David Maraniss has just published a book called Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World Please!

According to the reviewer in Sunday’s New York Times, Maraniss ties the 1960 games in with the cold war and points out they were also the first Olympics shown on TV. But the reviewer, David Margolick, thinks that if the 60 Olympics had actually changed the world Maraniss wouldn’t have had to write a book telling us what happened there.

For a forgotten Olympic Games that truly were of singular importance, I refer you to the research of my friend A.E. Eyre, which I discussed in a 2003 Hot Type. Eyre makes an irrefutable case that the oft-maligned 1904 games in Saint Louis (my hometown) were actually The Games That Made America. Because 533 of the 625 competitors were Americans, who won 238 of the 282 medals, the rest of the world ridiculed the Saint Louis games as meaningless. That’s when, according to Eyre, America realized that it didn’t care what the rest of the world thinks and that if the rest of the world didn’t even show up that was fine with America. Ninety-nine years later America invaded Iraq. Coincidence? Eyre doesn’t think so.

The highlight of the 1904 games was the marathon, whose winner, it turned out, rode 11 of the 26 miles in an automobile. Ninety-four years later Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs as a Saint Louis Cardinal. Again: coincidence?

The Rome games got caught up in the cold war because, says Margolick, “the Soviets, who had disparaged Olympics early on as capitalist circuses, had learned from Hitler that they were in fact great sources of propaganda, and depicted their every success as proof of their supremacy.”  

This points to the book Maraniss might have written. The Soviets won more medals in Rome than the Americans, so I guess they won that propaganda battle. So what? The cold war’s long over and what good did Rome do them? For that matter, what good did the ’36 games in Berlin do Hitler? Was there a single nation in Europe that thought, “Wow! Those Germans are something. Can’t wait till they get here.”

I don’t know. I’m asking for someone like Maraniss to do some research and tell us how much propaganda actually matters. It’s an important question because the next Olympics are only weeks away, and the Chinese idea all along has been to use the games to score a major PR triumph. “Indeed,” writes Andrew J. Nathan in The New Republic, “the Beijing Olympics mark the full mastery of marketing techniques by Chinese bureaucrats.”

The empirical evidence, as I understand it, is that propaganda is most effective at clouding the thinking of the propagandizer. Berlin intoxicated Hitler. The U.S. preaches that it’s the land of liberty and the greatest country in the world, and no people on earth are as persuaded as Americans. Detroit advertised itself for decades as the builder of automobiles that couldn’t be beat, and when imports from Japan began beating them hands down consumers reacted a lot quicker than Detroit did.

When drunks brag in bars, they make a lot of sense to themselves.