I have searched far and wide for books in English about the 1964 Olympics, and have built a good collection of books by Olympians who competed in the Tokyo Olympiad.
My conclusion? Runners like to write! Of the 15 books written by ’64 Olympians I have purchased, 8 are by sprinting and distance track legends. But judoka and swimmers also applied their competitive focus to writing.
So if you are looking for inspiration in the words of the Olympians from the XVIII Olympiad, here is the ultimate reading list (in alphabetical order):
The Amendment Killer, is the sole novel in this list, a political thriller by Ron Barak, to be published in November of 2017. Barak was a member of the American men’s gymnastics team, who parlayed a law degree into a successful consulting business, as well as a side career as budding novelist.
Deep Water, is an autobiography of the most decorated athlete of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Don Schollander, who won four gold medals as the most dominant member of the dominant US men’s swimming team. Co-written with Duke Savage, Schollander writes intelligently of his craft, the technique and the psychological, finding a way for a swimmer strong in the middle distances, to sneak into victory in the 100-meter sprint.
Golden Girl is by one of Australia’s greatest track stars, Betty Cuthbert, whose life path from track prodigy in Melbourne, to washed-up and injured in Rome, to unexpected triumph in Tokyo is told compellingly in her autobiography.
See the remaining book list in my next post, Part 2.
Not as catchy as Death and Taxes, or Love and Marriage – but they go together like a horse and carriage.
In fact, novelists swarm to politics and corruption like moths to flames. Staring into that flickering fire is former Olympian, Ron Barak, who is about to publish a novel, The Amendment Killer.
Barak was a member of the US Men’s Gymnastics team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And while he was also an NCAA champion with the gymnastics team at the University of Southern California, his studies at USC were arguably more critical to his long-term career: a BS in physics and a Juris Doctor of Law.
Barak became a lawyer in the 1970s, among other things, representing athletes as their agent, including football greats Bubba Smith and Ahmad Rashad. Most of Barak’s career was devoted to real estate law, and witnessed first-hand the rise of Japan’s economic influence in the 1980s when the yen overpowered the dollar and Japanese corporations bought up landmark properties and brands overseas.
But as Barak eventually understood, he had a knack for storytelling, and answered a dare from some friends to write a novel. His first novel was a “whodunnit” murder mystery set in D. C. – as Barak puts it, “a story of a political system gone awry and those who felt compelled to fix it.”
Barak’s latest political thriller, The Amendment Killer, hits bookstores in November. Let’s ask Barak a few questions about the book and the journey to his third career (writing following sports first and law second).
What is your novel about?
Modern day Washington, D.C, misconduct on the part of our political representatives has never been worse. In this backdrop, frustrated citizens form a tax-exempt watchdog foundation, The National Organization For Political Integrity (NoPoli), to remind our governmental leaders that they are there to serve, not to be served.
In short order, the membership ranks of NoPoli swells to hundreds of thousands of Americans disgusted by our abhorrent government. NoPoli sponsors and convenes a Constitutional Convention at which a 28th Amendment to the Constitution is adopted to criminalize political abuse and corruption.
Offended by the sudden demise of their many perks and the threat of incarceration, Congress challenges the Amendment and asks the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate it on an expedited basis. Because of the fundamental importance of the Amendment, the Supreme Court agrees to hear and decide the case in one televised week.
As the nine justices take the bench to hear oral argument, the justice expected to cast the deciding vote, Arnold Hirschfeld, receives a text that begins “We have your granddaughter. Here’s what you need to do.” Hirschfeld is warned that his granddaughter will be killed by the end of the one week expedited process if the Amendment is not defeated by the Court—or if word even gets out that his granddaughter is being held to control the outcome of the case.
What is the relevance of your novel to today?
I write first and foremost to entertain my readers, but also to “blur the line between reality and fiction.” In the case of The Amendment Killer, there are at least three such relevant intersections of reality and fiction:
First, the novel is particularly timely (“ripped from the headlines” some might say), addressing our highly dysfunctional U.S. government. It does this through my hypothetical 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution criminalizing abuse and corruption on the part of our political representatives, which Congress asks the Supreme Court to invalidate. Using my legal background, as well as my political knowledge, I actually drafted such an amendment on my website.
Second, I introduced diabetes into the novel because, like my young protagonist, Cassie, 30 million Americans today are diabetic. That’s one in ten Americans. That’s epidemic and another highly relevant issue today.
Third, there are serious ethical issues in the story. Cassie’s grandfather, the Supreme Court justice holding the swing vote in the case, must decide whether he can sacrifice the best interests of the country, and his duty as a Supreme Court justice, to save his granddaughter’s life. Are the best interests of the country worth his young granddaughter’s life?
Tell me about the character Cassie and why you wanted to create a character who has diabetes?
Part of the reason is that I wanted to draw attention to a disease that is at epidemic levels in the country (and the world) today. It is a subject I know well because I’m diabetic. My wife, Barbie, and I have also committed 50% of the proceeds of The Amendment Killer to diabetes research and education. There are millions in the world today who are diabetic but don’t know it—until it is too late for them. That’s tragic because diabetes can be intelligently well managed today. We have Olympic gold medalists who are diabetic. We have NFL and NBA athletes who are diabetic. Diabetes, if well managed, does not at all have to be a death sentence. Several prominent national diabetes organizations are solidly behind The Amendment Killer because they think Cassie is a poster child for diabetic youngsters. And The Amendment Killer is coming out in November, which is National Diabetes Month!
What inspired you to become a novelist? Were there indications as a youth that you had a storytelling gene?
I wrote my first novel on a dare from some friends. Being somewhat competitive, a trait perhaps attributed to my gymnastics days, I couldn’t turn my back on the challenge. As I wrote that first novel, I discovered that I loved it. I’ve worked hard ever since to learn how to write properly so that I could develop and continue this new pursuit. Some have commented that I simply transitioned from physical gymnastics to mental gymnastics. I don’t know about that, but writing is definitely easier on the joints than physical gymnastics, especially at my age today. I don’t know if I had a storytelling gene, but I actually might have. As a little kid, my dad used to tell stories to my younger brother and me. He had an incredible imagination and a genuine patience in his storytelling. Maybe some of that rubbed off on me because I have discovered how much fun I find it to weave a story. It presents an opportunity to create mystery but to inject humor at the same time. That’s a mix I really enjoy.
What writers have inspired you? Why?
The list is long. I love to read and have for years. I read mostly fiction, but I do occasionally read some non-fiction too. I read to be entertained. Perhaps that’s why I write to entertain. Examples in no particular order are Ian Fleming (James Bond novels, I’ve read every one), John Grisham (I’ve read probably about half of his), Michael Connelly (I’ve read most of his), Lee Child (Jack Reacher novels, I’ve read most of them), Daniel Silva (I’ve read most of his), David Baldacci (I’ve read most of his), Vince Flynn (read most of his too), Robert North Patterson (read most of his), Scott Turow (I’ve read most of his), John Lescroart (I’ve read most of his), Greg Isles (I’ve read most of his). I have also read a lot of Stephen King. And I’ve read a miscellany of lesser known novelists. I’m sure I’ve missed some. As for why, these authors have a few things in common: most of all, they can tell a great story. Beyond that, they keep you guessing and turning the pages.
How has being a 1964 Tokyo Olympian impacted your career?
In countless ways. First, training brought discipline and commitment into my life at a young age, when I didn’t otherwise exhibit much of that and neither did my friends. Second, it was an absolute joy. Third, it provided great education; I got to travel around the world, and I learned how to handle celebrity, not to let it get out of proportion. Fourth, it was a great source of self-confidence and self-esteem; it helped me know that if I put my mind to something, and worked hard at it, I could usually accomplish it. Fifth, along the way, it has opened doors that might not otherwise have opened. (Note: I used numbers here, but I am not prioritizing these things and don’t think I could.) So, in terms of my career, while I was at the near top of my law school class, my Olympic career got me more job offers than might otherwise have been the case, a combination of the celebrity and the maturity and people skills. It didn’t make me a better lawyer, but strong work habits learned in sport probably did.
Stay tuned for the November 1 launch of The Amendment Killer!
After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics ended, the USA gymnastics team, both men and women’s teams, were asked to tour various cities in Japan, like Kyoto and Kobe, on a gymnastic exhibition. The US team travelled with the teams from Czechoslovakia, West Germany and Japan teams in these exhibitions.
On this tour, the men got permission from the Japanese organizers that the wives of the male gymnasts on the US team could accompany their husbands on the tour. The wives had plans to depart Japan prior to the end of the tour, so the organizers agreed to arrange for their trip back to Tokyo so that they could make their flights home.
According to the assistant head coach of the men’s team and veteran of the Melbourne and Rome Olympics, Abie Grossfeld, the wives were readying to depart Kobe for Tokyo by train when they were quite suddenly given orders to stay. The head of the gymnastics arm of the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU), George Gulack, informed the team that the wives were considered “part of the team”, and thus could not leave the tour prematurely. According to Grossfeld, Gulack simply “would not budge” on the matter.
Another member of the men’s gymnastics team, Ron Barak, was on the tour with his wife, Barbie. Giving Gulack the benefit of the doubt, Barak believes that “Gulack’s heart may have been in the right place,” wanting to ensure that the American’s put on the best presence possible, much the way the U.S. men’s Ryder Cup golf team always has the wives front and center in that international competition every two years. “No matter,” Barak said, “Gulack’s methods and style were terrible.” Barak recalls that that his wife had dysentery and had to leave the tour prematurely, which she did without incident or difficulty, along with the wife and sister of teammate Armando Vega.
Still, both Abie Grossfeld and Muriel Grossfeld recall an emotional conflict during the post-Olympics exhibition tour, and were upset that Gulack was still making decisions on his own, without explanation. To Abie Grossfeld, the attempt to control the itinerary of the wives of the male gymnasts on the exhibition was one straw too many.
According to Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the women’s team, they were up all night discussing whether and how they should push back. The team agreed to inform the Japanese organizers that if George and Fay Gulack were not kicked off the exhibition tour, they would leave for Tokyo immediately. Grossfeld said that the Germans, Czechs and Japanese should have been enough firepower to keep the tour chugging along.
So when they gathered together in the hotel lobby the next morning, the Japanese organizers saw the American men’s and women’s teams, with their bags packed for a train to Tokyo. The organizers realized trouble was brewing. The US team explained their case, and said that it was either the Gulacks or the US team, but both would not continue on the tour. “We said we would return to Tokyo, and we had our bags packed,” Grossfeld told me. “We were ready to walk out.”
According to both Abie and Muriel Grossfeld, after that meeting, the Gulacks were no longer on the tour as a result. One can only wonder whether the Japanese had to explain this to the Gulacks, a terribly difficult position to be put in with such senior foreign guests. Were the Gulacks told to leave the tour? Did they read the writing on the wall and slip away quietly on their own?
In the end, people all over Japan were coming out to see the gymnasts in the afterglow of an amazing Olympiad, people who could not afford the money or time to go to Tokyo during the Games. They were not coming out to see the Gulacks. But news of this sudden decision did not make it to the officials in the next exhibition city apparently. When the teams were greeted and formal photos of the teams were taken with city officials, Grossfeld said that the photo ended up looking quite eerie – two empty chairs which were placed for the Gulacks, were never removed.
When the gymnasts returned to the US, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld (who were a married couple at the time) were “summoned” by the AAU to their office in New York City, as they were viewed by the AAU as the ringleaders of this “rebellion”.
The main questions of the discussions between the Grossfelds and the AAU was whether they were insubordinate, or whether George Gulack made the right decisions on behalf of the AAU and the USOC. Grossfeld used as evidence a letter signed by all of the members of the women’s gymnastics team, including Janie Speaks, that Doris Fuchs should be part of the competing team.
A main part of the defense was that nepotism had an inordinate and unnatural impact on the selection of gymnasts for major competitions. The Grossfelds claimed that the appointment of George Gulack’s wife, Fay, to be judge at the World Championships, the National Championships and the Olympic Trial gymnastic competitions, was inappropriate. The issue to the Grossfelds was that Fay Gulack was “devoid of gymnastics technical knowledge”.
“Fay Gulack’s only ‘expertise’ was through being an observer as part of an audience at various competitions,” wrote Abie Grossfeld. “We challenged Fay Gulack to name just one part of the Olympic compulsory exercises in any of the four gymnastics events in that she had judged the compulsory exercises in several meets that year including the Olympic Trails and intrasquad. She could not name one part of an exercise.”
Nothing came of the meeting. But as it turned out, the state of gymnastics in the United States, and perhaps amateur sports worldwide, was in the midst not of a revolution, but an evolution. It took another 6 years, but in 1970, it was decided to replace the AAU with the United States Gymnastics Federation as the US gymnastics organization recognized by the International Federation of Gymnastics Congress (FIG). The days of Gulack and the old school my-way-or-the-highway leadership style faded into the history books.
Imagine you have a sport growing in popularity, growing so quickly that it takes roots in countries all over the world, developing at different speeds, with slightly different rules depending on where it was played. When judo first began holding international competitions, a rift occurred between the rules that dictate judo in its birthplace, Japan, and the rest of the world.
Judo-ka in Japan were traditionally not classified by weight classes, so you would have a 90 kg judoka face off against a 60 kg judoka. International bodies believed that fairness could be better achieved by having people of similar weight compete, as has been done with success in boxing.
Who makes the rules? Who decides who goes to a national or an international competition? In the case of the Olympics in the post-war years in America, when money began to be invested in the development of sportsmen and women, it was the Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as the AAU, which emerged as the national governing body for many sports disciplines, including track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball and many others.
According to the book, “History of the United States Wrestling Federation / USA Wrestling” by Werner Holzer, the AAU had become a very powerful entity, frustrating coaches and athletes alike due to perceived lack of funding and support. This frustration was particular true in the “smaller” disciplines of wrestling and gymnastics where AAU mindshare appeared much greater in track and field.
Top of the list of complaints was the perceived AAU disregard for the views and expertise of the coaches to identify and select athletes for major competitions. Holzer explained that “the 1964 Olympic Games selection process personified the problem of the AAU being the ruling body for the sports of gymnastics. The AAU gymnastics chairman, George Gulack, selected the internationally inexperienced Vannie Edwards as the women’s 1964 Olympic Team coach. He appointed his wife, Fay Gulack, who was incapable and unknowledgeable about gymnastics, as the team manager. It was an arrangement destined for disaster!”
Ron Barak, a member of the 1964 men’s Olympic Gymnastics team, and today a practicing lawyer and novelist, first met George Gulack in 1962, when Barak was a sophomore at USC. Barak competed in that year’s National AAU Championships which served as the trials to select the U.S. men’s team that would represent the U.S. in the 1962 World Gymnastics Championships. Natural grade inflation in subjectively graded sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating favored the more established veterans in those sports. It’s just the way it was, according to Barak. This was Barak’s first appearance on the national scene, he told me, and he personally had no expectations of making the 1962 World Gymnastics Team and so he felt he was there to pay his dues and gain experience for what he was really after, a chance to make the 1964 Olympic Team.
But something strange happened over the three-day trials. For the first two days, Barak said he flew under the radar, largely unnoticed. He recalled that he was performing well and scoring well, and yet still felt more like a spectator than a competitor. However, after two days, he found himself in serious contention to make the 1962 World Games Team. He began to believe that all he had to do was perform at the same level on the last day and score at the same level, and he would make the World Games Team. Barak said he performed even better on the third day than on the first two days, but strangely, he told me, his scores plummeted, and he missed the team by a slim margin.
Barak said that Gulack came up to him after the competition was over and said “Don’t worry about it, Ron, your time will come. Just be patient.” Barak wasn’t sure what to make of Gulack’s words. Literally, they were nothing more than innocent words of encouragement. But Gulack, Barak said, presided over that three-day competition like it was his personal fiefdom and he was calling all the shots. Gulack was used to having his own way. He could occasionally be pleasant, Barak recalled, but more often he was a bully, if not an outright tyrant. Did Gulack’s words to Barak signify something more than their plain meaning? Lots of innuendo but no way to know.
Come 1964, Barak won the NCAA All Around Championships and finished high enough in the 1964 Olympic Trials to make the team . “Gulack continued to act as if he were making all the decisions, but the fact was that the seven U.S. gymnasts who made the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1964 were the seven best male gymnasts in the country that year. No one made that team who didn’t earn it and no one not on that team deserved to be there.”
Barak suspected that because the male gymnasts on the whole were a veteran team, most of whom would not continue to compete much after 1964, Gulack had little to threaten them with even if he could.
According to others, Gulack appeared to exercise significant influence in the selection of the women’s gymnastics team. During the Olympic Games, several weeks after the official trials had ended in the United States and the women’s gymnastics team roster had been set, Gulack re-set the team roster in an unscheduled competition.
Members of the women’s team were rankled, and itching to push back. A rebellion was brewing and would come to a head in Tokyo in October of 1964.
On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at the height of his influence and powers in 1960. At the kickoff of the Olympic Summer Games in Rome, he released a letter to all Olympians that grew feelings of good will towards the Soviet Union.
As David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “Khrushchev’s message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes gathered in Rome, even if it was boilerplate Soviet rhetoric… ‘The Olympic Games were worthy because they improved brotherly contact among sportsmen of different countries,’ he noted, concluding: ‘I wish all sportsmen taking part the best success in sports as well as in work, studies, and their private lives.’”
Maraniss emphasized that “American diplomats had been frustrated for days by the seeming propaganda coup the Soviets gained when newspapers around the world reported on the message of peace and friendship that Premier Khrushchev sent to the Olympians in Rome.”
Khruschev, in the summer of 1960, was heading to New York City to address the United Nations, and he was at the top of his game.
But four years later, at the end of the first week of the Tokyo Summer Games, the world learned that one of the most powerful men in the world was deposed. As Ron Barak, US gymnast at the 1964 Games related to me, it was all a bit of a mystery.
“The day in the Village began like any other day during that two-week period. Then people began noticing the Soviets were gone. No one had witnessed their departure and until they returned late in the day, no one knew what was behind it. But there
Tamara Press was a phenomenon, winning gold in the shot put and discus in Rome, as well as gold in the shot put in Tokyo. She was a large woman, and as American gymnast, Ron Barak, told me in an interview, a hulking woman, fortunately with an equally hulking sense of humor.
“I was in line one day in the Olympic Village cafeteria, and right behind me, Tamara Press was waiting in line with a couple of Soviet teammates. My wife, who was fairly tiny, came rushing in. US officials had given wives of the gymnastic teams sweat suits so they could get in and out of the village. Barbie was coming to meet me for lunch, and was a bit late. She spotted me and hurried over. Focused on me, she somehow didn’t see Tamara, and butted right in front of her.”
“Well, Tamara Press is a very nice person. She comes up to her from behind, grabs her elbows gently and firmly and bench presses my wife above her 6 foot frame, holding her high up like a piece of lumber. Her head was pointed to the ceiling and her back was pointed to the ground. Tamara proceeded to spin her in a revolution above her head, before finally putting her down behind Tamara in line. Barbie’s eyes were wide open in shock.”