David Wallechinsky's books on the Summer and Winter Olympics are pure gold

Sunday, 02 February 2014
By Mike Rowbottom

mikepoloneckHow might David Wallechinsky have felt upon hearing that the Sochi Winter Games would contain 12 new events?

One could imagine the man who has written those two set texts of sporting reference - The Complete Book of the Olympics and The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics - giving a sigh of resignation as he learned of the latest obligatory addition to his ongoing magnum opus.

One could imagine him cursing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for their ever-growing Topsy of a Games, with its never-ending expansions and alterations.

Because this author, as he well knows, is not a free man. He lives under a permanent obligation to a readership which has, in the space of the last 30 years, come to rely upon and relish his rich and regularly updated accounts of every Olympic event, winter or summer.

Dismiss now, however, the thought that this Olympian of the written word is even faintly put out at the magnitude of his latest challenge. For Wallechinsky, whose body of work includes other international bestsellers such as The People's Almanac, The Book of Lists and The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People (perhaps the most inviting title ever appended to a book), more is good. No. More is great.

His books are a collage, a loving selection of colourful, fascinating and  - crucially - true stories. Meanwhile the author, for whom Sochi will mark the 12th Olympics at which he has worked as a television and radio commentator - he is employed by NBC and Westwood One radio - has already taken the measure of his impending Olympic challenge.

Russia's Irina Avvakumova competing at the FIS Women’s ski jumping World Cup in Eferding, Austria. The women's ski jump will make its Olympic debut in Sochi ©Bongarts/Getty ImagesRussia's Irina Avvakumova competing at the FIS Women’s ski jumping World Cup in Eferding, Austria. The women's ski jump will make its Olympic debut in Sochi ©Bongarts/Getty Images

"It's good to see some of these new events," he told insidethegames from his home in Santa Monica. "We are finally getting women's ski jumping, for instance. It has been long overdue.

"The new snowboarding and freestyle events are also good, telegenic additions. But some of the new sports are a bit silly - for instance, the team figure skating. This is just fluff - not really necessary."

Wallechinsky, patently, is an enthusiast - but never a blind follower. As the founder of AllGov.com, for instance, he provides up-to-date news about more than 340 departments and agencies of the United States Government, detailing not just what it says it does, but what it actually does, and who is making a profit from it.

"We pack the articles in AllGov and related websites with as much information as we can," he said. "It's the same principle as in the Olympics books, but applied to politics and policy."

Two sections about different countries in the Book of Lists illuminate his enquiring mindset: "Who Rules?" and "Who REALLY rules?" It is a mindset which will have plenty to ponder upon in Russia this month...

"I am looking forward to Sochi," said Wallechinsky, who turns 66 two days before the Games begin. "Although I prefer the Summer to the Winter Games because it's more universal. Far fewer countries participate in the latter, and winter sports require expensive equipment. The Summer Games has lots of jumping and running, wrestling, and boxing - sports countries can compete in whether they are rich or poor.

"But of course we will be in Sochi and including 12 more events in our next edition, describing what happens in them."

Not straight away, however. Wallechinsky and his nephew Jaime Loucky, with whom he has shared the task of compiling his Complete Olympics books in recent years, believe the best lines are often worth waiting for.

"A lot of detail on medal winners comes out afterwards. That's why we don't write up events immediately afterwards. Of course in some cases that means taking in details about subsequent positive doping tests.

"Sometimes if someone dies you might see an obit in their local paper that has a line or a quote that wasn't in the international stories. And it can be the same for interviews with local papers, when athletes are more comfortable talking. You often get a good quote about what it was like when athletes have had some time to reflect instead of being asked when they are still out of breath."

Wallechinsky - who has changed his name back to its pre-Americanised version - comes from a family of writers. His mother, Sylvia Wallace, wrote the bestselling novel The Fountains, and his father, Irving Wallace, was a journalist, Hollywood screenwriter and novelist. His sister, Amy Wallace, was also a writer and all four family members collaborated on works such as the Book of Lists.

"I obviously love a good story," Wallechinsky said. "My father was a novelist, but he was also a journalist who wrote many, many newspaper articles. He had an interest in everything, and so I obviously inherited that. He loved a good story, and he was fascinated by so many aspects of life.

"When I was 12 years old he took me to the Rome Olympics, which had a huge effect on me."

A group of women sit beneath statues at the Olympic Stadium before the Rome 1960 Olympics, to which David Wallechinsky was taken by his father, Irving Wallace. Wallechinsky-style detail: the statues were originally put up by Mussolini but had been declared indecent by the Italian Church ©Hulton/ Getty ImagesA group of women sit beneath statues at the Olympic Stadium before the Rome 1960 Olympics, to which David Wallechinsky was taken by his father, Irving Wallace. Wallechinsky-style detail: the statues were originally put up by Mussolini but had been declared indecent by the Italian Church ©Hulton/ Getty Images

Twenty years later, that Olympic fascination manifested itself in a desire to write the Olympic almanac. All events, both current and discontinued, are covered. Nuggets of precious information, large and small, can be found under the results. It is a huge and daunting enterprise.

"When I started there was no internet," Wallechinsky recalled with a chuckle. "So with the help of my wife, Flora, I got in contact with the US Olympic Committee (USOC), where Bob Paul gave us access to their archives and allowed us to photocopy whatever we wanted. The USOC didn't have a library then - everything was stuffed into this former meat locker. When Bob realised how serious and obsessive I was he allowed me to photocopy what I wanted.

"Then we did the same thing with the Avery Brundage Collection at the University of Illinois. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to let us look at their archives, even though they also didn't have a library at the time. And the British Olympic Association (BOA) allowed me to come over to their headquarters in Wandsworth. All the BOA files were stuffed into a shed which had ivy growing in through the windows.

"I also spoke to my local Congressman and got stack access at the Library of Congress.

"We were doing this throughout 1981 and 1982. In the end I had box after box after box after box of documents I had photocopied. I also collected old magazines and newspapers. So we organised it - by sport, by event, and by year.

"We have had to be careful over the years because some of the stories we have found were not really accurate.

"For example, at the Nagano Games of 1998 the gold medallist in the men's figure skating was the Russian, Ilya Kulik. He was asked afterwards about how he relaxed by playing video games. A reporter said to him: 'Oh, we saw a profile of you on US TV - you like video games. What is your favourite one?' He said 'I never play video games. They put the controls into my hands when I was in front of the camera and filmed me fumbling with them.' So Kulik never knew anything about video games. You have to be careful about stories you hear...

"The best example of this was the story that Adolf Hitler had snubbed Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I looked into it and examined reports of Owens' early speeches, where he insisted it had not happened to him, but it became clear that it had probably happened on the day before to the two black American high jumpers who had won gold and silver, Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton. In the end, though, people believed the story so much that Owens gave up and began to include it in his speeches."

Jesse Owens, winner of four golds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is interviewed during the Games by the press. His own story about being snubbed by Hitler, however, came about by popular demand rather than because it was true - as Wallechinsky notes ©Hulton Archive/ Getty ImagesJesse Owens, winner of four golds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is interviewed during the Games by the press. His own story about being snubbed by Hitler, however, came about by popular demand rather than because it was true - as Wallechinsky notes ©Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Another "research coup", in Wallechinsky's phrase, came after Stella Walsh, the 100 metres runner who had won Olympic gold in 1932 and silver in 1936, was accidentally shot dead in 1980 during a robbery at a discount store in Cleveland. (Characteristically, Wallechinsky gives us the reason why the naturalised Polish woman made her fateful journey - she was there to buy ribbons for a reception that was to be held for the Polish basketball team.)

The autopsy revealed that the former Olympian had a condition known as "mosaicism", a mixture of male and female chromosomes which meant she had male rather than female sexual organs.

"When I came across the obit," Wallechinsky said, "I thought 'Wait a minute'. I found a quote from the Canadian official report of the 1932 Games which described Walsh's 'long, man-like strides'."

The section dealing with Walsh in The Complete Book of the Olympics also contains details of how a Polish journalist accused Walsh of being a man at the 1936 Games, forcing German officials to announce that they had given her a sex test which she had passed. It concludes: "All the while that Walsh had been setting 11 world records, winning 41 AAU titles and two Olympic medals, she was, by current rules, a man."

Wallechinsky commented: "Because she had been shot, there had to be an autopsy, and the original report mentioned her condition. But it wasn't really a big story when it happened because she was someone from the past. It became a bigger story though...

"I am always looking for the story that didn't get covered by the main media, that got overlooked. But if there is a big story, such as Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Winter Games, my aim is to try and do the definitive summary.

"In the latest edition of the Winter Games book, for instance, we deal with the death of the Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili that occurred before the 2010 Vancouver Games. We felt that people really needed to know how that course was built, and the fact that some of the best luge competitors were also having trouble with the course. The authorities seemed to be trying to blame the athletes."

Another of Wallechinsky's personal favourite anecdotes from the thousands compiled concerns Eleanor Holm, the daughter of a Brooklyn fire captain, who won the 1932 Olympic gold in the 100m backstroke at the age of 18 but never got to defend it after being dropped from the US team once they reached Germany for what you might call a spirited performance on the SS Manhattan - the boat conveying the bulk of the US team and officials to the Games. Holm drank, gambled - winning by her own estimation "a couple hundred dollars" - drank, poked her head out of her cabin porthole and shouted obscenities before being pulled back in by her room-mates, and drank again. But her biggest crime was refusing to be at all sorry as she maintained she was "free, white and 22".

Eleanor Holm, the vivacious US 100m backstroke swimmer, pictured in 1934, two years after winning Olympic gold and two years before being prevented from defending it for errant and drink-related behaviour on the ship over to Germany ©Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesEleanor Holm, the vivacious US 100m backstroke swimmer, pictured in 1934, two years after winning Olympic gold and two years before being prevented from defending it for errant and drink-related behaviour on the ship over to Germany ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"It was a political charge put together by the authorities," Wallechinsky added, before calling to mind the story of Jim Thorpe, the US decathlete of Indian stock who won the 1912 decathlon title but whose name was struck from the records during his lifetime for a minor infringement of his amateur status when it was revealed that he had earned $25 (£15/€18) a week two years before the Games playing minor league baseball.

"The Jim Thorpe story always had a special resonance for me," Wallechinsky said. "It showed how we sometimes treat our heroes. On the same theme, in the late 1970s my wife and I decided we needed to get some more exercise and we went down to enrol at our local community college and sign up for co-ed soccer.

"The coach there was coach Smith - Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic 200m champion. He was happy to get that job, happy finally to be where he was respected. He had gone through all those years after Mexico being ostracised because of his Black Power salute on the rostrum. Interesting to see how we treat people like him."

The "Black Power" salute on top of the rostrum which earned 1968 Olympic 200m champion Tommie Smith, and bronze medallist John Carlos, expulsion from the US team and many years of discrimination ©AFP/ Getty ImagesThe "Black Power" salute on top of the rostrum which earned 1968 Olympic 200m champion Tommie Smith, and bronze medallist John Carlos, expulsion from the US team and many years of discrimination ©AFP/ Getty Images

Wallechinsky rejects the suggestion that it is now harder to find stories given the increasing coverage of so many Olympic events.

"No, it's not harder," he said. "Even if everybody has picked up big stories, there are still smaller stories from people that don't win medals. At the Games, everyone is running around and chasing the medal winners, but there are many other stories.

"Before the internet I used to subscribe to around 15 papers from around the world - English, French, Italian - and all the reports would be photocopied, clipped and put in files. I have 12 filing cabinets - worth of these clippings. I don't know what to do with them now."

Asked whether he doesn't find a similar problem finding space for new material in his books, Wallechinsky responded: "With the Winter Olympics book it is not a problem. But the Summer Olympics book is already enormous and it has got more and more complicated to publish. But I have never cut the stories because the book was getting too long to accommodate new material. It is all still there - you don't have to worry about that.

"I would only jettison a story if I didn't think it was correct. I automatically edit each story down to its basics. I try not to get involved in fine language. It is not about showing off as a writer - it's about information."

Now Wallechinsky is preparing himself as a conduit of yet more information at the forthcoming Games in Russia - and as a gatherer of the same information for future use.

"I will carry on with the Olympic books for as long as I can do them," he said, "although the awkward thing is they are not cost-effective because I put so much time into them. But the Olympics is not how I make my living. That comes from my other work."

While the Olympics may not pay all his bills, however, it clearly holds a place in his heart. He was awarded the Olympic Order by the IOC in 2002 for his contributions to the Olympic Movement, and is now President of the Society of Olympic Historians.

"You get 10,000 competitors at a Games, and two thirds of them go knowing they have no chance of winning a medal," Wallechinsky reflected. "They do it for the classic reason put forward by [Baron Pierre] De Coubertin.

"In general at an Olympics I go where I am told to. But this time in Sochi I have made a special request to go the women's ski jumping event because over the years I have always said how stupid it was that there was no women's ski jump at the Olympics. So now that there is, I want to be there."

The RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre at the Sochi Games, venue for ski jumping. David Wallechinsky plans to be there to see the women make their Olympic debut ©Getty ImagesThe RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre at the Sochi Games, venue for ski jumping. David Wallechinsky plans to be there to see the women make their Olympic debut ©Getty Images

It should be a great event. You can bet it will get a great write-up...

Wallechinsky's latest version of the Complete Book of the Winter Olympics has been published ahead of the Sochi Games and is available here.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play – the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £12.99) is available at the insidethegames.biz shop. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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