Book review: ‘What Makes Olga Run?’ could revolutionize society
This isn’t the first time masters track has gotten world-class attention.
Lee Bergquist’s “Second Wind: Rise of the Ageless Athlete” (which I reviewed in April 2010) was a wonderful series of profiles. German director Jan Tenhaven’s “Herbstgold” followed five older-age athletes to Lahti worlds (with a cameo by Olga). Longevity secrets were a major draw of Earl Fee’s “One Hundred Years Young the Natural Way,” which I noted in November 2011.
But nothing touches “What Makes Olga Run?” for plumbing the depths of our psyche, physiology and sense of phun.
It helps that Bruce is a Crackerjack writer â€” meaning he hides surprises in every chapter. I pride myself on knowing masters history, but I’d never heard of a 1999 incident detailed on pages 28-29. Bruce says the Italian sports minister nearly banned track in his country for folks over 70 â€” until WR man Ugo Sansonetti and three 80-something chums “issued a challenge to the minister. If the team of octogenarians he assembled ran the 4×100 in under a minute, would that bury the issue once and for all?”
Bruce says 15 million TV viewers watched the relay go sub-60, and “the idea of banning masters athletics was never credibly raised again â€” in Italy or anywhere else.” (The listed M80 world record is 61.83 by a German team, but I can believe Sansonetti’s squad was capable of breaking the minute barrier.)
Olga, a Saskatchewan farm girl who lives with her daughter and son-in-law in British Columbia, gave Bruce a ticket to her heart and mind. Then he bought tickets to research centers around North America. Olga was tested for VO2 max, maximum heart rate (138!), DNA clues to her athletic prowess and mental acuity and toughness.
The odyssey was a grind, but Olga rolled with it. It actually helped add purpose to her life, Bruce suggests.
“I am an open book,” Olga effectively says, according to Bruce. “Poke, prod, siphon, scan, interrogate, use me; just make it count.”
Bruce walked the walk as well.
He underwent similar treadmill and brain testing â€” as a means of comparing sedentary apples with ageless oranges. And in 2011, he entered the M45 10,000 at Sacramento worlds. He took 27th out of 28 with his time of 45:40.43 at age 48. But he spent a ton of energy collaring the winners of the other age groups and sharing their stories.
Like all good biographers, Bruce put Olga in context. He spoke to dozens of masters athletes, basically asking: “Why do you do this?”
Some of our greatest stars appear in the book, often several times, including fellow Canadians Earl Fee, Ed Whitlock “who can make a contending claim to be the best masters athlete in the world” and Olga’s W75 pal Christa Bortignon.
Others with cameos include the late M100 thrower Alfred Proksch and W100 legend Ruth Frith, M95ers Ralph Maxwell and Orville Rogers, and a slew of other Americans, such as Phil Raschker, Jeanne Daprano, Nolan Shaheed, Gary Stenlund and Henry Rono (as an example of an ex-elite who never quite got the courage to show at worlds.)
Heck, even I’m in the book (quoted three or four times). But Bruce didn’t mention my sprint prowess. That can wait for the next printing.
The second edition also might correct errors of the first. Bruce knows that five-year age groups don’t end with 0 or 5. But we see stuff like “85-90 age group” on the same page he refers to “Men’s 85-89.” (And on page 182: “Men’s 45-50″ while “Men’s 55-59.” Oy.)
• “Olga’s 100-meter dash final at the world indoor championships.” (It’s 60, silly.)
• “Therapeutic exemption use note.” (Repeat after me: TUE.)
• “Cal State Sacramento, home of the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships, the biggest masters track-and-field meet ever staged.” (Many others drew more, led by the 14,000 â€” including marathoners â€” at 1993 worlds in Miyazaki, Japan.)
• “Nobody over age 75 does the flop.” (Even Fosbury would chuckle at this.)
• “There’s a reason no one else in the world her age still high-jumps and long jumps.” (Don’t tell American Margaret Hinton or Britain’s Mary Wixey.)
But enough negativity. Olga would forbid it.
Bruce studied an Encyclopedia Brittanica’s worth of books and technical papers in the course of his four years of Olga studies and expertly weaves in the takeaways. Olga illustrates much of what he’s learned, and Bruce says (in his ever-clever way): “I see Olga in every scrap of well-being research the way some spiritual pilgrims see God in plates of spaghetti.”
Bruce takes pains to show that we needn’t aspire to Freaks of Nature status, however.
“Can I be like Olga?” he writes. “The short answer is probably not. But here’s the good news: Can you all of us be more like Olga? For sure.”
He writes in a final chapter:
“A few [Olga] habits emerged that demand fuller attention. Think of them as hard-won rules from the masters that promote vitality, longevity and happiness. Here they are: Keep moving. Create routines (but sometimes break them). Be opportunistic. Be a mensch. Believe in something. Lighten up. Cultivate a sense of progress. Don’t do it if you don’t love it. Begin now.”
Olga’s habits include getting up in the middle of the night to roll over a wine bottle, doing Japanese puzzles to keep her mind sharp and perfecting her 1930s high jump technique.
Olga’s history may be as impressive as her 26 world records. She left her drunkard husband, John Kotelko, in 1953 after he put a blade to her throat. She had an 8-year-old girl and one in the oven.
“As far as I knew, I was the first single mom in the history of the world,” she tells Bruce.
Also courageous was Bruce Grierson himself â€” telling of his badminton champ father dying of leukemia in his mid 60s and confessing: “Maybe it’s because I still miss him so much that I see him in [Olga]. She continues the story that he began.”
Since his paternal grandparents died at 101 and 97, Bruce thinks his dad “should be alive today and, it’s easy to imagine, almost as robust as Olga.”
The book ends on an ambiguous note. Bruce reveals Olga has osteoporosis (but doctor tells her: “Don’t let anybody tell you not to do [masters track].” Olga is found to have a cancerous tumor of unknown age in her right lung (but “Honestly, I’m not letting it worry me,” she says). Olga opts to do nothing.
And then she goes off to Porto Alegre and wins nine gold medals.
“What Makes Olga Run?” is small in size â€” like 5-foot Olga herself. At 5 3/4 inches by 8 1/2 inches and 242 pages (including index and bibliography), it’s not time-consuming.
But expect something big to happen when the world gets hold of “Olga” and meets Olga. Ken Cooper, make room for Bruce Grierson. World, start learning the Western roll.