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Book Review — John Chaplin, “Man Of The Oval”

Book Review — John Chaplin, “Man Of The Oval”

THIS IS A BOOK any track fan can enjoy. Man Of The Oval (The international legacy of John Chaplin and WSU Track & Field) harkens back to a golden era at Washington State, presided over by Coach John Chaplin, and spearheaded by a legion of Kenyan distance runners, most notably Henry Rono. (There is a listing of Rono’s competitions in ’78, when he set World Records in the 3000, 5000, 10,000, and steeple.)

The book is many things: a biographical sketch of Chaplin, a controversial but highly influential figure in our sport; a kind of history of WSU track & field, from the post-WWI days of Clem Phillips, Dixie Garner and John Devine (who?) to the post-Chaplin years.

And you learn a lot about the author— Bruce Blizard, who doesn’t hesitate to interject his own thoughts and experiences Into the narrative. It’s a curious structure, but it all makes pretty good reading.

However — like a lot of new track books that cross my desk — I wish there had been a T&FN type around to edit and proof the book before publication to catch the typos and eliminate the repetitions.

Chaplin is certainly the center of the book. If you have ever been in a public space with him present, you’d definitely know he was in the room. He is a man to openly express his opinions, in a rapid-fire manner, and never sotto voce.

As a result, he could rub some people the wrong way. But not coaching peers like Brooks Johnson, Vin Lananna (who wrote an introduction to this book), Stephanie Hightower and the late Charlie Greene, who all express great admiration for the man.

And certainly not the collection of his former athletes who were interviewed for the book. They all cited his honesty, directness, and his caring, and how his presence in their lives remains a strong influence to this day.

Chaplin’s most famous performer was 1978 Athlete Of The Year Henry Rono.

Rival coaches and fans criticized Chaplin for his reliance on Kenyan “mercenaries” for WSU’s success. But there were few negative remarks in those days about Villanova’s recruitment of Irish middle distance superstars: Delany, Carroll, Coghlan, et al. So, could it be, as Blizard points out, that racism had something to do with that criticism?

Any track coach hoping to attract athletes to come to Pullman faces long odds. Climate-wise, winter can last well into April in the Palouse, whereas the Arizona and SoCal teams can train outdoors all year long. And Pullman is really geographically remote, while its…

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