Book Review: “Countdown to Tokyo” by Geoff Wightman

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By Jonathan Gault
December 16, 2021

If you go to big athletic meets, chances are you’ve heard Geoff wightmanthe voice of. The stadium announcer for the 2012 Olympics, the 2017 and 2019 World Championships and dozens of other events around the world (he called Shalane Flanagan coming home to win the New York Marathon in 2017), he’s a fixture in the track scene. He also happens to be the coach of one of the best middle distance runners in the world, his son. Jacques, who owns a personal best of 3: 29.47 over 1,500 meters.

Last year Elder Wightman was scheduled to announce at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, while Jake, who finished 5th at the 2019 Worlds, was among the medal favorites in the 1,500 men. It was already an eventful year, and it was before COVID-19 all ended.

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Fortunately, then, Geoff kept a journal of it all. For the sixth time, Wightman has posted a behind-the-scenes look at his life as an announcer and coach, but unlike previous editions, Tokyo countdown spans two years instead of one. From January 2020 and until the last day of athletics at the Olympic Games this summer, Tokyo countdown documents the Wightmans’ roundabout journey to the strangest Olympics in history.

It is not a runner’s training log 3:29 1500. We hear about the ups and downs of Jake’s training, and while a few more details would have improved the book, we still get a behind-the-curtain glimpse of how of building an elite miler and the stress that goes with that – like what to do when he fails in his last pre-Olympic race. We also get an answer to what is surely the most common question Geoff faces: How does he stay neutral while calling his son’s races?

“People are surprised that I didn’t lose it, with my son vying for a medal in a tight final lap,” Wightman wrote of the 2018 Commonwealth Games 800m final, “but: I’m here for all competitors and spectators. ; and I like the middle distance and if I act partisan, I won’t be able to do it again.

As a narrator, Wightman is generally warm and light-hearted, unless the subject matter is Justin gatlin – which he despises. In fact, Wightman reveals that Nike’s decision to re-sign Gatlin after his four-year doping ban is one of the reasons Jake chose to leave Nike and sign with New Balance in 2017.

One of the most important sections of the book deals with the various hoops from Wightman and co. must jump through while traveling and training during a pandemic; particularly memorable is his story of catching a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo for a test event, which involved hitchhiking outside LAX at 1 a.m. You might be tired of reading articles on COVID protocols, but I suspect this book will age well as a document on the weird things we had to do in 2020-2021 to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

The real highlight, however, is the Games themselves. If you’ve never worked at the Olympics, it’s hard to appreciate the long hours, limited sleep, and even more limited dining options. Tokyo countdown works like a behind-the-scenes pass to it all – not to mention the lack of exercise allowed under Tokyo’s COVID protocols, something that is clearly pushing longtime runner Wightman over the wall (“phase la fatter of my whole life, ”Wightman writes, after a KFC lunch). All this while preparing Jake for the race that father and son had dreamed of for 27 years.

At 198 pages on Kindle (the only edition available), Tokyo countdown is a fun, quick read with a few behind-the-scenes stories from a man who knows pretty much everyone in athletics. If you are preparing a trail during the dead month of December, Tokyo countdown will scratch your itch.

Verdict: four out of five stars.


You can order Tokyo countdown here.


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