As he did in 2016, Orrin Konheim spoke with David Wallechinsky, one of the top experts of the Olympic Games, to provide some clarity on some issues from the Tokyo Olympics.
We thank Mr. Wallechinsky for his time and Orrin Konheim for this fine feature.
Reposted with corrections, November 20, 2021.
Marcel Jacobs, 2021 European Indoor Champion, 60m, 2021 Tokyo Olympic Champion, 100m, the biggest upset of the Tokyo Olympic Games, photo by European Athletics
Though not an athlete, David Wallechinsky is one of the greatest fixtures of the modern Olympics. His best-selling almanacs, Complete History of the Summer Olympics or Complete History of the Winter Olympics, are generally used as a starting research point for nearly every article you’ll ever read on the Olympic Games.
But his contributions go far beyond that. He is one of the founding presidents of the International Society of Olympic Historians and a past president. He also has spent the last few years interviewing noted Olympians over the age of 75 to preserve their stories for the ISOC’s historical records.
More importantly, he has broadcasted every Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics since 1984. 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. His first edition was printed in 1983 and he has updated the Summer version up to 2008 with plans uncertain for the future.
The following interview is edited for clarity and length:
Q: The games were obviously disappointing in the sense that there were no fans, what silver linings did you find, and what kind of silver linings were there on the part of the Japanese?
A: First of all, just to speak about athletics is that the athletes in other sports in other events were allowed to come to the stadium and sit in the stands, so there was actually, limited though it was, a sense of being in the Olympics. When Italy won a gold medal, the Italians were singing along to the national anthem, not to mention even the Italian journalists. And also some of the field events (in particular, the high jump) happened right in front of where the athletes were seated. So you had instances of athletes turning to the audience like they always do, so they said “come on… give me some energy”, but it certainly wasn’t the same
Q: I saw a road race for cycling on TV and it was lined with fans, so were fans anywhere?
A: Only in these outdoor events. 3-on-3 basketball was a very small venue as it should be. In the woman’s final the US won but there were no spectators The men’s final was Russia vs Latvia, if you know anything about the history of Russia vs Latvia, any Latvian athlete who was in Tokyo showed up for that match, but it needed a small venue like that to create that atmosphere.
Q: Is it possible, although now we’re going back to what if territory, that they could have given tickets to people who hadn’t been vaccinated?
A: Here’s the blunder. The Japanese government made a huge blunder which is that they didn’t vaccinate people. By the time, the games started, 25% hadn’t been vaccinated and they started with older people.
If they could have delayed the games a few months, they could have done an enormous amount of vaccination for the athletes but that wasn’t going to happen.
Q: Last time, you spoke of patriotism being somewhat of an illusion in terms of athlete motivation. Is the same true for team medals? For instance, is there anything related to the Italian medals?
A: I think it was just a good year for them, that’s all. I don’t attribute it to any program that I know about.
Q: Additionally when I saw [Gianmarco] Tamberi clapping and riling up the crowd, I started thinking that the event could be the most amazing.
A: There was a difference between the high jump and the pole vault (at these games) because the pole vault was at the other end of the stadium and they tried desperately to get people to clap.
Q: What were your thoughts on the high jump tie?
A: It seemed to be more of a topic than at the Olympics, everyone was fine with me. Yes people asked me about it.
In the 1936 pole vault, two Japanese finished 2nd and 3rd, so the rules at the time warrant[ed] that someone should be second, and the two Japanese refused to do a vault-off. So they said ok, they drew lots or something, one got the Silver, one got the Bronze, they went back to a jeweler in Japan, cut their medals in half and went to a jeweler, and fused it in half.
Q: We’ve had ties in many things. We had a tie between China and Ukraine in the 2015 high jump world championships and we had a 3-way high jump tie in the bronze. Ties have happened before?
A: I’ve always thought the jump-off is a bizarre idea. You’ve just missed at 2.39m, now you’re gonna go back down? It goes against anything competitive.
Q: One thing I noticed before the games, it seems like there was a decent amount of publicity about Michael Norman, how he was the great hope in the 400, and Noah Lyles. In fact, Norman didn’t have the fastest time this year (that was Randolph Ross) and Lyles was not as dominant as he was in 2019. Do you think it took the media a while to pivot? Do you think they bet on certain race horses really early?
A: Well, I have to bow out of it because I didn’t see it on the media coverage of it at all because I was there.
Q: Well, Noah Lyles was mentioned on the front page of Sports Illustrated
A: Well, that’s a curse (laughs)…Yeah, I mean they’re looking desperately for somebody to lift up the ratings and it was all about Simone Biles and what’s her name sells positive….
Q: Shelby Houlihan? Sha’Carri Richardson?
A: Richardson, that’s it. Let’s face it, they were looking for young African-American women and it didn’t work. And yet, it could have if only they paid attention to the 400 hurdles.
Q: Who do you think was the MVP of the performance…McLaughlin?
A: Sydney McLaughlin, and her being pushed by Mohammed…Her performance was great…and then in the relay. Although Athing Mu, wow, that was pretty good, but that was not a surprise, she did exactly what she was going to do and she did it perfectly….Overall, I was struck by the camaraderie of the athletes in general. There was way more embracing, of your rival. If you’re looking at track and field, we’re all looking at the disappointment and blah, blah, blah, but if you look at it from an international point of view 23 different countries won gold medals in track and field and that’s quite a statistic.
Q: What do you make of the idea that the US disappointed?
A: Keep in mind that despite everything that the U.S. men AND U.S. women separately both earned more track and field medals than any other party.
Q: Some people have pointed out that most of these athletes were mostly performing at their bests. For example, in the 200, the U.S. silver and bronze medalists either matched their season bests or set new personal bests. In the 400, the winner Stephen Gardner went under 44 which was only done once the whole year.
A: I think it was more outraced
I happen to be sitting with the journalist from the Bahamas, they were pretty confident they felt that he was at the top of his game. Of course, they were excited but they weren’t surprised.
I don’t think it was a question of being outperformed, as in a lot of sports like basketball (even though the US won the gold) you’re seeing more of an international sport and it’s the same thing with the track.
And with the lockdowns and pandemics, a lot of athletes around the world had a lot of time to practice and improve their performance and they did. Obviously, not all of them did, but you only need one person like Portugal, Venezuela, and Norway (to steal the Gold), so I think good training and preparation around the world really helped. I don’t think I see it as a flaw in the US system, if the same thing happens in Paris then, maybe.
Q: Was Grant Holloway, maybe the biggest upset of the games?
A: Oh gosh, let me think (makes clicking noise), well the men’s 100m was the biggest surprise, not even close. Let’s not forget, one of the oddities for me is that four different athletes with American fathers won gold medals for other countries and I never noticed that before. To me, I don’t have a theory or anything, it’s just an oddity. I don’t know how much it made to the U.S. press but he spoke in such moving words re-establishing terms with his blood father. Was that covered?
Q: There was, from what I saw, a question of [being] a flag jumper, but he’s been in Italy since he was 6 years old (correction: 6 months) but I think he’s very legitimately a person who’s patriotic to that country and legitimately represents them.
A: No, what I mean is that he went to a sports psychologist in Italy who told him that he should re-establish a connection with his birth father.
They began exchanging text messages on Whatsapp and talking to each other. And his father, who he still has not met in person, has been cited as an inspiration for his medal. It was all over the Italian press [but not the American press].
Q: How big of a deal was Sifan Hassan?
A: To those of us who follow the sport, she was fantastic. I was right at the finish line and she ran that last 100 in what, 13.2? And it was really disturbing, I could see it, she was seriously dehydrated as were others. The Japanese medical staff was super ready to bring people wheelchairs, but these people didn’t want wheelchairs they wanted water (laughing).
Q: I will see that though there’s a lot of focus on sprinters Shelby Houlihan actually got a lot of coverage in being banned. Do you think she might have gotten a lot of press if she went to the Olympics? Or do you think she’s guilty?
A: I can’t, I can’t. There are surprises at the Olympics, look at women’s pole vault, you can’t tell who’s gonna do well and who isn’t.
Q: There have been all kinds of talk over who’s guilty of doping and who innocent. Do you, as someone who’ve covered the Olympics as 1984, have a better ability to participate in this parlor game?
A: There were many instances over the years where the person tested negative and we’re all going (sarcastically) Really?
What’s frustrating is that with Hassan is that there is no evidence ….it’s not as obvious as with a sprinter, weight lifter, or shot putter….
I think one issue that I haven’t heard you brought up yet is the testosterone issue. The two Namibian women in the 200, one of whom won the Silver medal. These two women the testosterone level was too high that they couldn’t take part in any 400.
This is an issue that the IOC really has to deal with. The testosterone level is way higher. The IOC is going to have to go back and do an analysis at what point do testosterone levels. It’s also unfortunate for the women who win.
Q: Well, my assumption was that the science was already determined that there was a range where intrasex women have an advantage, so it’s a lot easier to respect that than, say, the 800.
A: I think there’s gonna be more research, that’s the question. I have to say, for me, [it] is a fascinating topic because there are good arguments on both sides.
Q: Any other positive thoughts of the games? There was an Indian javelin thrower [that won]. That must have been a first.
A: They declared that from [now on], August 6th will be National Javelin day in India. The unbelievable obsession with cricket and field hockey I do these extended video interviews with the IOC museums of athletes that are older than 80, I went to field hockey, field hockey, that’s it, and that’s it, that’s how you became a hero. There’s nothing about Indians that they shouldn’t win multiple gold medals. There’s a huge variety of athletes and body types, but they don’t have a system and they don’t have role models.
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