From humble roots growing up in a coal mining camp in Wise County, Virginia, Ollan Cassell built a successful, inspiring career in track and field.
After first attending East Tennessee State, he rose to prominence at the University of Houston, then continued his athletic career while serving in the U.S. Army. The pinnacle of athletic success saw him team up with Mike Larrabee, Ulis Williams and Henry Carr to capture the 4×400-meter relay gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, with Cassell running the first leg of the race. (Perhaps the quartet’s Olympic gold was foreshadowed by their performance in an U.S.-USSR dual meet that July at Los Angeles Coliseum, where they beat a Russian foursome by nearly 55 meters to the finish line.)
The 1964 Tokyo Games marked a major milestone in Ollan Cassell’s life and helped shape his future career path: sports administration.
Cassell’s fascinating 2015 memoir, “Inside The Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports And The Modern Olympics,” co-written with Pete Cava, Elliot Denman, Jim Ferstle and Dan O’Brien, brings to life countless, individuals, events and places.
“I have great memories and impressions of Tokyo during my stay there,” Cassell, 79, told The Japan Times. “. . .The USA and Japanese teams had a dual meeting in another city after the games were over and it was the last one ever conducted between the two teams. These games were where I developed the feeling the Olympic Movement was something to be cherished and the only organization that could bring all countries together for friendly competition. I arrived at the conclusion that whatever I could do to keep the movement alive, I should. It seems, I followed that voice once in a position to keep it going.”
Looking back on the Tokyo Games in his book, he wrote, “This was probably the last of the ‘innocent Olympics.’ No one thought of terrorists. The only compound inside the village protected by barbed wire and heavy security was the women’s quarters — off limits to men. This was in contrast to the security at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles where the men’s village was heavily guarded with cowboys on horses to keep women out of the men’s village.”
Reflecting on that experience, Cassell commented on how grateful he was to meet and mingle with many of the world’s greatest athletes. He wrote, “I really felt it an honor to be among such talented athletes and see stars like swimmer Don Schollander, with all those medals, and boxers like future world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Other memorable moments include seeing Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila win his second gold medal in the marathon and then doing exercises — this time in shoes! — on the infield while the other runners were finishing (in 1960 Bikila won gold in the marathon running barefoot).”
Last month, a year after the 352-page memoir’s release, Cassell spoke by phone from his home in Indianapolis about the overall historical significance of his book and his life in sports. During the interview, Cassell also repeated a message that he stated in the book, analyzing a huge problem confronted by IOC and WADA: doping. He wrote: “Doping is the issue that scared me the most during my long tenure in sports administration. It still does.”
For the final four decades of the 20th century, Cassell, who held executive positions with the Amateur Athletic Union, The Athletics Congress (later known as USA Track & Field) and the IAAF, was an omnipresent figure in track and field and in growing roles as an influential figure in American and international sports.
He was seen and heard in locales spanning the globe. He shook hands and held talks across the decades with a who’s who of iconic sports figures, including former IAAF presidents Primo Nebiolo and Lamine Diack, Dr. LeRoy Walker, Frank Shorter, Colonel Donald Hull, Alberto Juantorena, Peter Ueberroth, Howard Cosell, Roone Arledge, Ted Turner, ex-IOC presidents Avery Brundage and Juan Antonio Samaranch, among others.
His ambitious chronicles deliver the goods on how policies were concocted, how alliances were developed, how feuds grew over differences big and small. What’s more, he explains how leaders and lesser-known figures — for instance, lawyer Peter Alkalay, who represented The Athletics Congress, “who negotiated the (Italian sportswear apparel company) Kappa deal with the unusual terms of guaranteed payments (to TAC) with no return of money” — accomplished things. He details how and why they debated policies and circumstances in every imaginable place: hotel lobbies, stadiums, Russia, Cuba, New York City.
But he doesn’t spill the beans on everybody and everything he saw and heard.
There’s a lot of stuff I left out, yes,” Cassell, a 2006 inductee into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in New York City in the contributor category, revealed by phone. “I had two or three lawyers that were working with me and some of the things that I was considering (to publish) they considered it maybe libel, even though I had files on it. And even if you’re right and you can win a lawsuit, you have to defend it.
“People can sue you, and so some of it I left out for those reasons.”
Starting in the mid-1960s — he was hired as AAU’s track & field administrator in ’65, and was elevated to executive director and head man in the years to come — he brought energy and ideas to the AAU, the TAC and USATF (1980-97) and the IAAF (vice president from 1976-99) over the next three-plus decades. (But before that, he formed friendships with compatriots and assumed adversaries during the Cold War, as is illustrated with a back-page photo on his book, with Cassell and Vadim Arkhipchuk of the Soviet Union embracing after a 4×400-meter relay in 1965 in Kiev. The meet, the photo caption noted, was ABC’s first live broadcast from the USSR, and that photo was featured on ABC’s holiday greeting cards in ’65.)
He also displayed his business acumen in putting together deals that promoted track and other sports, both nationally and globally. Example: the CBS Sports Spectacular, an 18-week series that aired for 10 years, starting in ’67. Representing the AAU, Cassell delivered a plan for an 18-week TV track and field schedule to CBS Sports president Jack Dolph. It worked, bringing good exposure to the sport. In those whirlwind years, Cassell set up a number of intriguing track and field extravaganzas: Western Hemisphere vs. Europe meets, USA vs. Commonwealth nations, USA vs. Africa, etc.
“My knowledge of what it took to organize, hold and execute international events was very valuable,” wrote Cassell, who joined the IAAF council in 1976, in the book. “The initial impact I made to the IAAF was to help create an international program of events outside of the Olympic Games, much like I did at the AAU.”
Years earlier, Cassell’s dealings with Soviet business partners put his negotiating skills to the test in his attempts to finalize a U.S.-Soviet dual meet despite a Soviet threat to withdrawal from a meet. There was no written contract.
“I used to carry a small, voice-activated tape recorder and secretly record our negotiations,” he wrote. “This was mainly for my own notes, but I also suspected I might need the leverage someday. I sent them a lengthy letter. … The letter stated the terms of our agreement and, if necessary, I could sent a transcript of the secret tape recording as well as a copy of the tape to their Minister of Sports.
“What I didn’t tell them was that on this particular occasion, the recorder didn’t work.
“They fulfilled the agreement and the meet went as scheduled.
“When I saw them the next year, they said, ‘Casell, don’t ever do that again.’
“I doubt they’d ever admit it, but I think they respected my subterfuge. From then on we had written contracts.”
A wealth of additional anecdotal material grabs your attention, keeping the book moving along from his formative years to the ’64 Tokyo Games to the 1970s, ’80s and beyond.
The tome doesn’t shy away from discussing the link between the 1968 Mexico City Games and the ’72 Munich Olympics and how the power of television was the link.
“There was a definite connection between the two,” he wrote. “Think about it. The ‘Black September’ terrorists and their supporters saw the attention the Olympics received, the (Tommie Smith and John Carlos Black Power salute) protests and all. They saw all those headlines. They saw all the TV coverage. They saw the world watching carefully. They wanted attention, too. And they were willing to do anything to get it.
“So they chose the next Olympics as their time and place to strike . . . with murder as their weapon.
“The world should have thought it out. The world should have seen it coming. The IOC and the Munich organizing committee should have taken serious precautions. But the world didn’t. Munich’s security system was incredibly inept, and we all paid the price.
“They were hoping for the best and got the worst.”
Cassell and his collaborators vividly described the slow changes and growing pains that took place to transform the national and international sports landscapes, shedding the amateur label for Olympic athletes and professionalizing sports on a year-round basis.
In his chapter on the Mexico City Games, Cassell observed, “… Wads of money (were) secretly doled out to American athletes by the competing German shoe companies, adidas and Puma, another significant outgrowth of the Mexico City and one of the first signs that professionals would ultimately replace amateurs in the Olympics.
“The situation became so frenetic that Ralph Boston, the 1960 long jump champion, could hardly believe his eyes when he saw Bob Beamon change from Puma to a new pair of adidas shoes between the trials and the final. . .”
But this wasn’t a new phenomenon. “Payments to athletes for wearing a particular brand had been in full force since Germany’s Armin Hary won the 100-meter gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome,” Cassell noted.
“However,” he wrote, “the payments were not only under-the-table, they were largely under-the-radar for eight years. Things nearly erupted in the mountains (bordering California and Nevada) in Tahoe as the inducements to the athletes were painfully obvious. … An investigation and hearing would have been required to suspend an athlete, but proof positive would have been impossible. No athlete would squeal on another. There was no hard evidence, only talk and rumors and brown envelopes left in locker rooms or housing trailers.”
So what was a real game-changer for the Olympics, to what Cassell has written was the “antiquated strict-amateur code in world athletics”?
He pointed to trust fund rules being agreed to by the IAAF Congress in 1981.
“Then, finally, it all changed in 1993 with completely revised rules which allowed athletes to negotiate their own contracts and accept payments without going into a trust,” he wrote.
Besides an abundance of great athletic feats he witnessed at national and world championships and the Olympics, Cassell also encountered the power of persuasion first hand. U.S. President Jimmy Carter spoke during the American Society of Newspapers’ annual convention before the vote by the USOC’s House of Delegates to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games, a decision he, the then-TAC executive director, vehemently disagreed with. At the convention, President Carter said, “If legal actions are necessary to enforce the decision not to send a team to Moscow, I will take them.”
And the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games ended the Olympic dreams of many, while also causing a pause for glory for others during their prime (see 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses).
While sports have never escaped the stranglehold of politics, drug use was also nothing new in modern Olympics. Performance-enhancing drugs grew with time as technology and geopolitical agendas extended their usage.
Consider, as Cassell noted in the book, the fact that marathon runners took strychinine as a stimulant during the 1904 Olympics, and that future World War II Gen. George Patton, an American modern pentathlete at the 1912 Games, used opium to seek a competitive edge.
Fast forward to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. IAAF head honcho Nebiolo, under whom Cassell served as vice president, informed his No. 2 “about the decision he and Samaranch had made about capping the number of positive (drug) tests in L.A. at a dozen,” Cassell recounted in his memoir. “He said they had done it ‘to protect the Olympics and the USA’ so there would be no scandal.”
Even though he became a proud Olympic champion, Cassell never felt it gave him the right — or the expectation — to receive preferential treatment.
“I consider that to be a very valuable award,” Cassell told this newspaper, referring to his gold medal. He paused before adding, “but I’ve never wanted to flaunt the fact that I have a gold medal, or that I won a medal, or that I was in the Olympics.
“All the time that I was an executive, I considered that I was executive of sports not because I was in the Olympics and won a medal,” he told The Japan Times, “but because I had the ability to do it and the knowledge to do it and had the drive to do it.”
With that in mind, his gold medal wasn’t regularly displayed.
“It was never something that was front and center,” Cassell stated. “It’s in my home and my wife takes care of it. Sometimes she hides it some place, and I can’t find it. It has been in a sock drawer, it has been in sort of a safety-deposit box that we have. But it’s never been something that is framed.”
He continued: “When you walk into my house, you don’t know that there’s a gold medal in there. That’s sort of the way that I’ve lived my life as a sports executive and being able to get things accomplished in sports without saying, ‘I’ve got a gold medal and that gives me a special perspective of how things should be done, because I don’t think it does.”
Analyzing the overall situation with the doping crisis that followed the McLaren Report in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Cassell said he believes the IAAF “moved in the strongest direction toward Rio,” citing the suspension of the entire Russian track and field federation.
“Now the IOC didn’t do that (for all Russian Olympians),” he stated.
“And I think the IOC’s the one that came out looking the weakest on drugs by not taking a firmer stance against the Russians. And so I think it seems to me like the IAAF is going to be the one that’s going to have to sort of lead this movement of stronger drug testing and make sure that clean athletes are the ones that are participating in international competitions.
“The movement to give independent groups a stronger hand and more power and more authority to move into national and international federations and take some action and investigate and do many of the things that WADA did with the Russian federation . . . but I think if you want to call it (that) ‘the shackles’ have to be taken off by the IOC as well as the international federations if you are going to see clean athletes participate in international competitions and win on their own ability.”
Is there an urgent need to empower WADA a bit more to police sports for drug cheats?
“Yes, I believe that,” Cassell said. “. . .They seem to be moving in the right way that they have the ability to go into countries and to investigate what goes on in that country.
“During my time, that was always a very difficult issue, mainly because with the East Germans and the Russians, they would never let you come into their country because they would say that it was against the laws of their country,” he went on. “But WADA seems to overcome that with the fact that they’ve created these national drug testing associations like the USADA . . . and their aim is to have one in each country around the world to be responsible to WADA.
“I think that they need more authority to do that but I think they are going to have difficulty getting laws passed in different countries that’s going to make doping illegal and make it a law in a country and make athletes go to jail, or officials and doctors go to jail. I think that’s going to be a lot more difficult.”
Looking back on the obstacles that sports governing bodies faced decades ago, Cassell had this to say: “We had some really hard struggles when we started doing the out-of-competition testing, because we had as many athletes for it as there were against it. So we had to walk a pretty fine line for a long time there.”
Like many others, Cassell believes that the mindset of bid city organizers who plan to outdo the glitzy projects of past Olympics is an unsustainable economic model. He cited the fact that Rio de Janeiro’s economic woes contributed to its problem of running the Summer Games, and needed major help — and cash — from the IOC to make it happen.
“If you look through this period of time, from the 40 or 50 years that we were involved, each of the cities that had the Olympics tried to build something better the other cities,” he said. “And I think the only one that took a reasonable approach to it during my time was Los Angeles (in 1984), and Los Angeles used many of the facilities that already existed.”
He added: “I think the IOC has a real problem with all of the things that they require organizing committees to do . .. but at the same time the cities put a lot of that on themselves if they want the Olympic Games. . . . I think they are going to have to be more reasonable with it . . . not only with the Summer Olympics but also the Winter Olympics.”