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Rome 1960: Making Sporting History

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The modern Olympic movement was inspired by the classical world. But, says Richard Bosworth, when the Italian capital hosted the Games in 1960, the organisers had to offer an image of the city that also took account of its Christian, Renaissance and Fascist pasts.

These days, contests between nations are more likely to occur in the sports arena than on the battlefield, with successive Olympic Games offering the greatest opportunity for what has been called national ‘sellebration’: the ready marketing of a soft past to an uncritical audience. At Sydney, host to the 2000 games, sporting events were accompanied by a cultural display that emphasised unity between indigenous and immigrant, ‘bush’ and city, male and female, with 200 aboriginal women from the far outback singing into presence ‘the mighty spirit of god to protect the games’ (plainly a deity who, despite or because of its antiquity, was also national and was rooted in the soil). At the opening ceremony of the Athens games of 2004, a Centaur, composite beast of classical mythology and teacher of Achilles, greatest of heroes, offered cultural instruction. At Beijing in 2008 the equivalent of around £70 million was spent on a lavish inauguration, where for four hours the glories of Chinese culture across the millennia were celebrated. London in 2012 will need to be more parsimonious given the financial crisis, yet history is still bound to be invoked to justify a British games.


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