I first met Dr. Zarnowski during the early 1990s, as part of the VISA Decathlon program. Listening to Zeke speak on the history of the decathlon with precision and love, are some of the highlights of my time in our sport. Here is a fine piece by David Hunter on the Dean of Multi-eventers, Dr. Frank Zarnowski.
At the recent NCAA champs, one long time observer of the sport noted that Frank Zarnowski’s commentating on the NCAA was “the finest commentating I have ever heard at a sporting event.”
June 26th, 2016
At the Olympic Trials – and other championship gatherings – even experienced track & field fans can be somewhat confused or even intimidated by watching the decathlon and the heptathlon. These multi-events are different animals. There is a string of events. The competition spans over two days. Different rules apply for wind and false starts. Performances are measured in minutes, seconds, tenths, hundredths, feet and inches, and meters. But don’t forget: the event scoring is actually by points. And what the heck is this “Gold Book” they keep talking about?
Happily, in our sport we have a knowledgeable and slavishly committed individual who has dedicated his life to exploring – and ultimately sharing – every nook and cranny of the history of the multi-events. Dartmouth professor Frank Zarnowski is without peer in the depth of his understanding and the magnitude of his unwavering passion for the decathlon and the heptathlon.
Dr. Z remembers his first encounter with to the two-day, 10-event competition to determine The World’s Greatest Athlete. “My very first exposure to the decathlon was when I was in high school,” explains the Maryland native. “I saw the televised decathlon in the Rome Olympics. They were flying the tapes from Rome to New York every day. I remember seeing Rafer Johnson win the decathlon gold medal. And that kind of stuck in the back of my head.” Later – while teaching at Mount St. Mary’s, his alma mater – Zarnowski began hands-on involvement with the event himself. “I was involved in track and we had a really good, all-around athlete named Bill Walsh,” he explains with enthusiasm. “And I ran a decathlon for him in 1967 – specifically for him – so that he would have a little bit of experience. And I ran it again in ’68 so that he would have a chance to go to the Olympic Trials. So every year I would continue to run a little decathlon – it became an invitational – at Mount St. Mary’s.”
The good doctor became hooked – just about the time American colleges were poised to give the decathlon a big boost. “In 1970 the NCAA – after being embarrassed by the NAIA which got the jump on them – included the decathlon in their national championship as a scoring event for the first time. And in those days, the NCAA actually had two divisions – a college division and a university division. So that first year I went to NCAA College Division Championships at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota,” Zarnowski explains. “I remember going out the first morning to watch. And there wasn’t an announcer. There was simply a live microphone on the infield and lots of people walking around asking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ So as I picked up a heat sheet, I said I would be the announcer until they found one.” But wait, there’s more. “After I did the impromptu announcing at the first NCAA college division decathlon championship, I hitched a ride to Drake and went out to the field to watch the NCAA university division decathlon. And I was thinking I was going to be the announcer there since they’re probably going to make the mistake of not having an announcer for the decathlon. Jimmy Duncan – the legendary Drake Relays announcer – was there serving as the announcer, calling the 100 meters. When I saw him behind the microphone, I thought ‘OK, I guess I’ll just sit and watch this,'” recalls Zarnowski with a smile. “After the 100 meters was over, Duncan put the microphone back on the infield stand and he walked away. So I jumped over the backstretch fence and walked onto the infield and asked, ‘What happened to the announcer?’ And people said, ‘Oh that was Jimmy Duncan. He teaches at the school of communication here at Drake. And he went back to teach his classes.’ So I asked, ‘Who’s going to announce the long jump and the shot put?’ They replied, ‘Oh, we don’t have anybody.’ So I picked up the mic again.” And with a laugh, he adds, “That was 1970 and I haven’t stopped since.”
Now in his 5th decade of announcing, Zarnowski appreciates his good fortune. “I am the luckiest guy,” declares Z. “When I go to major track meets, I not only get a great seat, they even let me out onto the field. And I get up close and personal with the athletes.” And Zarnowski quickly learned – and worked to perfect – an announcing style that is essential to the extended drama that is the two-day event. “The very first thing you find out is there are these long periods of silence where nothing happens. The rules require 30 minute rest between events. And once you give the results, you’ve got 30 minutes before the next event. I found out very quickly if you want to be an announcer, you have to have lots and lots of information at your fingertips,” explains Zarnowski. “That engendered a reason to research for decathlon records in each individual event because there was no such thing at the time other the overall decathlon record itself. So I was in a sense creating or establishing categories of records to fill the time – like, say, the world, collegiate, American, and various meet, and facility records for the decathlon 100 meters.” Undaunted by the Herculean task of combing over past performances to establish lists of decathlon bests for each event – a task that would scare away even the most dedicated track & field buffs – Zarnowski plowed onward. “You have to know a lot about that stuff to be able to be an announcer, otherwise there is nothing going on. A decathlon announcer has to be able to fill in the dead moments in the competition.”
Zarnowski’s growing passion for the decathlon was fueled by the friendship he established with Track & Field News co-founder Bert Nelson. “He was a decathlon fanatic and he was very encouraging,” Z states. “In the early 70’s, he invited me to his offices and said, ‘Here are the keys to the Track & Field News offices. I’ll show you where all of our background information is. After we leave at 6:00 p.m., you can come in and spend all night in our offices and you can copy anything you want that we have in our files.’ I did that over 3 nights from 6 pm to 6 am. I copied everything by hand. And I left with a ton of information about the decathlon. And all of a sudden now, I’ve got lots of information; I could put a record book together.” For several years Zarnowski and Nelson collaborated to publish annual record books. Adds Zarnowski with a laugh, “He’s the guy who told me, ‘You should continue to do this – because no one else does.'” Or would!
A relentless author, Zarnowski has written numerous books and continues to grind out information about the multis. From 1976 through 2000 – when his publication began online distribution – Dr. Z cranked out a decathlon newsletter 8 times a year. “I had to type them myself, paste everything up, get it printed, put stamps on it, and mail it.” If any of the 500 subscribers – who were charged annual subscription rates of $3.00/year – failed to pay, there were few consequences. “If you didn’t pay, it didn’t matter. But I would always send a little reminder that if you didn’t pay, you would lose self-esteem.”
Zarnowski – who now posts 55 newsletters a year – has assembled newsletter volumes with the intent of ultimately donating his life’s work to the LA84 Foundation Sports Library in Los Angeles. “Now I have about 15 volumes containing more than 740 newsletters from over the years. My goal when I finish is to have a complete printed record of my event so a hundred years from now somebody will say, ‘This is a complete record of a track & field event.'”
Dr Z. – who has called “maybe 5 or 6 world record” events, including the deca WR’s for Bruce Jenner and Daley Thompson – can identify the witnessed decathlon he considers most memorable. “It was the decathlon at the ’12 Trials because of Ashton Eaton’s world record,” declares Zarnowski. “I remember running out of the press box and down the back stairs [after the 9th event] thinking I have to find Harry Marra to make sure he understands what Ashton needs. And as I was running down the steps, I ran into Harry running up the steps. And we sat there on the steps and compared notes to determine what his pace would need to be in the 1500 to break the world record,” notes Zarnowski, clearly invigorated by this remembrance. “When we finished, Harry looked at me and simply said, “Jack ’em up! Make sure he’s ready to go.” So the theme of my introduction for the 1500 was to tell the crowd that he [Eaton] is doing this for you, for the University of Oregon, for the city of Eugene.” As the start time for the final event neared, Hayward Field was like a Hollywood movie set: after days of inclement weather, suddenly the rain stopped; the clouds parted; and the sun emerged and glistened off the damp infield grass. The capacity crowd featured every living American Olympic gold-medal winning decathlete – all of whom gathered near the 1500 meter start line. There was bedlam in the stands as the decathlon’s final event got underway. “I remember looking out from the press box to the East Grandstand and there were people in the first row leaning over the front railing and they were pounding the green boards with their fists and their shoes. They were going nuts!,” Zarnowski exclaims. Aided with fast pacing by Curtis Beach, Eaton drove on to set the world record- even passing Beach on the homestretch as the Duke athlete swung wide and slowed down to give Eaton his special moment. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Dr. Z recalls. “Calling Ashton’s 1500 meters in his ’12 Trials world record may be the single most exciting event moment in my career. My God, what a moment.”
Zarnowski – whose multi-generational identification with the decathlon and heptathlon is unmatched by any other person in any other sector of track & field – has given thought to his legacy. “I want to be remembered as a fan,” offers Dr. Z without hesitation. “I want people to appreciate how good these multi competitors are as athletes. The ability to do ten different events is not mediocre in any sense. These are great, great athletes. And I want people to remember and appreciate how good these athletes are.” Always an ambitious visionary, the good doctor has a remedy to ensure remembrance. “I want to have exhibits. I want to do documentaries. And I want to write and publish books. But it is all designed so that people remember the decathlon. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it, but one of my goals is to produce a lengthy documentary about the history of the event.” To be complete, the documentary will have to showcase the important role that this devoted announcer, journalist, and archivist has played in preserving and promoting the event he loves. Dave Hunter