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An Olympian In His Own Write

September 10, 2000|DAVID DAVIS

"Pass the Wallechinsky" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it's a phrase that's frequently heard in press boxes this time of year. Every two years, since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, writer-historian David Wallechinsky has produced the bible of the Olympics--a compendium of facts, stats, analyses and anecdotes, the newest of which is "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics: Sydney 2000 Edition" (Overlook Press). Wallechinsky, 52, attended Palisades High School (about which he co-wrote "What Really Happened to the Class of '65") and lives in Santa Monica and Provence, France. During the Sydney Games, which open Friday, you can hear his color commentary on KNX-AM 1070.


Q: Your father was novelist Irving Wallace. Your name is David Wallechinsky. How did that happen?

A: My grandfather was born Wallechinsky in the old country, and he had his name changed by immigration officials at Ellis Island. When I began writing professionally, I changed my name to Wallechinsky to honor my grandfather. I didn't think the U.S. government should be deciding people's names.

Q: How did you get interested in the Olympics?

A: My father loved the Olympics--he'd been [athlete] Jim Thorpe's ghostwriter when Thorpe was down and out and digging ditches--and I was raised on tales of Thorpe and [Italian marathoner] Dorando Pietri. When I was 12 years old, he brought me to the Rome Olym-pics. And that was a wonderful experience.

Q: What's new in this edition?

A: In 1991, seven of us formed an organization called the International Society of Olympic Historians. We're now filling in names, results and stories from early Games. For instance, I discovered that a discus medalist from 1936, Gordon Dunn, later was mayor of Fresno. He cleaned up the red-light district and became known as "No Fun Dunn."

Q: What are you looking forward to in Sydney?

A: Any running event from 800 meters on, because the minute they're not running in lanes, there's an added element of not only strategy but psychology. Like during the 10,000 meters in Atlanta, with Haile Gebrselassie running versus the Kenyans versus the Moroccans. I'm sorry that Americans don't appreciate the distance races, but those are great stories.

Q: Swimming will be popular, right?

A: It's going to be a big deal in Australia, because that's their strength. In general, I don't find swimmers to be as interesting as, for example, track athletes, because swimmers tend to be younger. They don't have as developed personalities as, say, distance runners, who are older and have had a life.

Q: Many Olympic swimmers become actors. Who's your favorite Olympic swimmer-turned-actor?

A: Buster Crabbe, because he was such a cool character. I met him once. He was like a senior delinquent.


ON SEPT. 11, when HBO airs "One Day in September" at 8 p.m., viewers will finally be able to see the definitive film about the tragic events surrounding the Palestinian kidnapping of Israeli team members at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In March, "One Day" won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. With the exception of a weeklong screening to satisfy Academy rules, "One Day," directed by Kevin Macdonald, was never released domestically. As controversial as Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film "Olympia," "One Day" examines the hostage crisis that left 11 Israeli team members dead; it asserts that security was inexplicably lax--terrorists simply climbed a fence into the athletes' village--and that police bungled the rescue mission. And, in a major coup, the filmmakers located and interviewed Jamil Al Gashey, the lone surviving terrorist.

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