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Australia took 189 competitors to Rome and could boast monumental performances, with Herb Elliott winning the men’s 1500m track event and Fitzroy’s former Aussie rules star Laurie Morgan winning two gold medals on horseback, one of them alongside Bill Roycroft, who rode with a broken shoulder and dislocated collarbone after a fall.
Australia also won five gold medals in the pool thanks to Dawn Fraser, John Devitt, Murray Rose, John Konrads and Maryborough’s brilliant medical student David Theile, later a prominent Brisbane surgeon.
In the boxing ring, Mackay’s speedy bantamweight Ollie Taylor won bronze as did light-heavyweight Tony Madigan, whose vast experience couldn’t overcome the speed of a gangly fast-talking teenager from Louisville, Kentucky. He was Cassius Clay, soon to become known as the Islamic icon, Muhammad Ali.
At home in Brisbane, sports fans could watch brief highlights of the Games on Channels 9, 7 and 2. In the days before live satellite telecasts the highlights were generally a couple of days late after arriving by aircraft. They were played in the early morning or late at night after the special broadcast by Robert Menzies on the prospect of World War III breaking out over the Congo crisis.
Advertisements of the time promoted the delicious taste of filtertipped Winston and Viscount cigarettes or featured Holden gloating about its immense popularity over all other car makers. Television had only come to Brisbane in 1959 but Channel 9 celebrated its fourth birthday in Australia with screenings of the popular TV shows Sugarfoot and I Love Lucy.
The most captivating show, though, was Abebe Bikila’s victory in the Rome Marathon on September 10. A 28-year-old soldier in the elite infantry division that guarded Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, Bikila decided to run barefoot because the new shoes he’d bought hurt his feet.
The marathon was scheduled to start in the late afternoon, take competitors 42km through the ancient streets of Rome, and finish in the dark at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.
The lead changed several times early on but just past the halfway mark, Bikila and Moroccan runner Rhadi Ben Abdesselam strode away. They remained locked together until 500m to the finish line.
Then, as Italian soldiers illuminated the Appian Way with flaming torches, Bikila looked like he was floating on air as he accelerated, his shoeless feet hardly touching the cobblestones.
Bikila won in a world record of 2hr 15min 16.2 sec. Back home, the emperor awarded him the Star of Ethiopia medal.
Four years later at the Tokyo Olympics Bikila faced a stellar field that included future Gold Coast mayor Ron Clarke. This time Bikila ran in Puma shoes in what may have been a secret sponsorship deal in the days when Olympians were still publicly “amateurs’’. Bikila won marathon gold again, despite an appendectomy just five weeks earlier.
A fractured fibula forced him to limp out of the 1968 Olympic marathon and just a few months later he was left a quadriplegic after losing control while driving his Volkswagen Beetle.
In international competitions for the disabled, Bikila competed in archery and table tennis and he received a standing ovation during the opening ceremony of the 1972 Munich Olympics.
But the following year the great runner died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 41, due to complications arising from his accident.
Haile Selassie proclaimed a day of mourning for Ethiopia’s national hero.
grantlee.kieza @news.com.auGrantlee Kieza’s new book, The Hornet, written with Brisbane’s world boxing champion Jeff Horn, will be released on October 23.