Professor Olympics Obsession: John A. Lucas has written five books and 200 articles on the Olympics. And he has run the 10,000 meters alone in just about every Summer Games since 1960.

Olympic outtakes

July 27, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The slight 69-year-old man runs alone on the orange track of the empty Olympic Stadium. But there are ghosts following him: Paavo Nurmi, the "phantom Finn" and greatest Olympic long-distance runner ever. Emil Zapotek, whose gold-medal Triple Crown in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter and marathon races remains unduplicated. And Lasse Viren, the village policeman who ran like a pale, silent river to two gold medals each in Munich and Montreal.

"I'm breaking all their world records," he thinks as he laps around the track 25 times for 10,000 meters, or six miles and change. "None of them can beat the short but inexorable stride of John A. Lucas!"

Lucas was allowed to enact his quirky ritual early Thursday morning here, as he's done in every summer Olympics but one since 1960, by virtue of a personal obsession turned publicly sanctioned one. The retired Pennsylvania State University professor is simply "in love with the Olympics," and, after five books and 200 scholarly articles on the subject, now partakes in this one wearing an all-access badge that identifies him as a distinguished guest. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, declared him "Official Olympic Lecturer" several years ago and, on July 15, bestowed on him the Olympic Order, the IOC's highest award.

Not bad for someone who finished seventh in the 1952 U.S. Olympic trials for the 10,000-meter race and thus failed to make the team.

"After that, I vowed to myself that I would go to the Olympics somehow, in some capacity," he says.

The story of how he did just that -- and Lucas will relate it, lengthily, befitting his official lecturer status -- is a highly idiosyncratic one, full of twists and turns that took him to Hollywood as a stuntman, through academia and several advanced degrees, and finally and forever to his beloved Olympics.

"I'm a relatively harmless, eccentric schoolteacher," he says during an interview earlier this week during one of the numerous events that he will attend during these two weeks.

He can't quite pinpoint the starting point of his obsession, only that he started training on his own for the 1952 Games while living in Los Angeles. A native of Boston and a graduate of Boston University, he was doing graduate work at the University of Southern California and, after scholarship money ran out, started doing stunt work for such movies as, appropriately enough, "Jim Thorpe, All-American."

"When I want an excuse for why I didn't make the Olympic team, I tell myself I was on these movie sets from 6 a.m. to noon," he says with a self-deprecating laugh, "and then training on the streets of Los Angeles."

Sports history doctorate

He received a master's degree in history at USC and headed back East (he would earn another master's at Penn State, and a doctorate in sports history at the University of Maryland as well). He finally made it to the Olympics in 1960, as a track coach for Turkey. There, in Rome, he wandered into the empty stadium for track and field events and decided to run the 10,000 meters that he was denied eight years before. And thus his private Olympic ritual was born.

He simply showed up and ran -- which was possible only until Munich. After terrorists massacred the Israeli athletes that year, security tightened, and Lucas has had to talk and write to endless numbers of officials to gain entry and permission. He's apparently quite persuasive: Only Moscow said nyet, during the 1980 games that the U.S. boycotted over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In between his Olympic trips, he worked as a track coach at Penn State and continued his education, eventually becoming a sports historian. Specializing, of course, in the Olympics.

He loves the history, the trivia, the idealism, the worldliness. He .. waxes grandiloquent on Baron Pierre de Coubertin, pronounced with a pronounced French accent, the architect of the modern games 100 years ago. (The aristocratic de Coubertin has been memorialized in a statue at Centennial Park here that looks more like a goofy Rhett Butler, which perhaps explains why so many tourists pose with it for photos.)

Still, Lucas thinks the baron would love the Atlanta Games -- not, perhaps, for the cheap carnival-like atmosphere created by the huge plastic blow-up beer cans that decorate rooftops and the plastic tents that have sprouted up on every available inch of public space. But for the fact that every one of the 197 nations in the world is indeed represented here, a first after all the boycotts and political turmoils that have scarred previous Olympics.

"This is the gathering that he envisioned," Lucas says.

But with that success comes a price, Lucas says. He calls it gigantism, the ever-growing number of athletes, their entourages and the spectators that they draw. With more people in one city for the Olympics than ever before, it's no wonder Atlanta is generating grumbles from many quarters -- some of it deserved, Lucas believes, but some not.

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