The 1960 Rome Games made their way into American living rooms via a harried journey.

The 1960 Rome Games heralded historic victories for Muhammad Ali, track star Wilma Rudolph, and decathlete Rafer Johnson in the first fully televised Olympics in North America.

But the journey from Italy to U.S. living rooms proved to be the ultimate time trial in the pre-satellite era. (The Squaw Valley Winter Olympics earlier that year were the first official Olympic Games broadcast in the United States, but they didn't include the challenge of transatlantic travel.)

CBS secured the rights to broadcast the Games for less than $500,000, and with zero competition. (Today the same rights go for around $1.5 billion.) The International Olympic Committee had long attempted to keep television out of the proceedings, with the group's president, Avery Brundage, decrying any "commercialism" of the Games while himself pocketing millions. But when in Rome… the Italian Olympic Committee had total control over the broadcast contracts, thus establishing a new precedent for the Olympics as entertainment.

But the reality of getting the Games on air was far more complicated than simply securing rights, resulting in something akin to a transatlantic version of the Broadcast News tape scene.

There was nothing like the 24/7 live coverage of today. CBS only sent a skeleton crew to Rome, with most of the production team staying in New York City to handle tape there. "They had to use the Italian networks' cameras, so [the available footage] depended on what the Italians were most interested in," David Maraniss, the author of Rome 1960, tells EW. "They only had three announcers there, so they had to pick and choose what packages they were going to put together."

CBS had a trailer stationed near the Rome airport where it would collect the Italian footage and announcers would work with the small crew to select what events that day would hold the most interest for American audiences. Then the announcers would add color commentary, dubbing over the tape from Italian cameras. There was no live play-by-play.

The need for footage also led to another precedent that has had a long reach in televised sports and the Olympic Games in general. When a 100-meter freestyle swimming race ended in a photo finish, the instant replay was born as officials turned to the CBS tape to attempt to discern who the true winner was. The decision was disputed for decades, but it allowed officials to realize that filming races was a vital way to help resolve such issues.

Regardless of how useful they were on site, getting the tapes out of Rome was another story entirely. CBS didn't have a private jet for the footage. Instead, whatever was shot and edited together with commentary in the morning was placed on a commercial Alitalia jet to New York City, often facing inclement weather and other delays.

Muhammad Ali
Gennady Schatkov and Muhammad Ali at the 1960 Rome Olympics
| Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The tapes would arrive in New York and be immediately relayed to a television studio located in Grand Central Station, where host Jim McKay was waiting to assemble them into a package for the evening. McKay, who went on to become an iconic sports announcer, didn't have a team of producers at his beck and call. Instead, he had to reference the Encyclopaedia Britannica for information on the athletes, write his own scripts, and produce a nightly segment.

But perhaps his most difficult task was getting the tapes to play at all. "They'd be in the belly of the jet on the way over, and they'd often be frozen," Maraniss says. In this state, the tapes wouldn't play — so McKay put them in his armpits (!) to warm them up until he could get them to work in the machine. Once the tapes were thawed from his body heat, he could watch them, write his script ,and assemble his 20-to-30-minute segment for the evening broadcast.

McKay eventually hosted 12 Olympic Games, including the 1972 Summer Games where he earned universal respect for his coverage of the Munich Massacre. But in some ways, the 1960 Olympics were his first big trial, baptizing him by Olympic torch fire.

"It couldn't be more different from the grandiosity of Olympics coverage today," says Maraniss.

That said, CBS set a precedent for television coverage of the Games, and deserved to medal for an epic 4,279-mile dash.

A version of this story appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weeklyon newsstands now or you can order a copy online. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. 

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