All too often, recorded oral history makes for both poor scholarship and dismal reading and is little more than vacuous conversation slavishly transcribed to fill pages—the lazy writer's shortcut to a book. Still, there is such a thing as good oral history, and it speaks with a fresh, candid voice that cannot be ignored. Such, thankfully, is the case with Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America's Gold Medal Winners, compiled and edited by Lewis H. Carlson and John J. Fogarty (Contemporary Books, Inc.; $25).
Carlson and Fogarty have produced a work rich in fact and resonant with emotion. Through interviews with 57 gold medalists (and one silver medalist, 95-year-old Abel Kiviat, who ran the 1,500 meters at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics), they have essentially traced the history of the Summer Games from 1912 to the present.
Stories of tragedy, humor and unexpected challenge commingle: Diver Aileen Riggin describes the murky, frigid mudhole that served as a pool at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium; she also recalls a horrific tour of a nearby battlefield that was still littered with military material from World War I. Hurdler-sprinter Harrison Dillard speaks with awe of the spirit he witnessed among the British during the 1948 London Games, at which, he recalls, the track itself was made from the crushed rubble of war-bombed buildings. Gymnast George Roth tells of being so personally impoverished at the Depression-era 1932 Los Angeles Games that he had to thumb a ride to the gold medal ceremony from his L.A. home; one of the motorists who gave him a lift was Jimmy Durante.
There are detailed recollections of the long steamer voyages to European Olympics in the 1920s and '30s, of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israelis in Munich, of the arrogance of the AAU and the blinkered idealism of former International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage. Sprinter Helen Stephens tells of parrying the clumsy advances of Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Games in Berlin, where she also had to escape a surprise orgy hosted by Hitler cohort Hermann G�ring.
If at times the athletes stray a bit from the topic—famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock, a gold medalist in rowing in 1924, dwells at length on his relationship with his tyrannical mother—much of the book is surprisingly relevant and contemporary. In the aftermath of Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder's theories on how the large thighs and the selective breeding of blacks have made them superior athletes, Archie Williams, the 400-meter champion in 1936, recalls that Jesse Owens was physiologically tested after winning four gold medals in Berlin and found to have the physical attributes of a distance runner. As Williams wryly puts it, "He turned out to be a Norwegian."
The issues of professionalism and politics come up again and again. Divers were banned for giving exhibitions as far back as 1929. Hurdler Lee Calhoun tells of being suspended for a year after the 1960 Rome Games because he was married on (and received gifts from) a television program called Bride and Groom. By and large these athletes wish the Games, and perhaps the world, were run by athletes, because they understand each other so well and would try to steer clear of all the bureaucratic meddling and nationalistic pomp. When discussing the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, a dozen athletes of all eras and backgrounds—including six who had served in the American military—denounce it in the harshest terms.
Carlson, a professor of humanities at Western Michigan, and Fogarty, an associate professor of English at Ferris State in Michigan, have asked the right questions and edited wisely. They tie Tales of Gold together with summaries of each Summer Olympics and with concise biographies of the athletes interviewed. Their work makes a lively and valuable tapestry.