As we build towards the 2017 London World Championships (August 4-13, 2017), Orrin Konheim provided @runblogrun with a fascinating interview with David Wallechinsky, the man behind Complete History of the Summer Olympics and the Complete History of the Winter Olympics. Wallechinsky provides @runblogrun readers with some fascinating observations on the sport, on the World Champs, on the Olympic movement, and most importantly, provides our readers with some positive thoughts about the future of the Olympic sport in general and the most popular Olympic sport, athletics, in particular. Topics also include his memories of Rio 2016, his upcoming interview with Sir Roger Bannister and his video work with the IOC.
The Complete Books of the Olympics, by David Wallechinsky, from www.insidethegames.biz
It is not an understatement to say that David Wallechinsky could be considered the world’s foremost Olympic historian. David is the son of acclaimed screenwriter Irving Wallace and brother of noted memoirist Amy Wallace, Wallechinsky’s love for the Olympics was fostered through two events: his father got his first big break ghostwriting Jim Thorpe’s biography, and his family took him to the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
When the Olympics came to his hometown of Los Angeles, Wallechinsky wanted to consult a book that comprehensively chronicled every event in Olympics history. When he found out that no such book existed, Wallechinsky, who was already making a name for himself as a best-selling writer of almanacs, decided to write it himself. The result is two exhaustively researched almanacs, Complete History of the Summer Olympics or Complete History of the Winter Olympics that are generally used as a starting point for nearly every article you’ll ever read on the Games.
While Wallechinsky pursues other interests in book form — he has written on everything from world dictators to his high school class to the sex lives of presidents and runs the website www.Allgov.com which details government bureaucracy – he has covered every Olympics since 1984 and is the reigning president of the International Society of Olympic Historians,
The following interview is edited for clarity and length:
Orrin: So let’s start with the past year, what were the Rio Olympics like from the perspective of someone on the ground.
David: When you say, on the ground, I literally managed to get myself on the finish line for the 100 meters so, you know, it was great.
I think that one of the things that, right off the bat, was startling was the performance on the 1st day by Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia. She was a 5K specialist and then she just started running the 10K in June. So like six weeks competitively. And then she just, you know, took off and ran away from the field. I think it’s a good use of the word “awesome”.
Orrin: When you were watching what were you thinking? You have a long time to watch and see if the record will fall.
David: Well, she was just blowing everyone away. Because she was a 5K specialist there was a certainty that she was going to hold on. But breaking the record, I was unprepared for that, that’s an old record.
David: I’d also like to give you some credit to the African-American woman in general, even in teams sport. They won 14 Gold medals. If they’d have been a nation they would have been 6th place even though they would have been the 67th most populous nation. And I thought a lot of them didn’t get the credit they deserved.
Orrin: I think Dalilah Mohammed going into the event might not have been a favorite so she might not have been as much buzz, I would estimate. Was she the only African-American champion?
David: Michelle Carter in the woman’s shotput, the first American woman to win that event and in the long jump [Tianna Bartoletta].
Orrin: What was the crowd like there?
David: Well, one interesting thing is that the Brazillians were excited by Usain Bolt and any time a Brazilian raced at all, but what surprised me was the foreigners. If so and so came from Great Britain, you would hear “Yaaay!”, if so and so came from Canada, you would hear”yaay!”but when an American was announced it was largely quiet because Americans were afraid of Zika and crime and all this, and although this was played up big in the United States, it wasn’t in the rest of the world, so it was a very a disappointing turnout by the crowd. You just didn’t get the support [for the U.S.] as past Olympics.
Orrin: I also want to ask you about the Brazilian pole vaulter who I believe was the only one who won a medal for his home country at Rio’s track and field. When you write up that result, are you going to note any controversy because I think the French person (Lavillenie) said that the Brazilian crowd was too loud.
David: Well, what the French guy [defending Olympic champion Renaud Lavinellie] said was he didn’t appreciate when the Brazilian fans booed against him. And the Brazlian fans didn’t have any experience in sports other than soccer, and so they treated every sport like it was a football match where they’re always booing and yelling and all that and there was concern by the international community.
Orrin: Do you think the Brazilians who attended the track were kind of disappointed in not winning more than one medal?
David: I can’t tell. I mean to them all that mattered was winning the men’s soccer final, and everything else was like gravy. When they won their first gold medal in women’s judo, that was a huge story in Brazil.
Orrin: As for the 100 meters, that might be an impending crisis of sorts due to the popularity of the sport due to Usain Bolt.
David: So he says. I don’t know, I think he was an overwhelming presence. So he’s hard to replace, there’s no one on the horizon quite like him.
Orrin: But I think it’s important to point out that there are people in track and field who are just as dominant as Bolt. Mo Farah hasn’t lost an international race since 2011 and David Rudisha was also extremely dominant in the 800 meters for a cycle that stretched over two Olympics. However, so much of track and field’s focus is on marketing the 100 meters which I think is kind of foolish since it’s among the shortest events.
David: Almost everybody in the world, at some point has run a 100 meters so it’s a very universal thing and that makes it all the more powerful. For those of us who love track and field, I’m fascinated by how well anyone can run anything. But to me, the things from 800 meters to marathon are most interesting because they’re not using the same tactics [each time]. They’re not staying in their lane, they’re weaving and out. But the 100 meters is the most universal.
Orrin: So you’re saying that the emphasis on the 100 meters is based on that it’s the flagship event but also that Usain Bolt has a very magnetic personality?
David: At Rio, the Brazilians loved Usain Bolt. As they were getting ready for the starting blocks, Brazilians in the stands were cheering “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” They love him for his personality. After he won, when he was taking the victory lap, he stopped to people to take selfies with fans and if people were nervous, he’d stop to help them with their camera. He’s very audience friendly.
I don’t think being a sprinter is necessary for being a superstar, but it somehow helps. What Bolt had going for him was fantastic ability combined with showmanship and a good personality, and, in the longer events they tend to be quieter people. Marathon runners, when they cross the finish line, they pretty much want to sit down, it’s hard to get people as excited about someone who’s a hurdler or a shotputter or a steeple chaser or any of those events because, like I said, everyone at any point in life has tried to run 100 meters.
Orrin: What about the universal experience of running a single lap around a track as Wayne van Niekirk pushed to sub-43 this past year..
David: I was right there when it happened. It was an unbelievable race, great performance, it depends, can he keep on top of the game? Mo Farrah is a such a great hero in Great Britain , but how many people in the United States know who he is? It’s unfortunate about the sports. But with the IOC and NBC developing Olympic channels, things could change.
Orrin: Another universal experience to Americans is running the mile in school, so perhaps people might have resonated with Matt Centrowitz’s gold medal win?
David: That was a fantastic moment. It was a pleasure to see an American winning in the 1500 meters.
Orrin: Centrowitz led a charge of seven American runners getting medals in distance events which is very far above average in a field that’s typically dominated by Ethiopians and Kenyans. Was this expected? What did you think?
David: First of all, [outside of the medals] Benard Lagat, came to the United States from Kenya, and almost medaled and had a great race too. I actually thought Galen Rupp finishing 5th in the 10000 matters was a fantastic performance. Evan Jager, you know, that was great. So I think that one of the most important things in track and field is role models. So now you have role models for younger runners like how Galen Rupp in the marathon. Young people paying attention in the United States, can now say, look there’s someone from our country, maybe I should try now and we’re seeing the same thing on the women’s side.
Orrin: True. I haven’t been following the sport forever but I grew up in the generation of Alan Webb, Ryan Hall, Matt Tegenkamp, and Dathan Ritzenheim, Do you think they had something to do with rolling it forward to later generations?
David: I think it has to do with the coaching first of all. I think it’s the new guys too. Again, if you go to the women’s side, how many American girls have ever thought of running the woman’s steeplechase and then Emma Coburn does what she does and then young girls will want to do that.
Orrin: So do you think that U.S. will be able to continue to dominate in these world championships and beyond?
David: I don’t see that going away in the long run, when you have role models, you have role models. As I have said, there’s a lot of role models, good coaching, and a combination of ethnic groups.
Orrin: Could you clarify what you mean by ethnic groups?
David: For example, if you look at the African championships, shorter running events dominated by western Africa, longer running events dominated by eastern Africa, and here you have both groups in the US and great runners who aren’t African Americans. US has such a wide variety in the population, giving US the chance to excel in a wider variety than most other countries.
Orrin: Last I spoke to you, you spoke about how you stopped writing your book series chronicling the Olympics. Is that still off the table?
David: I didn’t write the book because it ceased to be cost-effective. I was thinking about writing the winter book again, but with all the doping changes, it’s really hard. I can’t write about Sochi right now because we don’t really know who won. I feel that the Russian doping scandal is the biggest Olympic story right now and we’re going to be see if more testing of all the results and you’re going to see all the Russians stripped of their medals and it’s very difficult for me as a writer to cover it when I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, even though it’s over two years later.
Orrin: I thought the scandal affected the Russian track and field team. You’re saying it affected the Russian bobsledders and skiers as well?
David: Oh, enormously. Much more than track and field, because the Sochi Games were held in Russia. What the Russians did in Sochi was they identified 37 possible medalists and got them to give clean samples, which they hid in a storage room next to the doping laboratory. And the Russians went in late at night, and switched the dirty samples for the saved clean samples by passing the tubes through a hole in the wall.
Orrin: And what have you been doing in the last year since Rio?
David: I’ve been doing video interviews for the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. I just finished interviewing 99-year-old Durward Knowles, who competed in 8 Olympics as a sailor, including earning a gold medal 1964, in the Bahamas. Next I’m interviewing Roger Bannister
Orrin: Is he still in good health?
David: He has Parkinson’s disease but he’s glad to be tied to the Olympic Museum. He’s a neurologist.
Orrin: Do you think his breaking of the four-minute mile is something he gets tired of talking about?
David: Well, that’s one of the questions I’ll be asking him. He seems to be very polite about it, he understands that it was something special, but there’s much more to his life, from what I gather he seems more proud of his long, long career as a doctor in neurology.
Orrin: Will you be watching the events at London? You’re primarily an Olympic historian. To what degree do you follow track in the off-season?
David: I don’t follow track and field as obsessively in the off-years and because I’m interviewing Roger Bannister in Oxford, and coincidentally it’s that week [that the IAAF championships are held] but I don’t have tickets to go to the games. I’ll certainly watch what I can.
Orrin: So the next edition of the book is difficult to write because of the drugs and the cost-effectiveness?
David: It is frustrationg because so often I come across stories I would like to share through my book. I do enjoy the video interviews I do for the IOC and it’s an honor to meet these older former Olympians. I also am happy to perform my duties as president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. I’m pleased that we added hundreds of articles to the ISOH web site.
Orrin: That’s a real shame but I hope it comes back eventually. Do you have any closing thoughts about the Olympics?
David: Despite all of the problems, I still like the fact that the Olympics brings together people from every country in the world and that each of the athletes has a story worth telling.