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From Athens to Rio: Luciano Wernicke's book on incredible Olympic stories

The Olympics are a treasure trove of inspiring, funny and dark tales and Argentine journalist-turned-author Luciano Wernicke brings us the best in his latest book.

Luciano Wernicke and his latest book - The Most Incredible Olympic Stories

Argentine sports journalist turned author Luciano Wernicke and his latest book - The Most Incredible Olympic Stories


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 9 Aug 2021 7:36 AM GMT

Coming once in every four years, the Olympic Games, outside of being a space for the ultimate crossover in the sports multiverse, packed with glitz and athletic excellence, is also the treasure trove of stories lying in wait to be unearthed.

Having dipped his fingers generously into the nitty-gritties of experiencing sports from a socio-political-cultural context for almost three decades as a sports journalist, Argentina's Luciano Wernicke, has now traded roles to take up the job of being a full-time story-seeker and story-teller, donning the writer's cap.

While back in India, a 23-year-old Neeraj Chopra sent goosebumps down the spine of every Indian by winning India its first-ever gold medal in Athletics and bringing a century-long wait to an end as dusk rolled into evening in the subcontinent, over there in Argentina, afternoon brought the merry tiding of volleyball star Hugo Conte winning bronze just like his father.

Conte lives down the street of Luciano, they share the chemistry you would expect of run-in neighbours.

At a time when the Olympic spirit is right next-door, it's difficult to not find the storyteller in you growing restless and that's precisely what happened with Luciano, who has already authored bestsellers like The Most Incredible World Cup Stories, The Most Incredible Football Stories and Duel Never Won [a book that compares the two G.O.A.T's of football - Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi].

Settling into the late afternoon of Argentina, Luciano spoke exclusively to The Bridge about his new book - The Most Incredible Olympic Stories, the cultural difference between India and Argentina that brews together thanks to a fine blend of football.

Q: How has the 2020 Tokyo Olympics been for you?

Luciano: Argh, the time difference is not the best. All the people are competing when I'm sleeping, haha! I'm afraid I couldn't watch most of the Games live because of it being held in Japan. We have almost a 12 hours time difference here. I have watched the events later but not live.

Earlier, 2-3 Olympics got cancelled because of the World War but this is the first time the Olympics have been moved an year because of the pandemic. It's very very strange. There are no people on the stands. It's the time you have to live in. You have no choice. This is better than nothing. I prefer to watch everything on TV than if the Olympics were cancelled.

Q: You are mostly a football person. What made you choose the Olympics as the subject of your book?

Luciano: I used to be a journalist in sports, politics and economy for 25 years and now finally, I'm a full-time professional writer. In 1995, I published my first book on football. I wrote my first 2 books just for fun - not very seriously.

The Manager of Editorial Planeta always encouraged me and told me my books are good to read and in 2008, he offered me to write a book on the World Cup. That book went on to become #1 Bestseller in Colombia! After that, my mind entirely switched. I left all my jobs in journalism and I decided to be a professional writer.

For me the Olympics is a wonderful chance not only to write about sports but also the political side of the Olympics. I love writing about human stories.

The Olympic Games give me an opportunity to write about different sides of the sport - from funny to dark stories. From Emperor Nero at Ancient Olympics who went on to win the chariot race by unfair means to what happened in Russia with the entire doping scandal recently. The Olympics give us different ways to enjoy the event - not only within the sporting world, but even outside.

There are more people involved here, the number of sports is also so much more. There are more stories here and they contrast with different cultures unlike the World Cup's. I don't mind if I don't know all the rules of, say, Greco-Roman wrestling or Pentathlon, but the idea is always to find and write something extraordinary about this kind of competition.

Q: Do you think the Olympic medal holds the same value as perhaps, a football World Cup or a tennis Grand Slam?

Argentina's Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero with their gold medals from the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Source: Reuters)

Luciano: I live in a country where the Argentinian National team won 2 World Cup's. Football is the most-loved sport in this nation, by far. We also have 2 gold medals from the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In the Olympics, you have to use under-23 year-old guys for the team mostly and only 3 players over that age are allowed to be a part of the team, can you imagine? We can't use the best footballers to compete there.

Look at the Brazilian football team who just won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Dani Alves, who used to be a former player of Barcelona, is 38, was a part of the team. But most other players are below 23 and therefore not so experienced. This is the difference between football at the Olympics and the World Cup's - you cannot use the best team in the former.

We prefer the World Cup because we are a football country. The managers are free to choose their team then.

(Following the football tangent, Luciano carries on) I'm told that even Calcutta shares a great love for football and Indians love their Ronaldo's and Messi's. However, I'm yet to visit India - I really want to and experience it, not as a tourist, but really, travel, taste the country and meet the people.

Q: Coming to your book of 'incredible' stories. Which is your favourite Olympic story?

Luciano: My favourite stories are that of social and political interest. There are over 500 stories in my book - The Most Incredible Olympic Stories, so it's very difficult to choose.

But I think the story I find most inspirational is how Elizabeth 'Betty' Robinson came back from the dead to win a gold medal at the Olympics. After winning gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, Betty soon got into a terrible plane crash and was almost declared dead and was also getting prepared for her funeral before…an employee noticed she hadn't died yet.

Betty had suffered multiple fractures on her hip and leg but she overcame all of it and 4 years later, she participated in the 4×100 metre relay and went on to win the gold once again! Such incredible stuff!

Q: How did you research to write this book?

Luciano: I had to go through a lot of books (nods back to a huge bookshelf right behind him). Over here are all my books about the Olympics. Other than that, I would access a lot of newspapers from that time and read up.

My idea is not just to talk about sports because all the records are broken. I try to find a story and look at it with modern eyes - some are really funny, others are inspiring, while some are just dark.

Did you know that in the 1948 London Olympics there was a naked swimmer? (Luciano begins with a chuckle) Pakistan's Jaffar Ali Shah was all set to participate in the second preliminary heat and just as he took off his robe he realized he had forgotten to put on his swimsuit - in that flash of a second, the Pakistani jumped into the water, embarrassed, to hide his nudity from the judges and other athletes.

Q: Finally, from women not being allowed to participate at the first Olympics to the Tokyo Olympics being hailed as the most 'gender-balanced' Games, how have we progressed?

Luciano: The Greeks only allowed men to compete at the Ancient Olympics. So when Pierre de Coubertin took the Olympics and started the Modern Era, he thought we would have to do the same and hence in the first Olympics in 1896 Athens, there were no women. The first Olympics where women took part was the 1900 Paris Olympics, against the wish of Pierre de Coubertin, anyway.

The Games are absolutely better and fair now. This is a different world we are living in, fortunately. All the people have the right to compete at the Olympics - men and women!

This is the main idea - sports is for everyone. But we have to understand that not every sport is the same…we can't mix it up and give unfair advantage. The rules need to be revised and regulated carefully so that everybody can participate on fair terms.

It's gonna be most fair with every edition of the Olympics I believe, from Paris to Los Angeles to Brisbane, we will have a more quality display from both men and women.

Q: What's next from the pen of Luciano Wernicke?

Luciano: For my next book, I'm looking at how dictators like Hitler, Mussolini looked at football for their own political vendetta and used it to further their own political agendas!

[Luciano Wernicke's book The Most Incredible Olympic Stories has been published by Niyogi Books in India and is available for purchase.]

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