1912_Summer_Olympics_poster

Going au natural was considered not only natural, but beautiful, in ancient Greece. The nude athlete is a powerful image in Greece. It is said that when a runner named Orsippus of Megara lost his loincloth in the midst of a sprint, he was said to run even faster, gaining him victory and fame. Running naked became a competitive advantage.

As archaeologists like Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered the site of ancient Troy in the late 19th century, captured the imagination of people the world over, the thinking and customs of the ancient Greece became idealized. The nude athlete in particular was de rigeur in posters advertising the early Olympic Games.

1920 antwerp olympics poster

In fact, from 1912 to 1936, the male body was the main feature of the Olympic poster, with the 1912 Stockholm Olympic poster being the most, how shall we say, intriguing, showing that there’s a lot you can do with a ribbon. And after World War I ravaged Europe, the Olympics came to Antwerp, Belgium in 1920, where the poster also employed a fully nude man, private parts covered this time by a swirling towel.

1924 Paris Olympics poster

The French were not so revealing, but the poster for the 1924 Paris Olympics did emphasize the bare chests and midriffs of virile young men ready to go into athletic battle. The poster for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics was less suggestive, but still featured a yearning half-nude man.

Then, there are the prudish Americans, who featured a man of chiseled musculature, but whose torso was covered by a white t-shirt.

The Germans in 1936, the Brits in 1948 and the Finns in 1952 all did variations on a theme with the male body, until the Aussies came along and changed the look and feel dramatically. They removed the human, and replaced it with, what looks like a card, or invitation to the Olympic Games.

Nude guys were no longer a thing.

1932 Los Angeles Olympics poster

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Eleanor Holm 1932 Olympic beauties
Eleanor Holm is number 6; from The Daily Herald Biloxi Mississippi, August 5, 1932

The daughter of a fireman, perhaps it’s no wonder that little Eleanor loved the water from an early age.

“I had no fear of the water, and I used to go way out in the ocean, and a lifeguard had to come out and keep getting me,” explained Eleanor Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, of her childhood at her family’s summer cottage in Long Beach, New York.

Winning competitions from the age of 13, Eleanor Holm was selected at the age of 14 to the national swim team to represent the United States at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Holm placed fifth in her specialty – the 100-meter backstroke.

At the age of 17, the beauty from Brooklyn was offered a chance to travel with the Ziegfeld Follies, one of the dominant entertainment machines of American pop culture of the time, but Holm declined. She was determined to participate and win at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Holm as an adult had a reputation as the life of the party. But in 1932, as she got herself ready for the Olympics, she insists she was very serious, to the point of being a party pooper.

In 1932, when nothing was going to stop me, I used to snitch on the girls if they kept me awake. I’d say to the coaches, “Did you know she was out last night? She didn’t get in until 10 o’clock.” Nobody believes this now.

Holm’s focus paid off. On August 9, the backstroker set a blistering pace to set the world record in the 100 meters. Two days later, with a comfortable, lead, Holm took the gold medal with seconds to spare over Philomena Meaning of Australia.

As The New York Times reported on August 12, 1932, “not once did Miss Holm pay any attention to the guiding line of red flags strung overhead. She stroked rhythmically and perfectly, but her black-capped head was ever turned toward Miss Mealing’s lane. It was not until she was ten meters from the end and well ahead that the Brooklyn girl paid strict attention to her own race. Then she flailed away at the water in a sprint finish that insured her triumph beyond any doubt.”

After her Olympic triumph, not far from the Hollywood hills, a star was born. As she told David Anderson of The New York Times in 1984, ”I was hardly dry at those Olympics when I was whisked from one studio to another – Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount – to take movie tests. In the years before the next Olympics, I took diction lessons and drama lessons but as it turned out, I was only in one movie. I was Jane in a Tarzan movie. Glen Morris was Tarzan.”

In a 1992 interview with Sports Illustrated, Holm said that she signed a contract with Warner Brothers only eleven days after her gold medal victory. “They sent me to school to learn how to act,” said Holm. “I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I’d ask them for their autographs!”

Eleanor Holm on cover of Time Magazine

But after only nine months, Holm was given a difficult choice. Because the studio wanted her to swim in the movies, she felt that would jeopardize her amateur status and prevent her from possibly competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She would later go on to star in movies about herself, as well as in the 1938 film, Tarzan’s Revenge, but in 1933, she got out of her contract with Warner Brothers.

“It’s funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don’t I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics.”

Fortunately, in Los Angeles in 1932, she did. Holm did not get a second chance in 1936.

Jules Noel

he great long-distance runner, Emil Zátopek, drank a glass of beer after his tough training every day.

The first ever winner of the marathon, Spyridon Louis, was said to have made a pit stop at his uncle’s tavern for a glass of wine before winning gold at the 1896 Athens Olympics.

But discus thrower, Jules Noël, was a beneficiary of the US government’s decision to suspend the importation and imbibing of alcohol.

From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to produce, import, transport and sell alcoholic beverages. This teetotaler era in the United States, known as Prohibition, happened to be in force during the 1932 Olympics hosted in Los Angeles, California.   But according to David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky in their book, The Book of Olympic Lists, “in the interests of international goodwill the US government suspended its prohibition against alcoholic beverages to allow French, Italian and other athletes to import and drink wine.”

Anti prohibition protest in New York City
Anti Prohibition Protest in New York City in 1932.

Frenchman, Noël, believed that “wine was an essential part of his diet,” according to sports-reference.com. Apparently, the world record holder and eventual gold medalist in the discus throw, John Anderson, led nearly the entire competition. But in the fourth and final round, after Anderson’s leading throw of 49.49 meters, Noël was reported to send a discus way past Andersen’s best throw at the time. But apparently, “the officials were watching the pole vault and did not see it land. Noël was given an extra throw but could not produce his top throw again and he would eventually place fourth.”

Before his mighty but unofficial throw, Noël was said to be “swigging champagne with his compatriots in the locker room between rounds at the discus event.”

True?

In vino veritas!

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It was 1921 and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland to vote on the host city of the 1924 Olympiad. Delegates from Amsterdam, Holland, as well as Rome, Italy were confident with its bid to host the 1924 Olympics. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was 58 years old, and had overseen the birth and growth of the Olympic movement for over 30 years, and announced in Lausanne, he was ready to retire, and that he had a favor to ask of his fellow IOC members.

Would they be so kind as to select Paris, France, his hometown, to be the host of the 1924 Olympic Games?

The IOC members could not turn down the father of their movement, and thus Paris was selected as host of the 1924 Games, much to the chagrin of the delegates for Rome, who stormed out of the meeting. But the Dutch, who had bid for the 1912 Olympics, and ceded to Antwerp, Belgium in 1920, were also selected at this 1921 IOC meeting to host an Olympics, the next one in 1928.

Eventually, the IOC drew up a charter that states a host city must be selected 7 years in advance, probably assuming that changing economic or political conditions might result in regrets over a decision made so far in the future. Possibly they used the 1921 case as its benchmark. But nearly 100 years later, the IOC may need to look confidently into its crystal ball and decide yes, let’s select, both Paris and Los Angeles for the next two Summer Olympics.

On September 13, 2017, the IOC will meet in Lima, Peru to select the host city of the 2024 Summer Olympics among the two surviving candidates – Paris and Los Angeles. There has been speculation for months that they may also select the host city for 2028.

LA_2024_Olympic_Bid_Logo.svgBut which city should go first in 2024, and which city will take the longer-term plunge, agreeing to host 11 years later? Delegates from both bid committees are saying that they are only considering 2024. But from the IOC’s perspective, locking up two cities for the next two Olympics would be a relief as cities and nations are now commonly reluctant to bid for this biggest of big tent events.

Rich Perelman, who edits the insightful newsletter The Sports Examiner, recently posits a scenario for the upcoming selection prior to key IOC visits with the bidding committees in LA and Paris in May. Perelman believes that the IOC needs to reward Paris who has been active in hosting Olympic-spots events, and help turn the tide in Europe, which has seen major cities like Rome, Hamburg and Budapest drop bids due to weak support in their own countries.

Perelman explains that later may be better for LA. Even though Los Angeles has fantastic facilities ready to go, particularly an Olympic Village infrastructure that Paris does not currently have, the city of angels still has significant transportation infrastructure issues, among other things, that they could use the time to resolve.

So if one assumes that the members of the IOC vote to select Paris as host of the 2024 Olympics, then Perelman believes that the IOC, driven by president Thomas Bach, have to make a strong offer to Los Angeles to accept the rights to host in 2028. Such inducements would include start-up funding for four year from next year, say USD10 million a year, and perhaps early access to monies from television rights and sponsorships prior to 2022, which is when such payments would normally be made for a 2028 host city selected in 2021.

Interestingly, I have yet to see a scenario if the IOC vote to select Los Angeles as host in 2024. Would Paris agree to wait 11 years and host in 2028?

In 1921, Los Angeles also bid to host the 1924 Olympics, but failed. In 1923, the IOC met in Rome to decide on the host city of the 1932 Olympics, nine years later. The IOC selected Los Angeles. And the circumstances then may be similar to the circumstances today. The IOC had only one bid for 1932 – Los Angeles. If Paris wins the bid in September, the IOC may think they have only one bid for 2028 – Los Angeles. Will history repeat?

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Los Angeles, CA- Photo shows the start of the 3000-meter steeplechase (left to right) #117, Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland; #417, G.W. Dawson of U.S.A.; #194, T. Evenson, Great Britain; #442, J.P. McCluskey, U.S.A. It was won by Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland

A 3,000 meter steeplechase is punishing. An athlete has to hurdle 28 barriers and splash through 7 water jumps before arriving exhausted at the finish line.

At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland was over 35 meters ahead of his closest rival when he crossed the finish line….except there was no finish line. He saw that the lap counter read one more lap to go…so one Iso-Hollo went until he did finally break the tape to win the gold medal.

Some 13 seconds later, Brit Thomas Evenson completed the race, followed by American Joseph McCluskey. Except a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line. The race had already ended before it had ended.

Apparently, the official in charge of the lap counter forget to record the first lap. In other words, the runners all ran an extra lap, or an additional 460 meters. Fortunately for Iso-Hollo, he was clearly in the lead when he completed 3,000 meters. Unfortunately for McCluskey, he was in second at the end of 3,000. As is explained in The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012, McCluskey pointed out that they had all run an extra lap, and that he had been in second at the end of 3,000 meters. When officials realized the error, they offered a re-run the next day. McCluskey declined the chance. As the book quotes him, “a race has only one finish line.”

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Joe McCluskey

Despite the fact that the order of the finishers was not changed, the officials thought to change the finishing time. They somehow came up with a revised time of 9:18.4, which would have been an Olympic record according to The Yomiuri (October 10, 1964). But there was simply too much guess work involved to make that time official. So the record stands, that Iso-Hollo won the gold in the 3000-meter steeplechase at the 1932 Olympics in 10:33.4.

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Naoto Tajima in Berlin.

On the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, The Yomiuri published an article by Naoto Tajima, the triple jump gold medalist and long jump bronze medalist of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This article from October 10, 1964 was an overview of the Olympics from 1912 to 1960, with personal impressions of the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The following provides Tajima’s comparison of the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, one of practical simplicity and the other of martial majesty.

1932 Los Angeles Olympics

California has little rain. The preparations for the Games were made smoothly. No difficulties cropped up at all. The premises in the Olympic Village, though, were no better than shacks. There were four athletes in each shack. The walls and ceilings were made of cardboard.

An odd feature of the Olympic Village was its row of open air toilets. There were partitions between the toilets, but there was no roof. Overhead could be seen the stars, shining in the Californian sky. The Los Angeles Games were far smaller than the Berlin Olympics, but the atmosphere was bright and cheerful, refreshingly free from still formality. Everything was liberal and open-hearted.

Tajima explained this open-heartedness was evident on the track as well.

I was 19 when I competed in the hop, step and jump in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. I did quite well on my first jump, but I carelessly let my hand touch the sand. The distance of my jump was measured only up to the point where I had touched the sand, and so my measured jump was much shorter than it would otherwise have been.

At this point, the chief judge patted me on the shoulder and said in a kindly voice, “Don’t let your hand touch the sand next time.” I had been feeling very nervous, since it was my first experience in an international sporting event, but the judge’s friendly advice helped me relax

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A Tajima leap at the 1936 Olympics

 

1936 Berlin Olympics

Tajima described the Los Angeles games “rather like that of a hot dog, that typically American food. There nothing artificial in the arrangements for the Los Angeles Games. What was provided what was essential”. After all, the LA Games in 1932 were held in the midst of the Great Depression. Four years later, as economies crept out of the Depression, the 1936 Berlin Olympics by comparison were “spectacular”, according to Tajima.

(The 1936 Berlin Games) were magnificent both in sale and in the way they were managed. Not only was the German aptitude for organization displayed to the full, but Hitler lavished human and material resources on the preparations for the Games regardless of expense. The Olympic Village had a Finnish steam bath. It even had a Japanese-style bath too. In the dining halls, dishes of every country taking part in the Games were served.

The Berlin Olympics were the first in which there was an Olympic flame relay. They were the first and only Olympics in which winners were given potted oak-tree plants. It was explained that the oak has been chosen because it is a robust tree, capable of growing anywhere in the world and therefore suitable for presentation to athletes from all countries. The idea was typically German.

According to Tajima’s Japanese Wikipedia page, Tajima donated the oak tree seedlings to the Faculty of Agriculture of Kyoto University, his alma mater, where oak trees from Germany were raised. In fact, seedlings from these trees have been sent to all parts of Japan, where Tajima’s golden legacy literally grows.

However, Tajima did not enjoy a particular aspect of the Berlin Olympics: the omnipresent swastika.

The black Nazi swastika against its red background was too gaudy and clashed with the simple Olympic flag. The Berlin Games were a superb affair, but they left an unpleasant taste since they were too cleverly exploited by the Nazis for their own purposes.

At the end of the article, Tajima expressed his wishes for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His goal for those Games were probably what most Japanese were hoping for as well:

The Tokyo Olympics will be a success, even if some things go wrong, if everyone coming to Tokyo for the Games feels: “We really enjoyed them. We are glad we came.”

By Tajima’s metric, based on the dozens of people affiliated with the Tokyo Olympics I have spoked with, those Games in 1964 were a rousing success.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

On July 31, 1932, Babe Didrikson won a gold medal in the javelin throw. On August 3rd and 4th, she ran in the 80-meter hurdles heats and then finals, winning her second gold medal. And on August 7, she battled Jean Shiley to the very end, losing the gold to Shiley on a rule violation.

Somewhere in that week, between July 31 and August 7, Didrikson found time to join three sportswriters for a game of golf at the Brentwood country Club. Famed writer, Grantland Rice, was one of the party of four that played the links with Didrikson, who had never played golf before. According to Rice, Didrikson carded a 91, and hit drives of 250 yards.

After the Olympics, Didrikson’s star shining brightly, Babe showed off her various skills in the vaudeville circuit, barnstormed with a basketball team, and generally played to adoring crowds. In 1935, she began to play golf more seriously, even competing in the all-male Los Angeles Open in 1938. It was at a golf tournament that year when Didrikson met a wrestler named George Zaharias, whom she married later that year.

In the 1940s, Babe Didrikson dominated women’s golf. In one stretch in 1946 and 1947, Didrikson won 14 golf tournaments in a row, including the first time an American had ever won the British Women’s Amateur Championship. To this day, Babe’s streak stands as the greatest in golf history.

In 1950, at the peak of her career, there were only about six tournaments a year for women. Using her influence to round up corporate sponsors, Didrikson formed a new pro tour called the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or the LGPA.

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George Zaharias and Babe Didrikson

In 1953, Didrikson was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, which had a positive effect. She would go on to win the 1954 Women’s United States Open by twelve strokes, and became an inspiration to millions. But the cancer would return, as would operations and more golf, until finally, on September 27, 1956, the world’s greatest female athlete passed away.

As mentioned by her fellow Olympic teammate, Jean Shiley, Babe was the boyish, brash, I’m-number-one-preaching-Muhammad-Ali of her time. The New York Times noted in her obituary that as her golf career took off, she began to dress in more feminine wear, embraced her marriage with Zaharias, and even became accustomed to mentoring younger golfers.

But as a top player and drawing power in golf, her attitude and demeanor changed. The once lonely tomboy became a social success. She developed into a graceful ballroom dancer and became the life of many a social gathering. She was too skillful at gin rummy for most and at times, to change the pace at a party, she would take out a harmonica and give a rendition of hillbilly tunes she had learned as a youngster.

This change was the cause of a more convivial feeling toward her by rivals. In her younger days her desire to win had served to toughen her as far as any opponent was concerned. But in her later days, instead of goading her rivals with, “Yep, I’m gonna beat you,” she began encouraging the younger girls on the golf circuit.

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Jean Shiley and her scissor-kick style

She was a bolt out of the blue in 1932. Mildred Didrikson, nicknamed “Babe” because she could wallop a baseball, was suddenly a track and field phenomenon. She had single handedly dominated the US Women’s track and field championships that year. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she had won gold in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw. So as she prepared for the high jump competition, the press, the crowd in the stadium, and people all over America were expecting to see Babe Didrikson win her third gold medal.

But another American, Jean Shiley, was not going to just let Babe take it. Shiley from Pennsylvania was actually known at the time as the world’s best high jumper, but at the Los Angeles Olympics, she was playing second fiddle to the Babe. The masses wanted Babe to win her third gold medal. But athletes who knew Didrikson….not necessarily. Here’s how Shiley described her predicament in the book, Tales of Gold:

The women’s track and field events ran for a week, and at the Games Babe was the Sun King. On Sunday she won the javelin. Then on Wednesday she won a controversial decision in the hurdles. By that time the crowds were all behind her. They have their heroes and heroines. And the newspapers got into it, too. The following Sunday was the high jump, and the night before all the girls were in my room telling me, “You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it.” Oh, boy, they were really putting the pressure on me.

In the end, the crowd got to see Didrikson and Shiley face off for gold. The world record holder in the high jump, Lien Gisolf of the Netherlands, could not clear 1.6 meters. Then Canada’s Eva Dawes succumbed to the height of 1.62 meters, her efforts winning her the bronze medal. Both Didrikson and Shiley would go on to clear 1.62 meters, and set a world record at 1.65 meters, only for both to fail three times to clear 1.67 meters (5 ft 5 inches).

The rules of the time required a jump-off, a sudden death competition to clear a height incrementally higher than 5 ft 5 in . First the bar was raised another inch to 5 ft 6 in (1.676 meters). Shiley knocked the bar off its supports. Didikson barely cleared the bar with her body only to have her leg tap the bar and knock it off in her descent. So the bar was lowered to 5 feet 51/4 inches. Shiley soared higher in competition than she ever soared before, and lept over the bar. It was now up to the Babe, who lept and made it safely across. A tie…again.

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Babe Didrikson and her Western roll style

But then something strange happened. According to the book, Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion, Didrikson was said to have made an illegal jump.

Then Babe ran toward the crossbar and leaped off the ground, kicking up her feet and rolling in midair as she went over the bar. It was another tie – or was it? The judges huddled. According to Olympic rules then in effect, a high jumper had to clear the bar feet first. If the jumper went over the bar head first in a “dive,” the jump was disqualified. The judges ruled that Babe had dived. The first-place gold medal went to Jean Shiley, the silver to Babe Didrikson.

The rules at the time stated that the jumper’s feet must cross the bar first, which is why most athletes, including Shiley, employed a scissor-kick style. But Babe’s style is what was called the Western roll, a popular style where one’s arm and head, face down, are essentially the first parts of the body over the bar. Why was this ruling strange? Because Didrikson, as the press pointed out, had been jumping that way the entire competition. If the judges were going to rule her jumps illegal, they should have done so from the first jump.

The ruling stood, and according to Shiley, Babe was seen in the public as a victim, cheated out of her third gold, while Shiley was the villain. In the end, Shiley said she understood, knowing that Didrikson inspired great emotion in others. She in fact considered Babe to be the Muhammad Ali of her time in her egocentric confidence. She also considered Didrikson to be a fun person to be with, and a friend.

Babe Didrikson inspired either great enthusiasm or great dislike. At that time, even though they competed in sports, girls were to be young ladies, and I think a lot of girls found her behavior a little beyond how they thought a young lady should act. The Babe was very brash, and she bragged a lot, but she was also very humorous, especially when she wasn’t getting all the attention. She’d pull a harmonica out of her pocket and start to play it just to get attention. And nobody did anything better than she did. I don’t care if it was swallowing goldfish; she would have to swallow more fish than anybody else. It wasn’t Muhammad Ali who started this “I’m number one” stuff. Babe started it.

She was just so different from all the rest of the girls that it grated on their nerves. It could have been jealousy. That’s the way Babe was, and it bothered some of the girls, but it didn’t bother me. I was captain of the 1932 team, and I had to represent all of the girls. I had been on the 1928 team, and I learned that there are a lot of people in the world, and they are very different and very interesting. So Babe didn’t bother me; in fact, she and I became friends and remained so even though we’re two entirely different people.

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Mildred “Babe” Didrikson at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics

Role models are essential, particularly to groups under-represented.

In the first half of the 20th century, women around the industrialized world were told that exerting themselves too much in sports would not only be unlady-like, it might be bad for their health.

In America, one woman refuted those assumptions, brashly.

Babe Didrikson was the female version of Jim Thorpe. Whatever sport she took up, she did very well, often better than most others, female or male. She was an exceptional diver, bowler, baseball player and roller skater. Out of high school, she was the star on the Employers’ Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas women’s basketball team.

At the national track and field championships in 1932, the one that would determine participation in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Didrikson won an amazing six events – the broad jump, the shot put, the javelin, the 80-meter hurdles, the baseball throw, as well as tying for first in the high jump – all in a three-hour period. Her individual total points of 30 was greater than the next best team score of 22 points, accumulated by 22 athletes.

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At the 1932 Olympics, Didrikson would win two gold medals and a silver and become one of the sensations of the Los Angeles Games.

And she was just getting started.

Packing star power, Didrikson was able to get paid in ways that other female athletes could only dream of: singing and playing the harmonica on vaudeville, doing so while hitting plastic golf balls into the delirious audience…making thousands of dollars per month, a king’s ransom in those days.

In 1934, Didrikson began to play golf seriously, and went on to become the best female golfer in the world, wining 82 golf tournaments as an amateur and a professional. For one stretch in 1946 and 1947, she won 14 straight gold tournaments. Her influence was so great that she co-founded the LPGA – the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

But she was a pioneer, so she had to do so under challenging conditions. People around her and the press in particular would call her gender in to question, openly telling her to stay home. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” one sports columnist wrote in the New York World-Telegram.

What is surprising, according to this New York Times article, is that the great Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, who was named “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950, is little known today, her museum in Beaumont, Texas, rarely visited.

While girls who like sports today have a growing number of female role models in the 21st century, one of the greatest took the world by storm some 70 to 80 years ago. And this Babe is worth a look.

The flag of the rising sun
Went up the main mast.
It is no longer a dream.
On the scoreboards for each nation
Japan’s points are rising fast.
Gloriously, truly gloriously
Several Japanese flags are fluttering
Against Los Angeles’ blue sky.
My body shakes with emotion.
Tears of joy well up in my eyes.
Victories extol victories.

Sayoko Ishikawa, “Hirugaeru Nisshoki,” Rafu Shimpo, August 11, 1932 (a newspaper in America for Japanese)

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My grandfather and grandmother, Kiyoshi and Fumi Tomizawa
My grandfather was 53 when the Olympic Games came to Los Angeles in 1932. He was an Issei, a Japanese who emigrated to the United States in 1903. After graduating from Miami University of Ohio in 1908, he went on to become the director of the Japanese YMCA in San Francisco.

He was proud of living in America and contributing to his community through his service in the YMCA, but it was not easy for Japanese at that time. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 put a ban on immigration to America for essentially one race – the Japanese. This dispelled hope for many Japanese issei, like my grandfather, of ever becoming accepted by the rest of American society, let alone gaining citizenship. But my grandfather never gave up hope, and during the Great Depression, he helped raise funds to establish a building that would become the home of the Japanese YMCA in 1936. (The Buchanan YMCA still stands today.)

During the difficult times in his quest to develop the YMCA building, I am sure he was lifted by the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. After all, the Japanese team exploded for 18 medals, including 7 gold. The Japanese were particularly strong in swimming events, as swimmers took two thirds of all medals for Japan. In one instance, Japan swept the podium, going 1,2,3 in the men’s 100-meter backstroke.

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An AP article from August 13, 1932 proclaimed the following: “With the swimming championship beckoning to the sturdy sons of Nippon, Japan stood on the brink of its first Olympic team title today in the finals of the international aquatic carnival.”

No doubt Japanese communities all across America were following the exploits of the Japanese team in Los Angeles with tremendous pride. Julie Checkoway, author of the brilliant book, The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory, stated that the achievements of the Japanese at the 1932 Olympics not only transfixed the Japanese in America, they transformed them.

Both Issei and Nisei in California had spent more than $100,000 on tickets to watch events, and again and again they saw the Japanese flag rise over the stadium, an image filled with symbolism. The Japanese sports commentators had even ventured to say that the sporting world of the West was now firmly at the feet of the Empire. After years of being second-class citizens, experiencing prejudice, alienation and racism, those of Japanese ancestry in California and across the US were buoyed with pride. Suddenly, too, other Americans had a new vision of Japan as both friendly and competent, and it seemed as though the tide might turn on the Mainland and a wave of acceptance might come. Famously, one Nisei in Los Angeles told the story that since the Games, white men no longer literally stoned him in the street, and he could look, he said, into his reflection in a shop window and feel, for the first time, respect even for himself.

soichi-sakamoto

Checkoway’s book was a biography of swim coach Soichi Sakamoto, who would go on to become one of America’s most successful and revolutionary swim coaches. Sakamato was an elementary school teacher in Hawaii, who in 1932 did not know how to swim. In his time away from teaching he oversaw the safety of children playing in plantation irrigation ditches. He looked at their joyful faces, many of them of Japanese descent like himself, and began to have a thought. Maybe these kids had the talent too.

Riding the excitement and pride of a new bar set by the Japanese team in LA, Sakamoto allowed a dream to take form in his heart. As Checkoway wrote, “Soichi Sakamoto had no good reason to do it, not right to, no knowledge of how to, but he called out to the children, nonetheless, ‘How ’bout I teach you something about swimming, eh?'”

For Japanese in Japan and in the United States, the 1932 Los Angeles Games were a revelation and inspiration. I’m sure my grandfather took heart. The mayor of Tokyo certainly did. He had an idea – how about bringing the Olympics to Tokyo.