How much can be said about a decathlete who finished only sixth in the 1968 Mexico City Games, when the event's history includes Jim Thorpe, Rafer Johnson, Bob Mathias and Bill Toomey? A bookful can be said, and Gay Olympian, which alternates between Schaap's narrative and Waddell's letters to his daughter, is more than worth a pre- Atlanta read.
Waddell lived a couple of lifetimes in the 49 years he had before he died of AIDS in 1987. He earned a medical degree, became an expert in infectious diseases, excelled in one of sports' most grueling tests, created the Gay Games and forced anyone who met him to reconsider his or her notions about homosexuals. One such man was '68 gold medalist Toomey, who admitted to feelings of homophobia before he was reunited with his rival early in '87. Said Toomey when the meeting was over: "He's a very valuable person to this planet."
Not everyone agreed with that, least of all the USOC. After Waddell announced plans to found the Gay Olympic Games in 1982, the USOC got an injunction that forced him to drop the word Olympic from the title of what became known as the Gay Games. Fourteen years earlier in Mexico City, Waddell, an Army captain, angered the USOC by supporting Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had raised black-gloved hands during the national anthem. Waddell, who was serving as U.S. team physician even as he pursued a decathlon medal, said the protesters "have been discredited by the flag more often than they have discredited it."
Those and other comments led to a threatened court-martial by Col. Don Miller, later executive director of the USOC. Miller never followed through, perhaps because Waddell performed so well, losing a chance at a medal only because he was a relatively poor runner.
That's ironic because Waddell never stopped running. He was not perfect—his high-risk promiscuity is chronicled in the book—but he was unique, a Renaissance man who, as Schaap says, found success in the event designed for the Renaissance athlete.