TOPICS > Nation

Mark McDonald: Pushing the Envelope

July 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

DAVID GERGEN: Forteus, that was the Latin motto that they adopted back in 1896, when the Olympics were brought back to life, and as you write in your new article and the new issue of “Civilization,” that has been very much what’s been happening in the Olympics, faster, higher, stronger. Tell us about it.

MARK McDONALD, Author, Pushing the Envelope: Every quadrennium, every four years, it seems to, seems to get faster, higher, and stronger. Recently we plateaued a little bit, but every sport seems to be just inching up the bar and moving the bar a little bit every four years.

DAVID GERGEN: I was really interested in your piece about the swimmer, for example, Johnny Weissmuller, we all remember–I didn’t know he’d gone and made BVD ads after he swam in ‘24 and ‘28.

MARK McDONALD: I’m sure he didn’t want that advertised.

DAVID GERGEN: But then became Tarzan after that. When he swam the hundred meters, uh, and he broke that record, he swam it in less than one minute, and that was the new world record–


DAVID GERGEN: And then you wrote now these athletes, these new athletes can swim 15 times that far at the same speed.

MARK McDONALD: If he was swimming today, 15 fresh Tarzans would not be able to beat one man swimming continuously now.

DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. That’s how far we’ve come in terms of breaking the records. The other person I was interested in was, was there was this woman named Janet Evans in the 400-meter–


DAVID GERGEN: –free-style swimming. Now she had beaten the records–not just of Johnny Weismuller in the 400 meters but of Mark Spitz and Don Sholander, who are much more recent athletes.

MARK McDONALD: Janet’s a pretty special athlete, and has been America’s premier distance free-styler for sometime. She swims up to 1500 meter races.

DAVID GERGEN: But in fact I mean most people would have said so many years ago, well, a woman can never beat a guy’s record in swimming it’s such a tough sport.


DAVID GERGEN: And strength counts for so much.

MARK McDONALD: Yeah. In fact, in the 100-meter free-style going back to that race, all, all the women who made the finals at the Olympic trials, all the American women, would have beaten Weismuller easily.

DAVID GERGEN: That’s so interesting that people have come that far. Now tell me why people are doing–why athletes are breaking these records. What are the factors go into it?

MARK McDONALD: Umm, a number of reasons. Nutrition is a lot better. Coaching is a lot more expert. The athletes are able to be full-time now. Back in Weismuller’s day and even 25 years ago, athletes, Olympics athletes were sort of part-timers, weekenders, and could do it without training full-time. They had to raise families and work down at the auto shop or wherever they worked, and they couldn’t train full-time, and now they certainly do. Umm, performance has a lot to do with technique and equipment. Equipment is infinitely better now. Jesse Owens ran in heavy leather track shoes that weighed probably a pound.

DAVID GERGEN: That’s right. That was back in 1936.

MARK McDONALD: Right. And now Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson and the great sprinters today wear four ounce track shoes.

DAVID GERGEN: And that just makes ‘em that much faster. They can move down the track that much faster. Now, there was another example that I found quite fascinating about the pole vaulting because I grew up with Bob Richards on the Wheaties box after he had been such a pole vaulter in the 1950’s, and he couldn’t break 16 feet.


DAVID GERGEN: And then you said they turned these pole vaults into sling shots.

MARK McDONALD: Exactly. When fiberglass came along and then later graphite also and aluminum, it turned into literally a sling shot. It just threw people over the bar. And Richards lives in Waco, Texas, near my home, and still tries to play around with the new, the new bars, and the new poles, and he’s quite a character. He’s still active and fit and no telling what he would have done with one of these modern poles.

DAVID GERGEN: All right. Tell me about the technology now that’s going into these games. The bikers–the U.S. Olympic cyclists have much, much better bikes. They’ve got these kind of facilities out in Colorado Springs for swimming. Tell us about that.

MARK McDONALD: You know, one of the real radical designs or equipment technology breakthroughs this, this Olympics that we’ll see is something called super bike, and it’s–it’s a project, a three-year project by the U.S. Cycling Federation to build the better bicycle. They put it in the wind tunnel, the GM wind tunnel in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s fiberglass and graphite and it’s a multimillion dollar effort. Part of, part of that is the sort of psychological factor when the American guys and women roll up to the line with these beautiful, sleek, incredibly–they don’t even look like bikes.


MARK McDONALD: It’s a tremendous psychological advantage over a German or a Russian or some guy who’s riding the equivalent of your father’s Schwinn basically.

DAVID GERGEN: But they’re million dollar bikes?

MARK McDONALD: That was the–the whole project was well over a million dollars. And they built 12 of these bicycles–not something you or I might ride around Rock Creek Park.

DAVID GERGEN: I think I have–I think I might have a double helmet–what about the facility in Colorado Springs?

MARK McDONALD: Colorado Springs is the headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee. They have a number of facilities there for gymnastics, weight lifting, and swimming is, is one of the big residents there also. They built what they call the Flume, which is a–basically a pool, a small pool, a chamber actually, and the athletes swim against a regulated stream of water. The coach or biomechanist can set the stream of water at a world record pace or a leisurely–a leisurely pace.

DAVID GERGEN: So you have to, in effect, if they set it at a world record pace, you’ve got to keep swimming at a certain speed just to stay even?

MARK McDONALD: Just to stay even, and, and when the coach feels specially devilish, he’ll turn it up and, and the swimmers are pushed back against this big net, which is not too, not too pleasant.

DAVID GERGEN: I was also interested in the fact that they take a lot of these athletes up to high altitudes for training.

MARK McDONALD: Yeah. That’s sort of something, that’s sort of conventional wisdom. It’s really never been quantified scientifically and just in the last couple of months they’ve figured out how best to train athletes at altitude. They would tend to take them up to train at high altitude where there was less air, thereby, you know, making their bodies produce more under strenuous conditions, conditioning their blood cells to work harder, and they would go back to sea level or lower altitudes, where the–where their lungs would get basically drunk when this oxygen–so the gauging and the timing of these high altitude camps has long been a coaching secret and technique that–

DAVID GERGEN: You quoted someone saying that sea level athletes–ones not coming from Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, probably will not be able to compete in the marathons of the future.

MARK McDONALD: Right. That was from Peter Snell, actually, who held the, held the world mile record for several years, and is now an exercise physiologist in Dallas.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. Right.

MARK McDONALD: So he ought to know.

DAVID GERGEN: But it does make a difference then?

MARK McDONALD: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s just been quantified also.

DAVID GERGEN: Now, with regard to Atlanta, do you think there will be many records broken there?

MARK McDONALD: I think not. And typically world records are not set at an Olympics. One of the reasons is the media pressure, the social pressure, the heat in Atlanta is going to be brutal. Conditions–it’s kind of a two-edged sword, because the, the facilities are really first-class, and excellent. The track is very fast, the swimming pool is very fast. But the complications are the outside complications, especially in track, where you have to–you have to run rounds, qualifying heats, to just make the finals. World records are typically set at one meet. You race one time, and you set the record or you don’t. This will be very draining on the track athletes.

DAVID GERGEN: What do you mean by a fast swimming pool?

MARK McDONALD: A fast pool is deep, it’s clean, it tends to be a little cold, colder than your average park pool. It’s set up so that wash and waves from adjoining lanes, swimmers’ lanes, tend not to spread into your lane, and there’s less turbulence. They’ve really fine-tuned swimming pools.

DAVID GERGEN: Now even though you may not, we may not have many more records coming down in Atlanta this year, you do think this faster, higher, stronger–people are going to continue break records in the future. We may not break them quite as dramatically as we have in the past but we’re going to see people continue to shave off seconds.

MARK McDONALD: Right. Right. The experts tend to think that there won’t be these huge, these huge leaps that you talk about, but they’ll nip away at records here and there by the hundredths, by the thousandths of a second even.

DAVID GERGEN: But with the new technologies continuing to come in, the better nutrition and better training–


DAVID GERGEN: But I want to ask you this. It seems to be the up side of what you’ve said in your piece about this, these kind of preparations, these very intense, very professionalized preparations. The good side was that many more women are coming in, many more people are coming from poor countries, and, indeed, the World Wide Web may make information available to more athletes about how to train properly than in the past. But I wondered whether you also felt that the spirit of the 1896 Olympics a hundred years ago, the amateur spirit, was being preserved in these circumstances?

MARK McDONALD: Amateur is, is a word not, not appreciated around the Olympic movement these days. Ten years ago, the International Olympic Committee took the word amateur out of their charter. And, and their intent since then has been to invite the world’s best athletes. That means professionals.


MARK McDONALD: There’s only two–there are only two sports that have sort of held the tide against professionals, and that’s, uh, boxing, which would absolutely ruin it–it would completely change the nature of Olympic boxing–and baseball.

DAVID GERGEN: All right. But now if you’re a parent and have a six-year-old child, is this the time to get your child into gymnastics? Is this the time to prepare your child for the–for the Olympics of the future in swimming?

MARK McDONALD: If you’re a gymnast, if your child is a would-be gymnast or swimmer, absolutely. If you can’t keep the kids off the furniture, get ‘em into a gym class.

DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. But they’re out there five hours–this young girl, Brook–

MARK McDONALD: Brook Bennett, the swimmer from Tampa, Florida–

DAVID GERGEN: Five hours a day she’s in the pool, 10 miles a day.

MARK McDONALD: Ten miles a day every day.

DAVID GERGEN: She’s 15 years old.


DAVID GERGEN: Life has really changed.

MARK McDONALD: Yeah. You know, it’s sort of a tough call because if you had a kid who’s really sort of predisposed toward being a prodigy and–


MARK McDONALD: And that, you know, an Olympic gold medal might be in their future–it’s sort of hard as a parent, I would think, to deny them that chance. Obviously, some parents get a little zealous.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, that’s part of the new Olympic experience.

MARK McDONALD: (laughing) Exactly.

DAVID GERGEN: Mark, good luck in your coverage in Atlanta.

MARK McDONALD: Thanks, David.