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He wrote the book

Wallechinsky's tome is everywhere, and so is he

Posted: Friday February 17, 2006 11:58AM; Updated: Sunday February 19, 2006 12:24PM
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David Wallechinsky's expansive book is an indispensible resource for the Olympic buff.
David Wallechinsky's expansive book is an indispensible resource for the Olympic buff.
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Friday, Feb. 17, 1:23 p.m., local, Day Six and Seven

So this Dutch journalist comes by our office a couple days ago and asks staff writer Brian Cazeneuve if he had a Wallechinsky. What's a Wallechinsky? A Wallechinsky is a reference to David Wallechinsky, the author of The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics. Those covering the Turin Games cherish the book with the same zeal with which the shark from Jaws went after the people of Amity Island.

"Well, I don't have a Wallechinsky," Cazeneuve says. "But I do have Wallechinsky."

And with that, David Wallechinsky, who happened to be meeting with Cazeneuve at that time, appeared for the Dutchman.

Wallechinsky was back in our offices yesterday because, well, I invited him. There hasn't been a single day at the Games when I haven't thumbed through the 312 pages of his guide. Here's an example: I ended up at the men's figure skating final last night after editor Richard Demak demanded I use the extra ticket or else.

After blowing out of the Palavela following Johnny Weir's long program, I was curious whether silver medalist Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland had placed in the top eight in 2002. Wallechinsky (the book) provided the answer. Lambiel had not. In fact, the only answer the Wallechinsky book can't seemingly provide is why I've attended more figure skating in the past two days than I had in all my previous years of existence on Earth.

The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics (Sport Classic Books) offers the standings from every event ever contested in the Winter Games, from the first-ever gold medal in 1924 (men's 500-meter speedskating, won by Charles Jewtraw of the U.S.) to all the action of Salt Lake City. But it's not just lists. The prose is crisply written and offers fascinating tidbits and stories about the competitors.

There's also a summer version as well -- The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics -- which weighed in at 1,172 pages in 2004. Of that book, reviewer Charles Hirschberg wrote in Sports Illustrated that "Wallechinsky provides a magnificent stream of trivia that could win you a fortune in a sports bar. A typical nugget: In 1988, bantamweight boxer Eduard Paululum was poised to become the first-ever Olympic competitor from the tiny island nation of Vanuatu.

"Unfortunately," reports Wallechinsky, "Paululum ate a large breakfast before the weigh-in and was disqualified for being one pound overweight." Personally, I enjoyed the nugget that the Czech word for freedom is svoboda, which happens to be the surname of former Czech defenseman Petr Svoboda, who scored the winning goal against Russia in the gold-medal hockey game at Nagano in '98.

Wallechinsky (the man, not the book) is working in Turin for Westwood One radio as a commentator and short-track speedskating reporter. "A lot of people think all we do is add stories from the last Olympics, but we go back and check everything from all the previous Olympics and update what's happened to the gold medalists," he says.

Putting together the winter book takes one tenth of the time of the summer book, which first came out before the '84 Summer Games. Wallechinsky assumed that it would be a one-time publication, but Beijing will mark the seventh edition of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics. His love affair with the Rings began in 1960, when his father, the noted author Irving Wallace, took him to the Rome Olympics.

He has attended every Games since 1984, with the exception of Calgary, but says his favorite is the 1924 Paris Olympics. ("I'm amazed at how many great stories there were, bigger than life characters such as [Finland's] Paavo Nurmi, the constant fan riots at boxing and the fencing that led to duels.")

Wallechinsky knows he is not writing for a large audience. Hard-core Olympic fans, journalists and libraries are his core buyers. The book is being sold in two bookstores in Turin.

"I would say it is a labor of love 100 percent and commerce zero," says Wallechinsky. He said that he has always lost money on the book. If only he had the promotional might of ESPN.

Soon, Wallechinsky will give up the reins to his nephew Jaime Loucky. He'll work with Loucky on the Beijing edition and then, Wallechinsky says, "Hopefully, he can take most of the work after that." But Wallechinsky won't retire from writing. He's currently working on a book on the world's 20 worst dictators currently in power. (Sudan's Omar al-Bashir has the dishonor of being No. 1.)

Though his books have never been translated into a foreign language because of their size, Wallechinsky struck a deal a couple of years ago to have the book published in Chinese for the Summer Games in Beijing. The deal fell through after the publisher informed him by fax that Chinese censors deemed certain pieces of information in the book to be confidential to the public in mainland China.

"There is no indication that they'll stop censoring books in China, and as long as they continue wanting to censor the book, it's not going to be printed there," Wallechinsky says. "They wanted me to take out a Chinese athlete [volleyball player Wu Dan, who was disqualified from the '92 Games for failing a drug test] on the list of people that had tested positive at the Games and leave in everyone else. Their argument was, and the choice of language was wonderful, 'Even though it may be true, there are certain aspects of history which are not yet known to the Chinese people.'"

On the bus to the media center this morning, I was thumbing through my Wallechinsky, as I often do. While I was immersed in an engaging passage on the hijinks surrounding the '02 pairs final in Salt Lake City, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Nice book."

I turned around.

It was Wallechinsky. The man is everywhere at the Olympics.

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