National Track & Field Hall of Fame Inductee James Dunaway Q&A


Tom Surber
Media Information Manager
USA Track & Field

INDIANAPOLIS - USA Track & Field announced on November 4 that all-time great athletes Jearl Miles Clark, Dyrol Burleson, Roy Cochran, Ralph Craig and journalist James Dunaway have been elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

Excerpts from a recent interview with James Dunaway follow. Similar interviews with fellow Hall of Famers Jearl Miles Clark and Dyrol Burleson are available on the USATF website at:

The Class of 2010 will be inducted Saturday evening, December 4, at the Jesse Owens Awards and Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, held in conjunction with USATF's 2010 Annual Meeting in Virginia Beach, Va. The National Track & Field Hall of Fame is located at The Armory Foundation, at 216 Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights, N.Y. For more information, visit:

James Dunaway started covering track meets for money as well as enjoyment at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, and has covered every Games since then, 14 in all. He has also covered every World Track and Field Championships but one, 52 NCAA outdoor championships, and more than 100 indoor and outdoor AAU, TAC, and USA National Championships.

Dunaway's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Signature, The Runner, Runners' World, Track & Field News, American Track & Field, and many other magazines and newspapers. Author of the best-selling Sports Illustrated Book of Track & Field: Running Events, he was twice (1990-2001) and (2005-2007) elected president of the Track and Field Writers of America.

James Dunaway Q&A

Q: What's it like to be elected to the Hall of Fame?

A: It's an honor that I really didn't expect. I think, 'Wow, here I am with all of these great athletes,' many of whom I know and quite a few are friends of mine, and I'm glad to be sitting in there with them.

Q: How did you first get interested in track and field?

A: That really would've been when I was at Penn State. A fraternity brother of mine named Jimmy Gehrdes was a good hurdler, he finished second in the NCAA in 1950, and we had a good miler there named Gerry Karver, and Horace Ashenfelter (National Track & Field Hall of Famer) was a classmate of mine and Curt Stone, who ended up being on three Olympic teams, and I became friends. Before that, growing up in New Jersey reading about the Millrose Games and all those indoor track meets and they sounded very exciting, so I used to hitchhike from State College, Pennsylvania, on Saturdays when they had meets at the Garden (Madison Square Garden in New York City) to New York and I had an aunt and uncle in New York I could stay with. I would go down to the Paramount Hotel where the athletes stayed and the guys on the team would give me a competitor's ticket so I could get in free and I really enjoyed it.

Q: You graduated with a science degree from Penn State in 1949 and then went into the advertising business. How did that happen?

A: My aunt that I used to stay with in New York worked for an ad agency in Manhattan, one of the big ones. I used to visit her office and I thought, 'Wow, you can make money and have this much fun.' I started taking some advertising courses. A friend of mine and I started a little advertising agency doing some local things. We promoted various campus things. I called it Dunaway and Anderson, and Dick called it Anderson and Dunaway.

Q: You went from that to working for some major ad agencies. What was that like?

A: I got out of college and got hired by General Electric in their advertising and sales/promotion department and that was in Schenectady (N.Y.), so I could continue to come down and see the track meets on weekends. I worked there a year and a half, saved up $1,000, quit and went to Europe. I came back six months later with $5.50.

Q: What did you do while you were in Europe?

A: Bummed around. Saw art places that I'd heard about and seen about. I went to Rome, Florence, Milan, Paris a lot, Madrid and so forth, and ended up coming back with $5.50.

Q: How did you decide you were going to the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games?

A: I was a track fan, so I thought I'd like to see an Olympic Games. By that time I was working in Chicago for an agency called Leo Burnett, and so I thought I'd go to the Rome Olympics in 1960. In the summer of '56 there was a lot of, kind of European wars and things, almost, and there was a crisis about the Suez Canal, so sometime that summer I thought that I don't know if there's going to be a 1960 Olympics, so I'd better go now. Having once taken off from a job and going to Europe, which at age 22 or so can sound like a brave, young thing to do, but if you do it a second time a businessman who might hire you will look at it as a bad habit. So, I thought I'd better have a job going over there, so I started "Hometown Features" to cover people who wouldn't likely have a newspaper covering them there, smaller cities and things like that. I sent a letter to 34 papers and I got five of them signed up, which was okay with me, and I sold them a package of coverage of the individual athlete arriving there, doing workouts, preview of the athlete's event and detailed reports of what the athlete did. It wasn't very hard, but it was a lot of time work and it was interesting.

Q: How did you get to Melbourne?

A: I was working at Leo Burnett in Chicago and I asked for a leave of absence, and I got this idea of "Hometown Features." so I went to the, whatever he was called, the executive director, I guess, of the U.S. Olympic Committee, whose name was Kenneth "Tug" Wilson, and it was in Chicago. I made an appointment and walked over to his office and told him what I'd like to do and he said 'That's a good idea, we'll do it,' and that's how I got accredited. My father arranged for me, he worked for Texaco, an oil tanker ride to Sumatra, and from there I got on another tanker that took me to Botany Bay in Sydney, so that's how I got there.

Q: How did you write your stories with no prior journalistic training?

A: My parents were pretty literate people, as a lot of parents were, I think. They grew up in the 10s and 20s and people paid a lot of attention to literacy. I never knew the rules of grammar, but I never broke them because I'd been drilled in them in just the way my parents talked. I never thought I'd ever be a writer until I started writing ads. That's another great discipline for writing because there's no way you can make a 30-second commercial long enough to fit 40 seconds worth of work. You learn to write tight and that's always a good thing. The funniest thing about it is I had never written a news story in my life, but I read the papers and I knew what you did. You watched, you made notes and then you told the reader, who wasn't there, what it was like to be there. So, I wrote a letter, which the idea of the "Hometown Features" I was trying to create a persona, which was honest but not truthful. I used Cheltenham Bold letterhead, which was old-fashioned in 1956, and the idea was, and I was 28, and I was projecting an image of a person who was an experienced writer who had this little news service named "Hometown Features." Even though I'd never written a news story, I wrote a sales letter that sounded like I was all those things. The funniest thing was I got a letter back from the sports editor of the Oklahoma City Times saying that 'If you're going to do the work personally, we'll take it. We don't want any employees doing it (laughter).' But it worked out fine, and I worked for Oklahoma again four years later in Rome.

Q: How did your interest and passion in covering track and field evolve into your career?

A: You gotta understand, essentially this is a hobby. I was in advertising and promotion and PR, and that was my job. I had some friends with Sports Illustrated in the 60s and I started running with those guys every day in Central Park. So when they were looking for someone to write a book about track and field for their Sports Illustrated series (Sports Illustrated Book of Track & Field: Running Events) and they nominated me, and that made a huge difference in my life because after that lots of athletes knew who I was because they read my book (laughter). It sold over a couple hundred-thousand copies and it stayed in print for over 20 years. That's a long time for an instructional book to stay in print. That was really the pivot which sort of made me more professional than I was.

Q: You've been on hand to cover every Summer Olympics since 1956. Which one stands out to you the most and why?

A: I guess Tokyo (1964), though all of them had their interesting aspects, certainly. That was the first time I'd been in the Far East north of the equator and the Japanese did a terrific job. It was the time when Al Oerter tore the whole right side of his ribcage and a bunch of muscles and tendons and other things there, and he just ripped them apart. That was just a couple days before the competition, which all happened on one day, mornings they qualified and the afternoon was the final. So he was told no throwing for six weeks and that was announced. Then they have the morning competition and there's Oerter, and he qualified for the final in the afternoon and won it. It was just amazing.

Q: What's it like to cover an Olympic Games?

A: Covering an Olympics is 20 18-hour days back-to-back and the other six hours includes eating and sleeping. By the beginning of the last week of competition, you're running on empty, just fumes. I guess the adrenalin of it keeps you going, but it's very tiring because from morning till night there's always work to do.

Q: How has covering an Olympics changed through the years?

A: The whole process has become so much more institutionalized. When I went in 1956 I had this metal badge that was shaped like a track and you could go anywhere with that, including the Olympic Village, and everyone stayed in the Village in those days. It was almost like a very big county fair, and that was mostly because it was in Australia. Television has changed it; obviously terrorism has changed it and money. It's a real big business now. Also the size of the Games themselves has gotten bigger and track and field competition takes more time and that's what I'm there for is to cover, principally, track and field because that's the sport I got interested in and I like it.

Q: Through the years, who were some of your favorite athletes to cover?

A: Al Oerter, naturally. Ralph Boston and Hayes Jones were good guys who would talk freely about what was going on. I'm sure I'll forget somebody who I shouldn't forget, mainly because there were so many of them.

Q: What are the qualities of a good reporter?

A: Curiosity, inquisitiveness, obviously for some things. The ability to watch something, even if you have some emotional involvement, so if you go to the Olympics and you're an American and people expect you to cheer for the Americans, and I also liked that line that I heard very early when I got into the Madison Square Garden press box and that was 'No cheering in the press box.' But you have to work sometimes at that when you're watching an athlete that has a chance to win and you've interviewed them and watched them in practice and stuff like that. You've got to be as dispassionate as you can, and if your buddy athlete makes a mistake you have to report it and tell what happened.

Q: I'm sure you consider yourself a rich man for having the opportunity to pursue your passion of track and field the way you have. What advice could you offer to a young person looking to have a career like yours?

A: I like to go to track meets and then I discovered that this way you can get in free (laughter), and if you're covering it you can even get paid. As to how you do it today, I have no idea. I wouldn't know where to start, but I think people should learn to read and write and know how to use language. I just think that's an advantageous thing in life.

Q: You've covered track and field for more than 50 years. What do you think of where the sport is now and where it's headed?

A: In America team sports in cities has probably tripled since 1950. There were 16 big league baseball teams then, there was no such thing as a soccer league and the NBA was just beginning. Auto racing was something that was strictly in the south and all these other sports have teams, which means they have a league with a well-run PR office, and each team in some of the leagues, I'm sure, in baseball, football and basketball, probably each team in the league has more PR people than USATF. They make it very easy to cover those other sports and it's very hard to compete in the media arena for track and field. Even though there is professional track now, it's not really organized, but that's really nobody's fault, it's the nature of the sport. It's also very difficult to cover with television. It's like 14 different sports and you have to know a lot about things. It's a very tough sport to cover. But it still has a lot of vitality and generally speaking it's a very healthy sport, and I love it. I think it's a difficult sport to market in terms of what goes on today, and I don't think we've had anybody running the sport who knows how to do that.

Q: What is it about track and field that has held your interest so keenly for more than 50 years?

A: I don't know (laughter). I guess it really started when I started going to the meets in New York and people would ask me questions. I started also subscribing to Track & Field News. Somebody told me about it, I think it must have been early in 1949 when Track & Field News was less than a year old. Then people started asking me questions and I'd find the answers and I sort of edged into being a semi-expert or something, and the more I learned the more I liked it and I made some friends I'd go to track meets with and things like that. Before Melbourne, I was just a fan. There's a certain irony that Jesse Abramson and I are the only two people in the Hall as journalists, and neither of us went to journalism school at all (laughter). Jesse never went to college and I took an advertising course or two, and all the journalism I learned was by reading the papers.

Q: What keeps you busy when you're not covering track meets?

A: I've been editing a magazine called American Track & Field the last few years. I still sell magazine articles to things unrelated to track and field. I just had an article in the November issue of Air and Space Smithsonian. I'm now working on a book about the Moscow Olympics. If anybody has interesting stories about it I'd be happy to hear them (laughter). It was a unique time and there are a lot of untold stories about it and I thought it would be worth doing.

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