InterMat Rewind: 1960 Olympics

Mark Palmer

9/5/2010
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Most Americans who traveled to Rome this summer were on vacation. They went to see the landmarks such as the Sistine Chapel, the Colesseum, Trevi Fountain ... to savor the cuisine ... and soak up some la dolce vita (the good life).

Fifty summers ago, sixteen young men from the United States traveled to the capital of Italy strictly for business. All brought home lasting memories. Three -- Terry McCann, Shelby Wilson, and Doug Blubaugh -- came home with gold medals in freestyle wrestling from the 1960 Olympics.

U.S. Wrestlers at the 1960 Olympics

Freestyle:
Eliot Gray Simons 52kg/114.5 lbs. 5th
Terry McCann 57kg/125.5 1st
Louis Giani 62kg/134.5 DNP
Shelby Wilson 67kg/147.5 1st
Doug Blubaugh 73kg/161 1st
Ed DeWitt 79kg/174 4th
Dan Brand 87kg/192 5th
Bill Kerslake Heavyweight 8th

Greco-Roman:
Dick Wilson 52kg/114.5 lbs. DNP
Larry Lauchle 57kg/125.5 DNP
Lee Allen 62kg/134.5 8th
Ben Northrup 67kg/147.5 DNP
Fritz Fivian 73kg/161 DNP
Russ Camilleri 79kg/174 8th
Howard George 87kg/192 DNP
Dale Lewis Heavyweight DNP
Meet the medalists

The three U.S. wrestlers who earned gold in 1960 were all from the American heartland, and had wrestled at collegiate powerhouse programs ... yet each had unique aspects of his mat career to set him apart from his fellow teammates.

Terry McCann was the oldest of the three "golden boys," wrestling in Rome at age 26. Born March 23, 1934, Terrence John McCann was the eldest of six children. Growing up on northwest side of Chicago, he was short in stature, but that didn't keep him from competing in various sports in the neighborhood. Incredibly, he was introduced to Olympic wrestling by visiting a sweet shop ...

"I was at a candy store and saw a picture of this little guy, Allie Morrison, getting a gold medal for wrestling," McCann told wrestling writer/historian Mike Chapman for his 2006 book, Legends of the Mat, mentioning Morrison, an Iowan who had won gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. "I was very impressed. I thought he was just a little guy, and that if he could do something so special in sports, so could I. That was the start. I had a vision."

McCann discovered the sport that was right for a guy his size -- 5'4". As a youngster, McCann competed in local wrestling events in his hometown ... then wrestled at Carl Schurz High School, where he became a three-time Chicago city champion. As a senior, McCann won the 112-pound title at the 1952 Illinois state championships, pinning his finals opponent in just 37 seconds. (For years, this was the fastest fall in a title match at the Illinois state wrestling tournament.)

After graduating from Schurz, McCann enrolled at the University of Iowa. Wrestling for head coach Dave McCuskey, the lean-muscled McCann found his greatest success his last two years as a Hawkeye. In his junior year, McCann won his first Big Ten title (defeating Richard Meeks of Illinois in the finals); two weeks later, he pinned Oklahoma State's Dave Bowlin in the 115-pound finals at the 1955 NCAAs at Cornell University. Senior year, McCann earned another Big Ten title (pinning Indiana's Manuel Pihakis in the title match), followed by his second 115-pound national title, shutting out Bill Hulings of Pittsburgh, 6-0, at the 1956 NCAA Championships at Oklahoma State. It was the capstone of a great career at Iowa; in his last two years as a Hawkeye, McCann never lost a match.

After graduating from Iowa, McCann won the first of three straight national AAU freestyle titles (1957-1959) at 125 pounds. The Chicago native was also undefeated in a string of eight dual meets with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s.

Doug Blubaugh: Coming into the world on the last day of 1934, Douglas Morlan Blubaugh was nine months younger than Terry McCann ... stepping onto the mats in Rome at age 25.

When asked what made him a formidable wrestler, Blubaugh responded, "Thank God I grew up on a wheat farm in Oklahoma that didn't have electricity or running water ?til during World War II. Doing farm chores built a work ethic. It was hard work. I never lifted weights -- couldn't afford them -- but hefted bales of hay. Strength from working on a farm is different; you get ?endurance strength' from farm work."

Doug Blubaugh
Doug Blubaugh was introduced to wrestling by his older brother Jack, who had won a Pan-American wrestling championship in 1955, and just missed making the U.S. wrestling team for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The younger Blubaugh competed on the Ponca City High wrestling team, winning the 141-pound title at the 1953 Oklahoma state championships.

For college, Blubaugh headed 30 miles south of home, to what was then called Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). His first wrestling coach was Art Griffith; his senior year, his former teammate, Myron Roderick, took the reins of the legendary program. Blubaugh was a three-time NCAA All-American, placing third at 147 pounds at the 1955 NCAAs... then just missing out on the 157-pound title at the 1956 NCAAs by losing 4-3 in the finals to Illinois' Larry TenPas. However, the following year, Blubaugh grabbed the title at that weight at the 1957 NCAAs in Pittsburgh with a decisive 9-3 finals win over Mike Rodriguez of the University of Michigan.

Even while at Oklahoma State, Blubaugh was laying the groundwork for an international wrestling career. He tried out for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as a nineteen-year-old, but did not make the U.S. team. After graduating from Oklahoma State, Blubaugh won the 1957 National AAU freestyle title (and Outstanding Wrestler honors), then, later that year, joined the Army. After basic training at Fort Knox and Airborne school at Fort Benning, Blubaugh was assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he could concentrate on his wrestling training. In 1959, Blubaugh won a title at the Pan-American Games in Chicago, equaling the feat of his older brother Jack, who was a 1955 Pan Am champ ... thus becoming the first set of U.S. brothers to earn gold at the Pan Ams.

Shelby Wilson: At age 23, Shelby Autrie Wilson was the youngest of the three U.S. gold medal winners in Rome, and among the youngest of the entire U.S. wrestling team. And, unlike McCann and Blubaugh, Wilson did not have any international experience. In fact, he had not won a single high school state title, nor an NCAA championship.

Wilson, the oldest of four children, was born July 14, 1937 in north-central Oklahoma. He was introduced to wrestling in junior high, and had a great mat career at Ponca City High School -- the same school as Doug Blubaugh -- losing only three matches. Sadly, all three of those losses were at the Oklahoma high school state tournament. Wilson placed third twice, and was runner-up his senior year, but never won a state title.

Wilson was recruited by the University of Oklahoma, but chose to wrestle for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Again, the Ponca City native had a near-perfect career as a Cowboy, winning two Big Eight conference titles, defeating the same wrestler -- Oklahoma's Paul Aubrey -- in the 137-pound finals in 1958 and 1959. However, Wilson suffered two critical losses in college, both in national title matches. At the 1958 NCAAs at the University of Wyoming, Wilson lost in the 137-pound finals to Aubrey, 11-9. At the 1959 NCAAs at the University of Iowa, Wilson was upset by Iowa State's Larry Hayes in the title bout, 11-3.

Shelby Wilson came back to Oklahoma State in the fall of 1959, thinking he had some eligibility left by using a redshirt year for an injury that had kept him competing as a sophomore, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the championships. At that point, Wilson's college coach, Myron Roderick, urged him to try out for the 1960 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. "My heart wasn't really in freestyle at the time," according to Wilson. "My only experience was at the 1959 AAUs ... I had no ?Olympic dream.'"

Getting there

Led by U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling coach Port Robertson (long-time coach at the University of Oklahoma) and Greco-Roman coach Briggs Hunt (who normally headed up the wrestling program at UCLA), sixteen U.S. wrestlers boarded a Pan American World Airways DC7 propeller plane in New York City with other U.S. Olympic athletes for the trip to Rome to compete in the Summer Games of the XVII Olympiad.

Shelby Wilson, Terry McCann, Doug Blubaugh (Photo/AWN)
However, getting on board that flight to Rome wasn't as easy as flashing a boarding pass to the stewardess. In fact, for the three eventual gold medalists, the specific journey to the 1960 Olympics had begun months earlier ... with each wrestler having at least one individual who was instrumental in putting them on the right path to Rome.

Terry McCann was blessed to have two family members who helped him. One was his wife Lucille, who encouraged her husband to pursue his Olympic dream first realized in that Chicago candy shop where he saw the magazine featuring Allie Morrison and his 1928 Olympic gold medal. McCann believed the wrestling training opportunities were best in Oklahoma, so Lucille urged him to move the entire family from Chicago to Tulsa, where he could train at the YMCA. While in Tulsa, he worked out with his younger brother Fran, who wrestled at Oklahoma State at the time. (Fran later transferred to Terry's alma mater, Iowa, where he earned All-American honors at the 1962 NCAAs.)

Phil Kinyon made a positive impact on Shelby Wilson's quest for Olympic glory. Wilson spent the summer of 1960 at the farm of Kinyon, a powerfully built wrestler who had international mat experience from competing in the Navy before joining the Oklahoma State roster in the early 1960s, where he won the 157-pound crown at the 1961 NCAAs. "We went at each other every day," said Wilson. "We worked out, ran, worked his farm, then would wrestle two twelve-minute matches. That's where I perfected my moves ... Phil was a very important part of my Olympic victory and without him, I'm not sure what would have happened."

For Doug Blubaugh, it was fellow Army soldier Ed DeWitt, a 1956 NCAA champ at 167 pounds for the University of Pittsburgh, who made the 1960 U.S. Olympic freestyle team at 174 pounds. "For six months I worked out with Ed every day," Blubaugh told writer Jamie Moffatt for the 2009 book Glory Beyond the Sport: Wrestling and the Military. "He was tough on me. If I hadn't had him there as a partner, I would never had won an Olympic gold medal."

Blubaugh also gave full credit to another training partner at West Point. "If it weren't for Al Rushatz, I would never have won my Olympic gold medal."

From Ames to Norman to Rome

Medals awarded at 1960 Olympics

Freestyle
Flyweight -- 52kg/114.5 lbs.
Gold: Ahmet Bilek, Turkey
Silver: Masayuki Matsubara, Japan
Bronze: Ebrahim Seifpour, Iran

Bantamweight -- 57kg/125.5
Gold: Terry McCann, USA
Silver: Nezhdet Zalev, Bulgaria
Bronze: Tadeusz Trojanowski, Poland

Featherweight -- 62kg/134.5
Gold: Mustaff Dagistanli, Turkey
Silver: Stancho Ivanov, Bulgaria
Bronze: Vladimir Rubashvili, USSR

Lightweight -- 67kg/147.5
Gold: Shelby Wilson, USA
Silver: Vladimir Synyvaski, USSR
Bronze: Enyu Vlachev, Bulgaria

Welterweight -- 73kg/161
Gold: Doug Blubaugh, USA
Silver: Ismail Ogan, Turkey
Bronze: Muhammed Beshir, Pakistan

Middleweight -- 79kg/174
Gold: Hasan Gungor, Turkey
Silver: Georgy Skhirtlauze, USSR
Bronze: Hans Antonsson, Sweden

Lt. Heavyweight -- 87kg/192
Gold: Ismet Atli, Turkey
Silver: Gholamreza Takhti, Iran
Bronze: Anatoli Albul, USSR

Heavyweight
Gold: Wilfried Dietrich, Germany
Silver: Hamit Kaplan, Turkey
Bronze: Savkuds Dzarasov, USSR

Greco-Roman
Flyweight -- 52kg/114.5 lbs.
Gold: Dumitru Parvulescu, Romania
Silver: Osman E-Sayed, Unit. Arab Rep.
Bronze: Mohammed Paziraei, Iran

Bantamweight -- 57kg/125.5
Gold: Oleg Karavayev, USSR
Silver: Ion Cernea, Romania
Bronze: Dinko Petrov, Bulgaria

Featherweight -- 62kg/134.5
Gold: Muzahir Sille, Turkey
Silver: Imre Polyak, Hungary
Bronze: Konstanin Vyrupaycz, USSR

Lightweight -- 67kg/147.5
Gold: Avtandil Koridze, USSR
Silver: Branislav Martinovic, Yugoslavia
Bronze: Gustav Freij, Sweden

Welterweight -- 73kg/161
Gold: Mithat Bayrak, Turkey
Silver: Gunter Maritschnigg, Germany
Bronze: Rene Schiemeyer, France

Middleweight -- 79kg/174
Gold: Dimitar Dobrev, Bulgaria
Silver: Lother Metz, Germany
Bronze: Ion Tarana, Romania

Lt. Heavyweight -- 87kg/192
Gold: Tevfik Kis, Turkey
Silver: Krali Bimbalov, Bulgaria
Bronze: Givi Karatoziya, USSR

Heavyweight
Gold: Ivan Bogdan, USSR
Silver: Wilfried Dietrich, Germany
Bronze: Bohurnil Kubat, Czechoslovakia
It would take more than tough workout partners and the encouragement of family to ensure a trip to Rome. In the summer of 1960, wrestlers had to clear two sets of hurdles to make the U.S. Olympic wrestling team.

The first hurdle: A wrestler had to win his weight class at the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials at the Armory on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames. In more recent times, winning the Trials ensured a wrestler a trip to the Olympics. However, in 1960, a second hurdle was added. In late July and early August, the top three wrestlers in each weight class from the Trials participated in an extended Olympic Training Camp at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, with the winner qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team.

By all accounts, the Olympic Training Camp was a grueling experience. The weather was brutally hot, with temperatures well into the 90s. Wrestling mats set up both inside the gym and outdoors were slick with humidity. There was no refuge from the heat and humidity in the un-air conditioned dorms. Jamie Moffatt's book Wrestlers at the Trials told of how some wrestlers soaked their bedsheets in cold water in an attempt to get some sleep in the stifling hot rooms. In an interview for this article, Shelby Wilson said, "Blubaugh and I brought a box fan, then put wet towels in front of it."

The wrestlers' workouts were just as brutal as the weather. "We ran 4-5 miles in the morning, ran the football stadium stairs in the afternoon, on top of two-a-days (practices)," said Russ Camilleri, San Jose State wrestling alum who competed at 177 pounds at the 1958 NCAA Championships, and earned a place on the 1960 Olympic Greco-Roman team at 174 pounds.

"It was a tough, tough experience," echoed Shelby Wilson. "In a typical day, got up, went to the mat about 6:30, calisthenics ?til 7:05 -- and not jumping jacks, either -- then a workout, then breakfast, then sprints on the football field, or stair runs."

"We were drinking saline water out of 10-gallon containers like it was going out of style," Wilson added.

However, to Camilleri's mind, it was all worth it: "When it came time to compete in Rome, the kids were in fantastic shape. Oklahoma prepared us for it."

Wilson backed that notion: "We were pushed, but we were in shape. We were incredibly well-prepared for Rome."

Each of the 1960 Olympic gold medalists -- Terry McCann, Shelby Wilson and Doug Blubaugh -- had to overcome unique challenges beyond the heat in his quest to compete in Rome.

For McCann, it was an injury ... then a hospitalization. Just before the 1960 Olympic Trials, McCann injured his knee, and was unable to wrestle at the qualifying event at Iowa State. The Olympic Committee ruled that McCann could have another chance; at the Olympic Training Camp, the former Hawkeye went up against two-time NCAA champ Dave Auble from Cornell University. After winning their first match in the best-of-three series, McCann suffered another potential setback -- he collapsed from the heat, and was hospitalized. After a brief stay, the Chicago native came out of the hospital to defeat his Big Red rival Auble to become the 125.5-pound freestyle wrestler on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team.

For Blubaugh, it was rival who just wouldn't quit. Blubaugh battled Phil Kinyon -- yes, Shelby Wilson's summer training partner -- thirteen times in four years in freestyle competition, with the first twelve ending in draws, eleven of them scoreless. Five of these matches were specifically to determine who would wrestle in Rome. In their last match, Blubaugh scored a takedown ... and a place on the U.S. freestyle team at 161 pounds.

As for Wilson, he earned a spot on the Greco team with two victories over Ben Northrup ... but preferred to compete in freestyle, so he had to defeat the winner from the Trials in Ames, Frank Bettucci, who had been on the 1956 Olympic team. Wilson defeated Bettucci in their first match; the second match was never wrestled because his opponent had left the Training Camp. Wilson was going to Rome to compete in freestyle at 147.5 pounds; Ben Northrup wrestled Greco-Roman for the U.S. in the same weight class.

Despite their impressive wrestling credentials and rigorous training, none of the U.S. wrestlers was apparently favored to medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In its Olympics preview, Sports Illustrated did not include a single U.S. wrestler on its pre-Games depth chart for wrestling. In the explanatory text for the chart, the popular sports weekly wrote of the unique winning aspects of the Russians, Japanese, Turks and Iranians in freestyle competition, and Russians, Swedes, Finns and Turks for Greco Roman ... while dismissing the Americans' chances with this line: "U.S. colleges don't use the international style, where the instantaneous touch rule applies, making this Olympic team weaker than it should be."

When in Rome ...

The Rome Olympics were held August 25 through September 11, 1960. There were 5,349 athletes -- 4,737 men, and 612 women -- from 83 countries, competing in 17 sports. (By contrast, just over 11,000 athletes from 204 countries competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

Recent Olympics have served as an opportunity for their hosts to showcase cutting-edge architecture; Beijing's "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and "the Cube" swimming venue for the 2008 Olympics immediately come to mind. Fifty years ago, Rome took a two-prong approach, with some venues looking space-age modern, such as the Palazzo dello Sport and the smaller Palazzetto dello Sport, designed by noted Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi ... while others were actually ancient.

1960 Olympics Basilica of Maxentius at night
Take the wrestling venue. Wrestlers in freestyle and Greco-Roman -- 324 in all, from 46 countries -- competed in the ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius, completed in 312 AD as the largest structure in the Roman Forum. While nowadays the word "basilica" is used to describe a place of worship, in ancient Rome, the Basilica of Maxentius functioned as a courthouse, council chamber and meeting hall. (The structure served as a model for the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City, constructed in the 1500s.)

The wrestling mats were framed by the three remaining arches from the basilica. Because much of the original vaulted roof structure was long gone (it had fallen in an earthquake in the seventh century), wrestling took place essentially outdoors.

David Maraniss' 2008 book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World said the ancient ruins-turned-wrestling venue had been "ingeniously transformed into a three-mat wrestling venue, replete with floodlights, outdoor grandstands, and a row of twenty telephone booths for deadline journalists." (Realize that wrestling writers had to use these phones to dictate their stories to their editors; this was before today's personal communication devices, laptop computers, and the Internet.)

In its 1960 Olympic reporting, Amateur Wrestling News said the Basilica of Maxentius "accommodated 7-8,000 spectators. Two sessions, morning and night, were held for 10 days. Attendance at all sessions was good and the finals were complete sellouts at $8.05, no reserved seats. There were no signs or scoring indicators used and no announcements to tell the audience what contestants were performing. No Olympic ceremony after each event or class led to further confusion. No one could understand the announcer."

The U.S. wrestlers were not usually among the spectators, so it was rare for them to see each other compete. "We were kept in a dressing room before matches," recalled Shelby Wilson.

According to Maraniss, high temperatures during the Rome Games were usually in the 90s, sometimes inching over 100 degrees. Matches were scheduled for daytime and evenings; more than one wrestler interviewed for this article talked about the intense summer sun shining on the mats, making them hot to the touch. As Russ Camilleri put it, "In par terre, if you were in the down position, you didn't want to stay there long."

The mats themselves were not the foam-core mats with a smooth, bonded vinyl surface -- generally referred to by the wrestling community by the brand-name Resilite -- which had been introduced in the U.S. in the late 1950s and had revolutionized American high school and college wrestling. (Read InterMat Rewind "Old School Strategy" story.)

"The Olympic mats had a strange cover that I would describe as being felt," said Ed DeWitt, who wrestled freestyle for the U.S. at 174 pounds. "Never saw anything like it ... I'm not sure what it was filled with -- could have been horsehair."

"We had a Resilite practice mat that we had brought with us at the Olympic Village. The Olympic mats were hard to move around on."

Speaking of workouts ... Shelby Wilson remembered two-a-day practice sessions in Rome. "We had a bit of a rebellion," said the former Cowboy All-American. "The team started backing off. We weren't going to work like demons."

"The coaches got ticked off, called Blubaugh to ask what was going on."

"I don't think there was a better-conditioned team."

Life off the Olympic mats

By contrast to the ancient Basilica of Maxentius site for the wrestling, the Olympic Village was brand-new, and, according to DeWitt, designed to serve as housing for Rome residents after the 1960 Games.

"The housing was constructed of steel, glass, aluminum and stone," said DeWitt, who wrestled for coach Ed Peery at the University of Pittsburgh. "The buildings were up on stilts -- I think it was for parking for future residents." (In an August 2010 Associated Press article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Opening Ceremonies for the Rome Games, "the 1960 Olympic Village is badly deteriorating under the strain of residential housing.")

DeWitt shared a room with Doug Blubaugh at the Olympic Village; Russ Camilleri roomed with Dan Brand. Both pairs had been friends before Rome -- DeWitt and Blubaugh from the Army, Camilleri and Brand, from working out together at the University of Nebraska, as Camilleri was stationed at the Air Force facility in Lincoln while Brand wrestled for the Cornhuskers.

"For the mess halls, they grouped us together by similar country," said DeWitt. "We went to the English-speaking hall, along with athletes from the UK, Australia, South Africa. There was another hall for Eastern European countries, another for Asians, serving food that would appeal to athletes from that part of the world."

"There was also an international mess hall that was open late. We'd eat there after practice, or after matches at night. But you had to be selective about what you chose to eat, because you didn't recognize a lot of it."

While the trip to Italy was no Roman holiday, it wasn't all work and no play for the U.S. wrestlers. "We were there about 4-5 days in advance, so we got to do some sightseeing," recalled Shelby Wilson.

DeWitt echoed that notion, saying, "We each got a free bus pass, which made it easy to see the city."

In separate interviews, DeWitt and Camilleri each told a story about an incident while out seeing the sights. "We were about to get on a carriage for a tour," recalled Camilleri. "We had a girl as our tour guide. A house painter working on a scaffold over our heads said something to her like, ?Bring them over here and I'll dump paint on them.'"

"I told them, ?One of us might know Italian,'" said Camilleri, whose father came to America from Sicily at age 14, and spoke Italian at home. "The tour guide apologized profusely for the rest of that tour."

"The Italians didn't realize Russ knew Italian," said DeWitt. "He set them straight."

Not all the sightseeing took place on the streets of Rome. Camilleri also talked about the social room at the Olympic Village, "a place for entertaining the athletes, and meeting with families," as the U.S. Greco 174-pounder described it. "Lots of Hollywood stars and celebrities would stop by -- Bing Crosby (actor/singer, famous for White Christmas) and his wife Kathryn, Grace Kelly, Tina Louise ... I remember sitting with Bing and I kept calling him, ?Mr. Crosby' and he kept asking me to call him Bing. Grace Kelly was gorgeous -- as beautiful as she was on film. (Kelly had been an Academy Award-winning actress who, at age 26, became Princess Grace of Monaco in the mid 1950s.) Her brother was an Olympic rower ... Tina Louise towered above just about everyone. She had to be 6'1" in heels," Camilleri said of the actress who folks not even born in 1960 might recognize as playing the glamorous-but-clueless actress Ginger in the sixties sitcom Gilligan's Island that's still seen in reruns decades later.

At least two of the U.S. wrestlers came away with magical memories of their time in the Eternal City.

"Rome was Rome," said Camilleri. "Gorgeous, historical, perfect weather. A wonderful time in a wonderful place."

Shelby Wilson backed up that sentiment: "A great historical experience to be in Rome, to compete in the ancient ruins of Rome. How could one hope for a better experience?"

The Cold War, fought in Rome

Even a setting as beautiful as Rome could not escape from the clouds of the Cold War.

During the 1950s and into the 60s, there was considerable tension between the world's two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union ... tension that reached new heights just days before the Games began. The USSR put on trial Francis Gary Powers, pilot of a U.S. U2 spy plan that had been shot down earlier that year.

The Olympics were viewed as yet another battlefield in the Cold War, as the athletes from the two superpowers and the nations that considered themselves allies to one or the other, engaged in combat on the track, in the swimming pool, and on the wrestling mat.

The topic of the Cold War and its impact on the 1960 Olympics was an ongoing theme throughout David Maraniss' book Rome 1960 ... and a topic that came up repeatedly in interviews for this article, with stories of how officials scored wrestling matches based not on objective observation, but on national ideologies. This was not unique to Rome; it was a fact of life at the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Games ... and in subsequent Olympics as well.

In Rome 1960, Maraniss shared the story of a Greco-Roman wrestler from Bulgaria who threw a match to help a Russian win the gold medal: "Late in a semifinal match between Dimitro Stoyanov of Bulgaria and Avtandil Koridze of the Soviet Union, with the score tied and both wrestlers facing elimination from gold medal contention if it ended in a draw, Stoyanov suddenly seemed to lose his fighting will. His dive allowed Koridze to win, and keep the gold medal away from Branislav Martinovic of Yugoslavia. Almost alone among Eastern Europeans, the Bulgarians were thought to be loyal to the Soviets to the point of athletic obedience. Yugoslavia and Hungary, by contrast, took pride in beating the Big Reds. Only four years earlier, at the 1956 Melbourne Games, Hungary defeated the USSR 4-0 in water polo just after the Soviets had crushed the Hungarian revolution. That confrontation was the stuff of legend, contested with such ferocity that it became known thereafter as the ?Blood in the Water' match."

The Russians denied there was a fix. However, the International Wrestling Association disqualified the Bulgarian, and gave the Russian a penalty point. They did not disqualify Koridze -- the eventual gold medal winner in Greco at 67 kg/147.5 pounds -- because they could not prove he was in on the fix.

Incidents such as this -- and the general Cold War tensions that prevailed fifty years ago -- factored into Americans' interest in how their athletes did in Rome. As Shelby Wilson said in an interview for this story, "When I got home, everyone want to know if I beat a Russian."

A whole different ballgame in 1960

Firsts at the 1960 Olympics

An Associated Press article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Opening Ceremonies at the 1960 Rome Games included this series of firsts:

First Olympics broadcast on TV. CBS paid $600,000 to the Rome organizing committee -- not the International Olympic Committee (IOC) -- for the broadcast rights. The network sent three on-air reporters to Rome, and had Jim McKay (this was before he became the host of ABC's Wide World of Sports) serve as the anchorman back in New York City. Each day, videotapes were sent on regularly-scheduled Alitalia flights. The time difference made it possible for CBS to broadcast tapes of early-in-the-day events in prime time in the U.S.

First Olympics with a major doping scandal. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed during his race under the influence of Roniacol -- a blood circulation medication -- and died the same day. The IOC created a medical committee in 1961, issued its first list of banned substances in 1967 and started testing athletes a year later.

First African-American flag carrier: Decathlete Rafer Johnson was chosen by his U.S. Olympic teammates to carry the Stars and Stripes to lead the American athletes at the Opening Ceremonies. (Johnson won the gold medal in Rome.)

First African to win a marathon. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia ran barefoot and won a night marathon in front of the Colosseum, starting the age of African dominance in long-distance races.

First introduction to sports superstars. Among the great athletes featured at the Rome Olympics who went on to become household names: boxer Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay back then), sprinter Wilma Rudolph, decathlete Rafer Johnson, and basketball hall of famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Walt Bellamy and coach Pete Newell.
For anyone whose experience with international wrestling is limited to, say, the 2010 U.S. World Team Trials, or 2008 Olympics, the 1960 Olympics would seem very foreign.

For starters, there were no women wrestling in the ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius. The first Olympics to feature women's freestyle wrestling was the 2004 Athens Games.

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, there were eight weight classes each in freestyle and Greco-Roman, compared to seven weights each in today's international wrestling events.

Fifty years ago, matches were 12 minutes each ... and the scoring system was radically different than what we know today. In 1960, there was a black mark system that determined a wrestler's fate as he moved through the bracket. If a wrestler lost by a decision, he received two black marks. If a wrestler was pinned, he suddenly had four black marks. A draw counted as two black marks against both wrestlers. If that sounds punitive ... wrestlers who won a match by a regular decision still earned one black mark! The only way to avoid any black marks was to pin your opponent. If a wrestler tallied a total of six black marks, he was out of the competition -- even if he had won all his matches!

Wrestling for gold

Sixteen wrestlers from the U.S. all started competition in Rome with the same dream: to bring home a gold medal. The eight U.S. Greco-Roman wrestlers participated in five days of competition in the last week of August; none earned a medal. The eight American freestyle grapplers competed September 1-6 ... some with great success. Here's how three of the U.S. freestylers realized their golden moment fifty years ago:

Terry McCann: Despite being a married family guy by the time he arrived at the University of Iowa, McCann had earned a fearsome reputation which he brought with him to Rome. Shelby Wilson said of his Olympic teammate, "At his peak, McCann was an animal. When he wrestled Dick Delgado (Oklahoma) at the (1956) NCAAs at Oklahoma State, he was most impressive."

"He could pysch himself up like other guy I've seen -- gripping his headgear, walking the side of the mat like a caged tiger."

"When they were about to wrestle, McCann grabbed his headgear, let it stretch way out, then snap back to hit himself in the head. He then crossed the mat all the way over into Delgado's corner. Proceeded to give Delgado a whipping." (McCann beat the Sooner 6-1 in the semifinals, and went on to win his second NCAA title. Delgado won the 115-pound title in 1958 and 1959.)

McCann took that intensity into the Olympic competition. In his first match on September 1, the former Hawkeye decisioned Vesterby of Sweden. The next day, McCann pinned Hanni of Switzerland at 1:40. On September 3, McCann earned a decision over Panama's Campbell.

That smooth path to success hit a major detour with the next match, vs. Tauno Jaskari of Finland.

"We were wrestling outdoors and it rained in Rome the day of that match," McCann told wrestling historian Mike Chapman for his 2006 book Legends of the Mat. "They cancelled all the outdoor matches and I went up to my room to sleep. About 8 p.m., someone was shaking me, saying to wake up, I had to go wrestle. By the time I got to the arena, the Finn was already up on the mat ready to go. I always needed a good 30 minutes to warm up and get myself prepared but I had no time at all. I went out there ice cold."

1960 U.S. Olympic Freestyle Team
Jaskari beat McCann, throwing cold water on the Chicagoan's Olympic dream he had carried with him for two decades.

Fran McCann remembered the events, even though he was half a world away. "I was fishing in northern Wisconsin," said Terry McCann's younger brother, now an instructor at the University of Notre Dame, in an interview for this story. "Back then, the matches weren't televised, and there was no Internet to provide coverage. The last word we had received by phone was that Terry had lost, so we thought he was out of the competition."

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Doug Blubaugh was concerned about Terry McCann after the upset loss, so the Oklahoma State Cowboy followed his teammate as he headed away from the wrestling venue.

"I just hung in the shadows and trailed him," Blubaugh told Legends of the Mat author Chapman more than 40 years after that night. "I knew he didn't want to talk to anyone. He was really depressed. He was considered our best hope for a gold medal and he felt like he had let everyone down ...his family, friends and teammates, and himself ... He finally stopped on a bridge over the Tiber River, looking down into the water. I just came up and put a hand on his shoulder and said, ?We have a tough day tomorrow, Terry, we should go back.'"

Shelby Wilson remembers that McCann had been discouraged by the realization he would have to pin his next opponent -- Michail Shakov of the USSR -- in order to stay alive in his quest for gold. With the black marks he had already accumulated, a simple decision over the Soviet would not be enough to continue into the medal round.

Terry McCann had wrestled Shakov before, when the USSR team toured the U.S. in 1958. It was the only match out of eight vs. the Russians that McCann did not win; the bout ended in a draw.

With all this pressure, the 26-year-old father of five stepped out onto the mat on September 6 to face his Soviet rival. In less than a minute -- 48 seconds to be exact -- McCann had pinned Shakov, avoiding any additional black marks, and was still in contention for gold.

After scoring a fall over the Russian, there was no stopping Terry McCann. Later that evening, McCann pinned Trojanowski of Poland, then scored a decision over Zalev of Bulgaria, to claim the freestyle gold medal at 57 kg/125.5 lbs (bantamweight).

"We had a big celebration on the north side of Chicago," said Fran McCann. "A friend baked a cake in Terry's honor."

Shelby Wilson: The Ponca City native may have had a queasy feeling of d骠 vu soon after arriving in Rome. Wilson, who had battled a flu bug upon arriving at the Olympic Training Camp in Oklahoma and spent some time in the infirmary, was laid low by an illness before the start of the Olympics. "In Rome, I got even sicker. Dry heaves all night long," said Wilson. "Took a couple days off, and bounced back even stronger. I think the rest may have actually helped me."

Wilson had been slated to wrestle six matches, but drew a bye in one of the rounds.

In a 2007 interview with this writer for an InterMat Rewind profile, Wilson described the 1960 Olympics as "the easiest tournament I was ever in."

Asked to clarify that seemingly bold statement, Wilson immediately responded: "It was only one match a day for five days. It wasn't hard because I was totally prepared -- physically, mentally, spiritually ... I was in the best shape I'd ever been in. Everything in the plan was coming in line. Perfect preparation."

In his first round bout on September 1, Shelby Wilson earned a decision over Gian of India. The next day, the Cowboy All-American got a decision over Finland's Peltoniemi.

Wilson's third opponent was Kazno Abe of Japan. Here's how Wilson described the situation in the book Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games, Told By America's Gold Medal Winners by Lewis H. Carlson and John J. Fogarty:

(Abe) and the Russian, Vladimir Sinyavski, who was a two-time world champion and number-one contender for the Olympic gold medal at the time, were big rivals. They had wrestled in '59, just before the World Games. Abe beat Sinyavski in Japan and lost to him in Russia, so they figured one or the other was going to win the gold medal.

The Japanese were very innovative in their wrestling, and they had just introduced what we call the "high crotch" series, which is a deep move to the outside, like a duck-under. Abe was very good at using that move, and few wrestlers from other countries had ever seen it.


Wilson continued the story: As he was stepping onto the platform to wrestle Abe, Sinyavski, who was coming off the platform having just won his match, "looked me straight in the eye, and made a kind of slight wrestling gesture like the high crotch move ... He was warning me to watch out for that move." Wilson speculated that Sinyavski wasn't giving that advice to be nice, but with the hope that the U.S. wrestler might score an upset win over Abe, thus providing the Soviet with an easier future opponent in Wilson.

Sinyanski got his wish; Wilson defeated Abe, 10-2, right in front of the USSR wrestler's eyes. "Terry McCann and Doug Blubaugh told me that I had the Russian psyched out. They said, ?We think you can beat this guy,'" according to Wilson.

Wilson, not normally one to try to psych out opponents, upped the psychological warfare the next day when he faced Sinyanski on the mat. The former Cowboy performed an atypically aggressive warm-up routine, making himself appear to be more fearsome to his opponent, like McCann had at the 1956 NCAAs. It may have worked; Wilson took Sinyanski down five times in the first period, sending the Soviet into retreat mode. In fact, Sinyanski failed to score at all. Wilson advanced to the medal rounds.

In his last match in Rome, Wilson earned a decision over Mostaf Tajiki of Iran, knocking him out of the tournament. He had to await the results of a match between a Bulgarian and a Korean. If the bout ended in decision or draw, the Oklahoman would automatically win the gold medal. Rather than watch the match, Wilson awaited the results in the dressing room. Despite having his opponent in a pinning predicament through much of the 12-minute match, the Bulgarian failed to score a fall on the Korean ... so Shelby Wilson received the gold medal in freestyle competition at 67 kg/147.5 pounds.

Doug Blubaugh: In what the other Ponca City native described as "perhaps the toughest weight class," Blubaugh got off to a tremendous start at the 1960 Olympics. In his first match on September 1, Blubaugh pinned Canada's Boese at 2:21. The next day, the former Cowboy secured a fall at 3:35 over Bruggman of Switzerland. Blubaugh continued his pinning ways into his third match, getting a fall vs. Sweden's Carlsson at 6:12.

However, the match that solidified Blubaugh's reputation was his fourth in Rome, taking on the world champion from Iran, Emam-Ali Habibi. The Iranian was highly decorated, having won a freestyle gold medal at 67 kg at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, gold at 73 kg at the Asian Games in 1958, and the 73 kg title at the 1959 Worlds. In fact, Habibi has been described as being undefeated in freestyle competition, and was considered a prohibitive favorite to win a second Olympic gold medal.

In his quest to repeat his Melbourne success, Habibi was true to form in his bouts leading up to his fateful meeting with Blubaugh at the Rome Olympics. The Iran pinned his first opponent from Korea in less than two minutes, then earned decisions over rivals from Sweden, Pakistan, and Italy.

On September 6, Blubaugh stepped onto the mat against the unbeaten -- and "unbeatable" -- Habibi, not really knowing what he was up against; the Oklahoman said he usually didn't look to see who he was wrestling before a match.

Here's how Blubaugh described his match against the Iranian:

"At the start of my match with Habibi, he comes right after me and knocks me on my butt. I get out of it, get up and boom, he does it again. Once more, I get out of it but am now behind by five points. I tell myself he can't do that to me a third time, so when he comes after me again, I flip him onto his back, hold him tightly while he is vainly bridging, and pin him."

"The Epic Struggle" Poster
The world champion, finding himself in the rare position of being on his back, struggled mightly for what seemed liked an eternity, but Blubaugh secured the pin at 2:37 ... scoring one of the most exciting wins in modern Olympic wrestling history. It's a moment that has been immortalized in a famous poster of the pinning moment titled "The Epic Struggle;" silent film of the match is available for viewing on YouTube.

It's surprising to realize that the Blubaugh-Habibi bout was NOT the gold medal match. After knocking off the champ, Blubaugh had two more matches that day ... pinning Bashir of Pakistan, then getting a decision over Turkey's Ogan to claim the gold medal in freestyle at 73 kg/161 pounds (welterweight).

Months later, having returned to farming in Oklahoma, Blubaugh was out plowing a field when a package arrived. It was his award as the world's Outstanding Wrestler for 1960, obstensibly for defeating the unbeatable Habibi.

Habibi came to the 1961 World Championships in Toledo, Ohio, seeking a rematch with Blubaugh. However, Blubaugh wasn't there -- as he put it, "in 1961, the gold medalists were not invited to the training camp." Blubaugh could not make a living from wrestling, and, by the rules of that era, even becoming a wrestling coach compromised a wrestler's amateur status. So Blubaugh returned to farming.

Incredibly, that wasn't the end of the Blubaugh-Habibi connection. In the late 1970s -- nearly two decades after The Epic Struggle in Rome -- Habibi was seeking to have his family escape the political turmoil taking place in his native Iran at the time. The Habibi family relocated to New Albany, Indiana at the time Blubaugh was head wrestling coach at Indiana University in Bloomington, about an hour or so away. In the early 1980s, the sons of the two 1960 Olympic rivals were on opposing high school wrestling teams in the Hoosier state, but there was no second-generation Habibi-Blubaugh match. However, according to Blubaugh, the two Olympic rivals had dinner together about five years ago.

Not since the Roaring 20s ...

The 1960 Rome Olympics were the first time the U.S. had three wrestlers earn gold medals since the 1924 Games in Paris. In terms of number of gold medalists from a U.S. wrestling team, Rome still ranks among the more successful Olympics ever.

Newspaper accounts stressed the "upset" nature of Terry McCann, Shelby Wilson and Doug Blubaugh each winning gold. Sports Illustrated was not the only "expert" to not anticipate any American grapplers taking the top step of the award podium in its pre-Olympics coverage. However, there were those who had no such doubts. Along with the "golden boys" themselves, another individual who did not seem at all surprised was U.S. freestyle coach Port Robertson.

"Last year, American wrestling coaches set up an Olympic development committee, and last night, you saw the first tangible proofs of that organization," Robertson told the Associated Press in a September 7 interview.
Robertson said one of the committee's most important efforts was the establishment of the three-week camp, held at the University of Oklahoma, where he was head wrestling coach.

"That kept the boys really in their toes as they had to keep in shape and keep wrestling hard to make the team."

Robertson also credited increased opportunities for American wrestlers for international experience. As part of a cross-cultural program, Russian wrestlers had come to the U.S. to compete in a series of matches in 1958, with the U.S. matmen going to Russia to wrestle in 1959.

Golden legacies

What happened to the gold medal winners from the 1960 U.S. Olympic wrestling team?

Doug Blubaugh concluded a wrestling career of more than 400 victories and just 17 defeats, then shared that experience with others as a college coach, first as an assistant at Michigan State for seven years. While coaching the Spartans, Blubaugh also served as feeestyle coach of U. S. teams in the 1971 Pan American Games and World Championships. In 1972, Blubaugh headed south to Indiana University, where he was head coach of the Hoosiers for a dozen years. By the mid 1980s, he resumed what he described as one of his two passions -- farming (the other passion being wrestling) -- back in his native Oklahoma ... though he still participates in instructional wrestling camps and other wrestling-related events. (Update: Doug Blubaugh was killed in a motorcycle accident in Oklahoma in May 2011. He was 76 years old.)

Doug Blubaugh and Shelby Wilson flank a good friend
Shelby Wilson also became a wrestling coach, serving at both the college and high school level, including seven years as head coach at the University of Colorado. More recently -- from 1985-2005 -- Wilson served as an assistant coach at Owen Valley High School at Spencer, Indiana, not far from his present home in Bloomington. While in Colorado in the early 1970s, Wilson and his wife Gretchen established The Stronghold Youth Foundation, a Christian-based service organization that continues in Bloomington, providing furniture and other housekeeping basics to students in need at Indiana University.

Blubaugh and Wilson are being honored by their Oklahoma hometown with bronze statues at the Ponca City High School Fieldhouse, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Rome Olympics.

After the Olympics, Terry McCann enjoyed a golden life. Not long after returning from Rome, McCann was featured on boxes of Wheaties -- a distinction reserved for top athletes -- and even appeared in a commercial for the breakfast cereal. He continued to serve the sport he loved, as a volunteer coach in Chicago for the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation, where the team won six AAU national freestyle titles and five Greco-Roman titles. McCann was instrumental in the establishment of what is now USA Wrestling. A natural, versatile athlete, McCann became an avid surfer and an executive in various organizations in that sport. McCann also put his leadership skills to work as executive director of Toastmasters International for a quarter-century. Then, in April 2005, Terry McCann was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by asbestos, which the wrestler was exposed to in that refinery job in Oklahoma while training for the Olympics. He passed away on June 7, 2006 at age 72.

All three of the 1960 Olympic gold medalists are Distinguished Members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater. Terry McCann was inducted into the Hall in 1977, Doug Blubaugh was welcomed in 1979, and Shelby Wilson in 1982. Four other wrestlers from the Rome Games are also in the Hall: Gray Simons in 1978, Bill Kerslake in 1982, Lou Giani in 2003, and, earlier this summer, Russ Camilleri.

Related Content

1960 Olympic wrestling highlight of venue and Greco Roman and freestyle wrestling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHpLdW0PaGo

Blubaugh vs. Habibi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9DJ2KVNSTk

Shelby Wilson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFe4dc5zu3A

Want to know more? Read the InterMat Rewind profiles of Terry and Fran McCann ... and Shelby Wilson.

For more photos of wrestling at the Olympics 50 years ago, visit the "1960 Rome" photo album at the Olympic Wrestling Yahoo! Group.

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