The US Gymnastics Team and the 1964 Uprising Part 3: Empty Chairs

Abie Grossfeld Muriel Grossfeld Armando Vega Ron Barak_May 1964_Getty
Abie Grossfeld Muriel Grossfeld Armando Vega Ron Barak_May 2, 1964. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics ended, the USA gymnastics team, both men and women’s teams, were asked to tour various cities in Japan, like Kyoto and Kobe, on a gymnastic exhibition. The US team travelled with the teams from Czechoslovakia, West Germany and Japan teams in these exhibitions.

On this tour, the men got permission from the Japanese organizers that the wives of the male gymnasts on the US team could accompany their husbands on the tour. The wives had plans to depart Japan prior to the end of the tour, so the organizers agreed to arrange for their trip back to Tokyo so that they could make their flights home.

According to the assistant head coach of the men’s team and veteran of the Melbourne and Rome Olympics, Abie Grossfeld, the wives were readying to depart Kobe for Tokyo by train when they were quite suddenly given orders to stay. The head of the gymnastics arm of the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU), George Gulack, informed the team that the wives were considered “part of the team”, and thus could not leave the tour prematurely. According to Grossfeld, Gulack simply “would not budge” on the matter.

Another member of the men’s gymnastics team, Ron Barak, was on the tour with his wife, Barbie. Giving Gulack the benefit of the doubt, Barak believes that “Gulack’s heart may have been in the right place,” wanting to ensure that the American’s put on the best presence possible, much the way the U.S. men’s Ryder Cup golf team always has the wives front and center in that international competition every two years. “No matter,” Barak said, “Gulack’s methods and style were terrible.” Barak recalls that that his wife had dysentery and had to leave the tour prematurely, which she did without incident or difficulty, along with the wife and sister of teammate Armando Vega.

George Gulack_1980_Tales of Gold
George Gulack in 1980, from the book Tales of Gold

Still, both Abie Grossfeld and Muriel Grossfeld recall an emotional conflict during the post-Olympics exhibition tour, and were upset that Gulack was still making decisions on his own, without explanation. To Abie Grossfeld, the attempt to control the itinerary of the wives of the male gymnasts on the exhibition was one straw too many.

According to Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the women’s team, they were up all night discussing whether and how they should push back. The team agreed to inform the Japanese organizers that if George and Fay Gulack were not kicked off the exhibition tour, they would leave for Tokyo immediately. Grossfeld said that the Germans, Czechs and Japanese should have been enough firepower to keep the tour chugging along.

So when they gathered together in the hotel lobby the next morning, the Japanese organizers saw the American men’s and women’s teams, with their bags packed for a train to Tokyo. The organizers realized trouble was brewing. The US team explained their case, and said that it was either the Gulacks or the US team, but both would not continue on the tour. “We said we would return to Tokyo, and we had our bags packed,” Grossfeld told me. “We were ready to walk out.”

According to both Abie and Muriel Grossfeld, after that meeting, the Gulacks were no longer on the tour as a result. One can only wonder whether the Japanese had to explain this to the Gulacks, a terribly difficult position to be put in with such senior foreign guests. Were the Gulacks told to leave the tour? Did they read the writing on the wall and slip away quietly on their own?

In the end, people all over Japan were coming out to see the gymnasts in the afterglow of an amazing Olympiad, people who could not afford the money or time to go to Tokyo during the Games. They were not coming out to see the Gulacks. But news of this sudden decision did not make it to the officials in the next exhibition city apparently. When the teams were greeted and formal photos of the teams were taken with city officials, Grossfeld said that the photo ended up looking quite eerie – two empty chairs which were placed for the Gulacks, were never removed.

When the gymnasts returned to the US, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld (who were a married couple at the time) were “summoned” by the AAU to their office in New York City, as they were viewed by the AAU as the ringleaders of this “rebellion”.

The main questions of the discussions between the Grossfelds and the AAU was whether they were insubordinate, or whether George Gulack made the right decisions on behalf of the AAU and the USOC. Grossfeld used as evidence a letter signed by all of the members of the women’s gymnastics team, including Janie Speaks, that Doris Fuchs should be part of the competing team.

A main part of the defense was that nepotism had an inordinate and unnatural impact on the selection of gymnasts for major competitions. The Grossfelds claimed that the appointment of George Gulack’s wife, Fay, to be judge at the World Championships, the National Championships and the Olympic Trial gymnastic competitions, was inappropriate. The issue to the Grossfelds was that Fay Gulack was “devoid of gymnastics technical knowledge”.

“Fay Gulack’s only ‘expertise’ was through being an observer as part of an audience at various competitions,” wrote Abie Grossfeld. “We challenged Fay Gulack to name just one part of the Olympic compulsory exercises in any of the four gymnastics events in that she had judged the compulsory exercises in several meets that year including the Olympic Trails and intrasquad. She could not name one part of an exercise.”

Nothing came of the meeting. But as it turned out, the state of gymnastics in the United States, and perhaps amateur sports worldwide, was in the midst not of a revolution, but an evolution. It took another 6 years, but in 1970, it was decided to replace the AAU with the United States Gymnastics Federation as the US gymnastics organization recognized by the International Federation of Gymnastics Congress (FIG). The days of Gulack and the old school my-way-or-the-highway leadership style faded into the history books.