Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at the height of his influence and powers in 1960. At the kickoff of the Olympic Summer Games in Rome, he released a letter to all Olympians that grew feelings of good will towards the Soviet Union.
As David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “Khrushchev’s message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes gathered in Rome, even if it was boilerplate Soviet rhetoric… ‘The Olympic Games were worthy because they improved brotherly contact among sportsmen of different countries,’ he noted, concluding: ‘I wish all sportsmen taking part the best success in sports as well as in work, studies, and their private lives.’”
Maraniss emphasized that “American diplomats had been frustrated for days by the seeming propaganda coup the Soviets gained when newspapers around the world reported on the message of peace and friendship that Premier Khrushchev sent to the Olympians in Rome.”
Khruschev, in the summer of 1960, was heading to New York City to address the United Nations, and he was at the top of his game.
But four years later, at the end of the first week of the Tokyo Summer Games, the world learned that one of the most powerful men in the world was deposed. As Ron Barak, US gymnast at the 1964 Games related to me, it was all a bit of a mystery.
“The day in the Village began like any other day during that two-week period. Then people began noticing the Soviets were gone. No one had witnessed their departure and until they returned late in the day, no one knew what was behind it. But there was considerable speculation, the most prevalent being that something had happened back in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet athletes were going to be withdrawn.”
As it turned out, the Soviet athletes were brought together to be told the news, and likely coached on what they should say or not say, when Khruschev’s “retirement” was announced. Barak, spoke a little Russian and would occasionally chat with legendary Soviet gymnastic, Yuri Titov. When the buses returned, Barak went up to talk to Titov.
“Titov was a veteran Olympian, Tokyo being his third,” said Barak. “He was totally cool about the situation. He told me that it was just ‘routine’, and they took it in stride and cared little about Khrushchev’s removal. Titov was clear that it was not perceived by their athletes as anything remotely resembling ‘retirement’, but that was what they were ‘instructed’ to say. Titov didn’t mind telling me more than that because he was pretty senior and insulated, and just didn’t worry about towing the party line.”