which Rudolph sprang; his conversations with Jim McKay, Dick Schaap and David Halberstam, three media members who’ve since passed away; the differences between the primitive TV coverage in Rome and the all-encompassing approach used today; and his sense about what will be left of organizations like his beloved Post given the current decline in newspapering.
Lucky thing he’s got other ways to make a living.
Westword (Michael Roberts): When you first asked your wife how she’d feel about spending an extended stretch in Green Bay, did you have any idea that a decade-plus later, you’d still be writing books about sports?
David Maraniss: Absolutely not. When I got into the Lombardi book, it was a combination of things that attracted me to his story – both the fact that I grew up in Wisconsin and loved the Packers, but more than that, it had to do with what I saw in Lombardi as a way to write about the mythology of competition and success in American life. Without trying to disparage the whole notion of sportswriting – I’m not, I love sports – but in my books, I was always looking for something more than that. And I found that sports was a great lens through which to view so many of the things I love to write about, and using the drama of athletic events to sort of illuminate sociology and culture and history. With all three, I had that in mind. I’m not going to write a book about Woody Hayes or Mike Shanahan or any other coach. It was Lombardi in particular that drew me to that story. And it was similar with Clemente. I don’t think I’ll write another baseball book. Again, Clemente had a special resonance for me when I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin. He was my favorite player; I thought he was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. But beyond that, as an author, I saw him as a way to write about a lot of important themes in American life: the role of race and language, the rise of Latinos. It was that story that drew me to Clemente.
WW: Similarly, in Rome 1960, you’ve got a lot of material that goes well beyond athletic competition…
DM: Absolutely. The truth is, I sort of backed into this book. I was researching the Clemente book, and his first great year was 1960, when the Pirates won the pennant and then defeated the Yankees in the World Series. And as I was combing through old sports sections from around the country from August and September of 1960, I kept coming across these amazing names: Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson, Abebe Bikila. But I said to myself, I’m not sure if I want to do another sports book right now. And it was only after I saw that through those Olympics and through those characters and events, again I could write about history and sociology and culture without stretching it, because they all really did weave right through those Olympics, that’s when I got excited. And to some degree, this book is kind of a culmination of everything I love. Because it does have wonderful characters, I think, and good sports drama, plus history, sociology and culture.
WW: Have you found in writing the three books we’re talking about than when dealing with those latter topics – the political subjects, the sociological subjects – you can get at them in a way that might seem more subtle, and less didactic, than if you came at them head on?
DM: I hope so. What I don’t want to do is sort of impose a political context on a sporting event that doesn’t have it. Or anything where the outside context isn’t really part of the story itself. I try to be conscious not to make it a false context, and with these Olympics – and with any Olympics, I think, honestly – you can’t separate the politics and everything that’s swirling around them from the athletic events. I just sort of realized that every four years, you have the whole world in one place at the same time, and it’s bound to be a fascinating way to take a snapshot of the world at that moment.
WW: Is another one of the reasons the Rome Olympics appealed to you is because you have strong memories of following some of the figures you mentioned earlier in your youth?
DM: I would say “yes” to that. I do have memories of those Olympics. I was eleven years old, but my memory is really an odd one. My strongest memory is being in my living room watching the end of the Pakistani-India field hockey game and watching the Pakistanis huddled together in a celebratory group and sort of jumping up and down and chanting “Ya-hoo, Ya-hoo, Paki-stan!” And I was just an impressionable eleven-year old in Wisconsin, and I started dancing around my living room chanting for Pakistan, about which I knew nothing (laughs). But it just seemed like it was kind of a cool thing. So that is my strongest memory. My other memories are of Wilma Rudolph and Rafer Johnson and a little bit of Cassius Clay. You know, there’s kind of a tendency to think of Cassius Clay as the dominant athlete of those Olympics, because he became the most famous athlete in the world. But he wasn’t then. He was just an eighteen-year old kid. So I sort of remember him, and I didn’t want to make more of him in the book than he was at that moment. He had the same personality that he would have later, but not the meaning behind it yet.
WW: Did you get a chance to speak to him for this book?
DM: Not for this book. I interviewed him for a long story I did for the Washington Post about ten years ago, and I discovered then that as a non-fiction writer, you don’t really interview Muhammad Ali. Even when he was completely at the top of his mental game, which he now longer is because of Parkinson’s – even then, he was a storyteller. He wasn’t a reliable narrator of facts. You don’t really interview him. You listen to him tell stories, some of which are true and some of which are just entertainment. So what I did for him in this case was I interviewed the other boxers on the team – his teammates, who remembered him in Rome. But he is beyond the point of actually getting a worthwhile interview out of, for my purposes. If you’re just doing an interview for television, or to entertain, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to write a chronological narrative book woven from facts, he’s not of much help.
WW: The passages about him in the book certainly put him in a different perspective, as you suggest. It’s actually quite refreshing at this point, after so many laudatory portrayals, to have people say, “When I first met him, I thought he was a jerk.”
DM: (Laughs.) Everyone I interviewed about Clay thought of him as that obstreperous little brother type. They’d roll their eyes when he came around, because he was always yapping, always boasting about himself. Entertaining, telling stories, wanting to meet everybody in the village. It seemed like everyone knew him after about two days, and after about three days, about half the people in the village were sick of him (laughs). But not in a mean way. He wasn’t a villain of any sort. He was just a little much.
WW: At what point did you discover the doping angle you share in the book and trace to the present day? [Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed during a race and died several hours later. As Maraniss writes, “a drug designed to intensify blood circulation might have led to his death.”]
DM: I knew nothing about that when I started the book, and early in the research just sort of came across it. A little bit of it was in the papers of that moment, because it’s not every Olympics when an athlete actually dies. But it wasn’t clear then that it was doping. It came out later from the Danish trainer that he’d administered this doping drug. And then I went through the Olympic files in Switzerland – their headquarters. There’s a pretty good archive on doping, and I got material from that. But until I started this book, I had no idea that the World Anti-Doping Agency and all of the blood testing that followed started with that moment in Rome.
WW: Your previous sports books concentrated on a single figure, and while you certainly spread out from there, you had a central focus. With Rome, the canvas was much more sprawling. Was that one of the appeals of the book for you? That it presented a different kind of narrative challenge?
DM: Absolutely. I had done it once before. I’ve written a book about Vietnam in the ‘60s called They Marched Into Sunlight. That has a pretty sprawling cast of characters, too. It’s built around a battle in Vietnam and a protest in the United States that occurred in the same two days. So I’d done it once before in a very different context with a sort of psychologically more profound but also draining process for me to deal with all of those Vietnam vets who’d endured so much. In any case, I found that book to be the most rewarding that I’d done, and when I started piecing together the ideas for Rome, I realized that this would be a similar challenge without the death and sadness of the Vietnam book. And that appealed to me. I’m a pretty conventional reporter and writer in the sense that I believe in doing the research and telling the story and trying to get out of the way. Obviously I have my own sensibility, but I try not to hit you over the head with that, and just tell the story. This was a more complicated story to put together, and that was a challenge I wanted.
WW: I suspect you knew from the beginning that you’d have major passages devoted to the stories of Rafer Johnson and Cassius Clay and Wilma Rudolph and Avery Brundage. But how early on did you realize the importance of, say, Dave Sime or Ed Temple?
DM: Not early. But by the time I went down to interview Dave Sime, I knew there was a Soviet athlete who had been very Westernized, and we were talking, and all of a sudden, he just said, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but there was a Soviet athlete they recruited me to try to get to defect.” And luckily, I’d done enough research about the Soviets. He said, “I don’t feel comfortable telling you who it was,” and I blurted out, “Was it Igor Ter-Ovanesyan?” And he said, “Yes. How’d you know?” And it sort of evolved from there. He trusted me and told me the whole story, and with the help of an interpreter, I reached Igor Ter-Ovanesyan and went through the story with him and confirmed it all. That really came together during the research process – not something I went into the book expecting to be one of the threads. But it certainly helped it. And Ed Temple – the fact that Wilma Rudolph is not alive made it necessary for me. It was a pure joy to interview Ed Temple. I had several interviews with him, and he was a fabulous storyteller. He was 84 when I talked to him. I think that in many ways, as amazing as Wilma Rudolph was, and her personal story about overcoming polio and scarlet fever and teenage pregnancy and being such a graceful person and runner, that the larger story of the Tigerbelles was equally interesting to me. And I’m glad Ed Temple was still around to tell that story.
WW: One of my favorite part of the book is the interlude in which you told the story of Joe Faust. How old was he when you visited with him? And how astonished were you to find that makeshift high-jumping pit in his backyard?
DM: Joe was in his late sixties, and again, I didn’t go into the book thinking that Joe Faust would be a character. I’d never heard of him. But I had a list of all the American athletes who competed in the games, and slowly compiled a data base of telephone numbers and addresses, and I was on a West Coast interview trip, primarily to spend a lot of time with Rafer Johnson and also some of the other track and field athletes and swimmers who live in Southern California. And Joe Faust was on my list as someone who lived in the Los Angeles area. So I called him up and said what I was doing, and he said, “Yeah, come on over.” He gave me his address, and I MapQuested it and started driving, and when I was approaching his house, I realized, this isn’t a guy who lives in a fancy L.A. suburb. It was sort of hidden up in the hills – this little adobe, one-story house. Not quite a hut, but a really small house, and he lived in one room – a very ascetic life as I described in the book, with a cot and a computer and some books and a grill. He was a really interesting guy, and as soon as he started telling me about that spiritual side of high jumping… As writers, we’ve all encountered athletes who say that God is on their side, and they praise God for everything. But it wasn’t that kind of spirituality that I saw in Joe Faust. It was much more internal and personal – almost Buddhist, Zen-like. When he started talking about high-jumping as ascending in penance and descending in gratitude, I thought, “Wow.” And then, after a long interview, we went out in the backyard, and it was sort of a classic, eccentric backyard. We’ve all seen those. There was all kinds of junk back there. And first I saw the path, the well-worn path. And then I saw the mattress and realized that he was still high jumping back there.
WW: Did he jump for you?
DM: No, he didn’t. He had a bad knee at that point.
WW: It’s probably just as well. It wouldn’t have been a very satisfying end to the chapter if he’d broken every bone in his body.
DM: (Laughs.) Exactly. He’s still in good shape – very long and lean high-jumper’s look. And I did all my other interviews and came back, and that was near the end of my extensive year of reporting. I was starting to outline and organize the book, and I didn’t see a place where I could actually tell that story until in the writing process itself, I said, “I’ve got to do this.” So I came up with the word “interlude,” and I hope the reader sort of takes it as that. I just wanted to tell that story, and that’s how I decided on it.
WW: Was it at all frustrating for you that so many of the participants you wrote about, including Wilma Rudolph and Abebe Bikila, were no longer there to talk to?
DM: I wouldn’t say frustrating. I’d prefer to have them around. But as a biographer, I’ve become accustomed to assuming that my subject is no longer around even if they are. Clemente and Lombardi were dead when I undertook those books. Bill Clinton was very much alive, but it was sort of healthy for me to think about him as someone who wasn’t around. It gives you a better grounding of not being swayed by everything that’s swirling around him at that moment. At any rate, I was able to find a lot of archival material and a lot of histories for most of the people who were no longer around. I would have loved, obviously, just to have met those two, Wilma Rudolph and Abebe Bikila. They were such interesting people. So yes, it certainly would have been better if they were around, but I didn’t feel frustrated, because I’m accustomed to doing it either way.
WW: There were a number of media figures who you mentioned in the book that are no longer with us, either: Jim McKay, Dick Schaap, David Halberstam. Did you feel at all that the timing of the book was good – that if you’d waited much longer, it would have been more difficult to get any firsthand information?
DM: Absolutely. Of those three, I actually had talked to all three. I interviewed McKay and Halberstam for this book before they died. Schaap I’d gotten to know from the Lombardi book and had remembered talking to him about Cassius Clay ten years ago. So in each of those cases, I was able to draw on them when they were alive for help. But you’re right: Most of the people in the book – the athletes at least – are in their late sixties to mid-seventies. And if I’d waited another eight years, it would have been much more difficult. I’ve gone through that before with Lombardi in particular. He would have been about 85 if he’d been alive when I started the research on that book. I did find some contemporaries, but they were the last ones around. Guys who’d gone to Fordham with him, or high school, even. So I’m always conscious of that, and often when I’m sorting out who I’m going to interview, I sort of triage it, oldest to youngest (laughs). I remember the first guy I interviewed for the Lombardi book was 93 years old…
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WW: The media aspects of the book certainly demonstrate how differently those games were covered than the Olympics are today. And yet I recently did a column about how many of the major news organizations in this area aren’t sending anyone to China, in part because of the tight economic times facing journalism in general. Do you think that having fewer people at the games might actually be better, because it will allow a relative handful of writers, in particular, to serve as the voices of this Olympics in the same way that Red Smith and A.J. Liebling did in 1960?
DM: That’s a complicated question. I see it both ways. In 1960, the sports columnists for the daily newspapers dominated the media scene, and that’s certainly not the case today. Television is the 800-pound gorilla. So guys like Red Smith, from the New York Herald-Tribune then, before he went to the Times, and Fred Russell from Nashville and Shirley Povich from the Washington Post – most of the major newspapers had a sports columnist, and they were key media figures at the Olympics and at all the major events. They’d sort of travel as a tribe from the Kentucky Derby to the World Series to the Olympics. And television was just in its infancy. Those were the first commercially televised summer games. CBS sent a crew of fewer than fifty people to Rome. Jim McKay, as you mentioned, was the studio host, and he didn’t even go to Rome. The total number of televised hours for the Olympics was twenty-something, and now it’s going to be over a thousand for Beijing, and NBC is sending over 4,000 people there. So even as we in the newspaper industry are seeing this transformation that’s profoundly effecting us, there will still be more media credentials at Beijing than at any previous Olympics. And it will be dominated completely by television. And I think that’s good and bad. It’s part of the commercialization of the Olympics, which just infuse everything. The basketball team will essentially be the Nike team – Nike shoes, Nike uniforms, and I’m sure there will be tons of Nike commercials. So I try not to romanticize the past, but I think there was a simplicity to it that in some ways was preferable. Although now, if you want something, you can get it. That’s sort of the modern culture. Somewhere on the Internet or the thousand hours of coverage, you can find whatever you’re looking for.
WW: You mentioned what’s happening in the newspaper business right now. At the Washington Post, you’ve got a new editor coming aboard at a time when even an institution as sturdy as the Post is involved in cutbacks and buyouts. Are you optimistic about where things are going? Or do you see this as sort of the end of the good old days?
DM: I try to be realistic about it. I’m not optimistic. I think it is the end of the good old days – or at least of the old days – and newspapers will never be the same again. They’re undergoing this dramatic transformation. A newspaper as well-run and well-respected as the Washington Post is suffering along with everyone else and really struggling to survive. And it has to make changes to survive. So the realist in me understands what’s going on. I’m a third-generation newspaper guy myself. My grandfather was a printer, my dad was an editor. I grew up with it in my blood. I loved newspapers back when there were cigarette butts on the floor, and paste jars, and typewriters. The newspapers of the ‘80s and ‘90s started to become more like insurance agencies for me to take – the sort of aesthetics of it. But it’s all part of the inevitability, and it’s changing again. The only thing I’m optimistic about is that there will always be a need for and a hunger for reporters who go out and try to find the truth about something and not just blab away on blogs – and for storytelling. That’s the combination I think is important in the end. People who actually go out and try to find the truth, and people who know how to tell a story. And in some fashion, that will survive.