Hideko Maehata after winning gold in Berlin
Hideko Maehata waving to the crowd after winning gold in Berlin

It was a slight, perhaps. The first and most famous of films about the Olympics – Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, entitled Olympia, did not include the winner of the women’s 200-meter breast stroke. That’s because the winner was a Japanese, Hideko Maehata, who beat out a German named Martha Genenger.

But that’s OK. When Maehata returned to Japan after her gold-medal winning performance in Berlin, she was a national celebrity. Eight other Japanese won gold medals at the Berlin Games, but they may not have gotten the media attention that Maehata did. As Robin Kietlinski explains in her seminal book, Japanese Women and Sport, national radio was bringing the world to all of Japan, led by Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK. Established in 1924, Maehata’s race was one of the first events to be covered live, broadcasted to Japan via satellite.

And according to Kietlinski, they had the man who brought the excitement of the moment alive for Japanese listeners – Kasai Sansei – whose shrieks of excitement and shouts of “Maehata ganbare” brought the swimming stadium of the Imperial Sports Field in Berlin to the homes of people all across Japan. In this NHK documentary, Maehata’s cousin, Tomizo Hase, was asked about his recollections of listening to that famous radio broadcast:

We were all nervous, out palms sweating. We said to each other, we really hope she wins. There were about 10 people inside and many more outside. What a heavenly feeling it was. Some of us cried in joy, saying she’s done great.

In her book, Kietlinski provides a transcript in English of that broadcast. To listen in Japanese and get the sense of excitement Japanese felt in 1936, go to the 25 second mark of the video below.

Maehata and Genenger are side by side. Ah, Maehata pulls ahead! She’s in the lead! She’s a little bit ahead. Fifty meters down. 100 meters down. Fifty meters left to go. Maehata is a little bit ahead! Ah, Genenger is coming. Come on, come on! Maehata is in danger, she’s in danger! Go for it! Maehata go for it!

They turned, the swimmers just now turned and Maehata holds onto a slight lead. C’mon Maehata. Go for it! (Repeated four more times) Forty meters left to go. (Repeated four times) Maehata is ahead! Maehata is ahead! Genenger is coming. It’s just a very small lead by Maehata. Go for it Maehata! (Repeated four times) Twenty-five meters left to go! Maehata’s lead is small, it’s very small! Maehata! Go for it Maehata! (Repeated eleven times)

Maehata is in the lead! (Repeated six times) Five meters left to go! Four meters left! Three meters, two meters. Maehata is ahead! Maehata has won! (Repeated eighteen times) By a small margin Maehata is the champion! Thank you Ms Maehata, the Japanese flag will fly today. Thank you! For the first time in the history of women’s swimming the Japanese flag will fly.

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Hideko Maehata on the Podium with Martha Genenger
Hideko Maehata (center) on the Podium with Martha Genenger (right) and Inge Sorensen of Denmark (left)

Hideko Maehata swam 10,000 meters a day. So taking the two-week boat trip from Japan to the West Coast of the United States was a piece of cake for the native of Wakayama, Japan. It was the last 200 meters, in the pool, that were going to be painful.

After winning her heat in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly 3 seconds, she lined up for the finals. And in a tough-fought nail biter, a 16-year old Australian named Clare Dennis set an Olympic record and edged out Maehata by a tenth of a second.

According to Robin Japanese Women and Sport, in her book Japanese Women and Sport, Maehata was welcomed back home in Japan as a hero, but the 18-year-old, while proud was disappointed. Was it worth training so hard again, and trying again for gold in 1936, or should she put an end to the long hours in the water and get married as society at the time required. Kietlinski explained that Maehata received letters from her fans making both sides of the argument.

According to this NHK mini-documentary of Maehata’s life, it was the Mayor of Tokyo at that time, Hidejiro Nagata. Nagata, proud of Japan’s incredible accomplishments at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was putting together his plan for Tokyo to host the 1940 Olympics, met the returning Maehata and insisted that she go for it again in Berlin.

If only you had won that gold medal. It’s so frustrating. Don’t forget the bitter taste of defeat. Let it drive you to do better four years from now at the Berlin Olympics.

And so, Maehata decided to aim for gold and glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She doubled her regimen, swimming 20 kilometers a day, the water hiding the tears of pain. She noted that her victory in LA was denied by such a tiny margin that perfecting her start was essential. She worked on her launch from the starting block by practicing 100 starts a day, her toes bleeding from the wear and tear.

The training was so grueling I cried as I swam. But at those times, I reminded myself that if I failed to overcome the pain, and fall short in Berlin, I would be the laughing stock of Japan.

And so, despite being cheered on by thousands as she boarded the ship for Europe and ultimately Berlin in 1936, she did so with considerable anxiety. In fact, as the NHK video explains, based I believe on what she described in her own autobiography, she found herself alone on the deck of the ship, looking over the waves, thinking that if she did not win, she would jump into the ocean on the return trip and kill herself.

This was the first Olympics in Berlin, otherwise known as the Nazi Olympics as it was presided over by der Führer, Adolph Hitler. The home field advantage for the German athletes was significant, and Maehata’s biggest competitor in the 200-meter breast stroke was a 20-year-old from Krefeld, Germany, Martha Genenger.

Genenger sent the first warning shot, winning her first round heat in 3:02.9 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Maehata fired back in her first round heat with a time one second better, re-setting the Olympic record. In the semi-finals, no records were set, but no other competitor came anywhere close to Genenger’s or Maehata’s times. The finals were to be a showdown between the German and the Japanese.

Hideko Maehata in high schoolIt was 4pm on August 11, 1936. Maehata was in lane 6. Genenger was in lane 7. Even in the early part of the race, Maehata pulled ahead. And for the remainder of the 150 meters, Maehata clung to the lead. When her hand touched the wall, she was not sure who had won.

When I reached the finish line I l gasped for breath and looked across at the next lane and saw that Genenger was already there. And I thought I had lost.

In fact, Maehata had persevered by a mere sixth tenths of a second. She had fulfilled the command of the Mayor of Tokyo. She had realized the dreams of an entire nation.

And she could get on with her life. In 1937, Maehata married a doctor, retiring from swimming. She raised two children, and when she greater flexibility after her children grew up, she started a swimming school in 1967. She saw that after the war, the Japanese were weak in swimming. She felt that she could contribute by focusing on mothers, teaching them the joys of swimming. If mothers understand and enjoy swimming, she believed, so will their children.

Maehata suffered a stroke while teaching, at 68. She was told she would never walk again, which was fuel for her competitive fire. So she pushed herself. “I still have the drive inside,” she said in the NHK documentary. “When I have a tough day, I recall my days as a competitive swimmer, and it’s like someone is yelling at me that I have to be stronger. The fact that I am still alive and active today is thanks to that inner strength.” Amazingly, a year later, Maehata returned to the pool and resumed her coaching duties.

In 1995, at the age of 80, Maehata, one of the most famous sports figures of the early 20th century in Japan, passed away.

Hideko Maehata getting married
Hideko Maehata getting married

Eleanor Holm headline news

It was headline news, literally.

For example, the front page of the Riverside Daily Press on July 24, 1935 blared across the full length of the front page, “Gay Cocktail Parties Result in Dismissal of Eleanor Holm Jarrett”.

Under the word “Ousted”, was a lithe Eleanor Holm in a skin-tight swimsuit posing like a Hollywood starlet. The caption read “Eleanor Holm Jarrett, attractive night club queen-swimmer who was dropped from the American Olympic team for indulging in liquor and parties contrary to training rules.” The article started with a provocative lead – “The one member of the American Olympic swimming team who appeared the most certain to win a title, Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett, prepared to return home today.”

Eleanor Holm on cover of Look Magazine

Holm was the Olympic champion in the 100-meter backstroke, having won gold convincingly at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Married to a jazz band leader, Art Jarrett, and very much used to the life as a celebrity, Holm did not take to the third-class accommodations on the SS Manhattan, which was transporting the US Olympic team to Europe and the Berlin Olympics.

According to The Book of Olympic Lists, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, Holm – a veteran of two Olympiads – she wanted to be where the officials and the press were: first class. When an executive of the company that owned the SS Manhattan invited Holm up to first class for a party, the only Olympian invited, she of course said yes.

Quick to accept, she stayed up until six a.m., matching drinks with the sportswriters. She had to be helped back to her cabin. The next day there was much joking and wisecracking among the non-Olympic first-class passengers about the “training techniques” of the US team. Embarrassed US Olympic officials issued Holm a warning, but she was defiant and continued to drink in public off and on for the next few days. When advised by friends to moderate her behavior, she reminded them that she was “free, white, and 22”.

Wallenchinsky and Loucky described further examples of Holm’s drunken adventures on the SS Manhattan. On the evening of July 23, shortly before reaching Europe, the ship’s doctor found Holm “in a deep slumber which approached a state of coma”, which he diagnosed as acute alcoholism. The next morning, the American Olympic team manager woke Holm up and informed her that American Olympic Committee had voted to remove her from the team.

The next day, the press included the official announcement from Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman. “Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett has been dropped from the Olympic team and her entry has been withdrawn on account of violation of training rules. I wish to emphasize that there is no reflection in any way upon the entire team.” According to the press, Holm was requested to return to the United States.

Unfortunately for Brundage, Holm was immediately hired by news gatherer, the Associated Press to write a column, presumably about anything she wanted (presumably since she felt her Olympic career was over and her amateur status no longer a requirement). With press credentials, Holm was in Berlin to stay, and with her star power, she was at all of the biggest social gatherings. According to Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, Brundage didn’t like playing second fiddle to her.

A funny sidelight to Brundage kicking me off the team was that I was invited to everything in Berlin, and he would be there, too. He would be so miserable because I was at all these important functions. I would ignore him – like he wasn’t even alive. I really think he hated the poor athletes. How dare I be there and taking away his thunder? You see, they all wanted to talk to me.

Eleanor Holm at the press gallery at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Eleanor Holm at the press gallery at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Holm said she hung out with Herman Goering, and regularly got autographs from Adolph Hitler. She claimed that famed documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, filmed her in the pool, although that footage was apparently left on the cutting floor. Despite the socializing, Holm wrote that she trained every day just in case she was reinstated to the team. In the end, however, Brundage would not budge and the world watched a Dutch woman named Nida Senff win gold in the backstroke.

Holm would go on to divorce Jarrett and marry a man named Billy Rose, who produced a hugely popular music, dance and swim show called Billy Rose’s Aquacade, where she would become an even brighter star, swimming with fellow Olympic champions Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.

Holm passed away in 2004 at the age of 90, her star dimmed by the passage of time. But in the mid-20th century, during the Depression and War years, there were few brighter stars than Eleanor Holm.

Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel
Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel

At the age of 15, Adolph Kiefer set his first world record.

At the age of 16, he was the first person in the world to swim the 100-yard backstroke in less than a minute. As this article states, Kiefer held every backstroke record there was for 15 years.

And in 1936, at the age of 18, he won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke, setting Olympic records in the heats and the finals. He had a streak of over 200 consecutive victories in the back stroke, and in his career, lost only twice.

At the age of 98, on May 5, 2017, Kiefer passed away in his home state of Illinois.

The great swimming coach from Hawaii, Soichi Sakamoto, was inspired by Kiefer, and got tremendous insight in technique by watching film of the Chicago native. Here is how Julie Checkoway, in her wonderful book, The Three-Year Swim Club, describes Kiefer through the eyes of Sakamoto:

When he filmed backstroker Adolph Kiefer, he found in him the same relaxation – in Kiefer’s legs, his rolling arms, his outstretched but loosened palms and fingers, a catch that seemed effortless, a recovery that took no time at all. For too long Sakamoto had believed that Kiefer had merely been a talented natural whom Stan Brauninger had discovered in a concrete culvert in Chicago; Kiefer was talented, all right, but he hadn’t become the world record holder in the backstroke without a technique that was, to Sakamoto, nothing less than genius.

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there was anticipation of so much more Olympic glory for Kiefer – but like others of his generation, the war years intervened. That did not, however, stop Kiefer from making an even bigger impact. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kiefer joined the Navy. As Checkoway, revealed, Kiefer was shocked to hear that 50% of the soldiers who perished at Pearl Harbor did so by drowning. And yet, when soldiers returned to his port in Norfolk Virginia, he was surprised to hear that learning how to swim was still not a priority.

Adolph Kiefer

At his insistence, Kiefer was sent to Washington DC to make a case for institutionalized swimming instruction. Kiefer made a strong case. “What good [is] a 5-man gun crew,” Kiefer asked the Navy brass, “if one of those 5 couldn’t swim and fell in? With one man drowned, what good [is] a 5-man weapon?” Kiefer got the funding and set up a training center for naval swimming instructors. As Checkoway explained, Kiefer was so well known and so well liked, he had little trouble rounding up some 1,200 swimmers to teach survival swimming, who would in turn train every naval sailor how to swim.

As the obituary in The New York Times explained, Kiefer met the Fascist leader, Adolph Hitler, after his gold medal victory.

One day, while Kiefer was training, Hitler came by with an entourage of Nazi officials, including the powerful Hermann Göring. Hitler had learned of Kiefer’s German heritage and wanted to meet him.

“I remember him being a small man with a small hand,” Kiefer told the Times columnist Ira Berkow in 2000, “and his handshake wasn’t a firm one. Then he spoke to the interpreter, and I was told he said something like, ‘This young man is the perfect example of the true Aryan.’”

Kiefer added: “At the time, I was honored to meet this important head of state. But if I knew then what I know now about Hitler, I should have thrown him into the pool and drowned him. I even can’t stand the name Adolph now. But I’m stuck with it.”

She was 18 years old at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a competitor in the high jump and the 4×100 relay. She did not win any medals but the tall woman from Lage Vuursche in Holland, but she did get the autograph of one Jesse Owens.

Owens was the star of the 1936 Games, reportedly showing up der Fuhrer by winning four gold medals. Fanny Blankers-Koen would also go on to win four gold medals in the Olympics, but she would have to wait 12 more years, as the Olympics were cancelled during the war years, before she could compete on the highest stage.

Watch the video above of the first woman to win four gold medals, which she did at the 1948 London Olympics. Blankers-Koen was absolutely dominant.

In her first competition, Blankers-Koen led the 100-meter dash nearly from start to finish.

In her next event, she had to work the hardest, coming from behind to barely win the 80-meter hurdles, but still in Olympic record time.

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 80 meter hurdles in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning the 80 meter hurdles in London in 1948.

In her third triumph, Blankers-Koen won the 200-meters in the first lane, eating up the water-drenched track like a locomotive, well ahead of the 2nd place finisher, in Olympic record time.

And finally, in 4×100 meter relay, the Dutch team, in their orange shorts, were trailing in third when their anchor, Blankers-Koen took the baton. And like a rocket, she shot to the lead and crossed the line with her fourth gold medal.

Like her hero in Berlin, Jesse Owens, Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the first woman ever to do so.   According to the Smithsonian, Blankers-Koen met Owens again, this time in Munich in 1972.

“I still have your autograph,” she told her hero.  “I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen.”

“You don’t have to tell me who you are,” Owens replied. “I know everything about you.”

 

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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.

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Naoto Tajima at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

There was a time when the Japanese were seen as great jumpers. In the years between the great world wars of the 20th century, Japanese men in particular were frequent medalists in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault. Shuhei Nishida won silver in the pole vault at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Sueo Oe won bronze in the pole vault in 1936 as well.

Naoto Tajima won the gold medal in the triple jump in 1936, making it the third consecutive Olympics that a Japanese won the hop, skip and jump – Mikio Oda won it in 1928 in Amsterdam, while Chuhei Nambu took gold at the 1932 LA Games.

Tajima may have won gold in the triple jump, but he enjoyed his bronze medal in the long jump even more. He is said to have considered the triple jump just a simple matter of technique while the long jump was more of a profession, something requiring a more serious, in-depth approach. Perhaps also significantly, Tajima’s long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics was one of historical significance, not just in sports but also geo-politically.

tajima-owens-luz-on-mdeal-podium
Bronze medalist Naoto Tajima, gold medalist Jesse Owens, and silver medalist, Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, medal ceremony of the long jump competition.

Tajima took a relatively unnoticed bronze to Jesse Owens‘ gold and Luz Long‘s silver in the long jump. Owens had already won gold in the 100 meters, winning the title “fastest man in the world” in front of Adolph Hitler. A day later, on a day Owens would have to run a heat in the 200-meters race, he took on a strong German team in the long jump. In this oft-told tale, the battle for gold came down to Owens and Long. While Owens led throughout the competition, Long stayed close behind, as you can see in the round-by-round details here.

In the end, Owens won with a stunning 8.06 meter leap which set an Olympic record, and that Long could not match. Long put his arm around Owens after the American’s victory, creating an image worldwide that encouraged those who believed a world of peace and brotherhood was possible. But while we may forget there were other competitors, we should be reminded there was a third person on the medal stand – Naoto Tajima of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.

His medal in the triple jump and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games were the last for a Japanese in Athletics, until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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Marty Glickman finishing in front of Monta Suzuki at a race in Paris in 1936. From the documentary “Glickman”.

Marty Glickman was a Marine in the US Military during the Second World War. Monta Suzuki was a Lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Navy. But before the war, they were 100-meter sprinters who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Their countries had not gone to war yet. They did not even run against each other during the Olympics. But an encounter during a race in Paris after the Games in Germany connected them forever. At the end of the powerful HBO documentary, Glickman, the great American sports broadcaster, Marty Glickman, told this story of everlasting friendship between a Japanese and an American, who exchanged nothing more than a few words, a handshake and smiles. Here is how Glickman told the story.

After the Games, I ran in Paris. And there were two Japanese sprinters: Yoshioka and Suzuki. And as I dug my starting hole, I noted that in lane number one was Suzuki, and we smiled at each other. I liked him. He liked me. I could tell by the look in his eye. I won the race. Wykoff was second. Suzuki was third.

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Takayoshi Yoshioka and Monta Suzuki in 1936; from the documentary “Glickman”.

And as we jogged back to the starting line to put on my warmup clothes, I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned and there was Suzuki, extending his hand, those wonderful brown soft eyes smiling at me. He congratulated me. I didn’t speak Japanese. He didn’t speak English. That’s all there was. But there was an empathy between us.

I mentioned earlier I was a Marine during World War II. You know how Marines felt about the Japanese, particularly the Marines. Early in 1942, I read where on the landings in Luzon, a Japanese lieutenant, a former Olympian, was killed in those landings. And I, a Marine, cried. Can you imagine the feeling we had for each other? We’d known each other two minutes? Three? He was a Japanese soldat. I was an American marine, and I cried for him.

That’s what athletics can do. That’s what sports can do. And it doesn’t have to be the Olympic Games. It could be the schoolyards. It could be the New York Knicks. That’s what sports is truly all about. Camaraderie. The love we feel for each other.

See Part 1: Marty Glickman Part 1: The Memorable Broadcaster, the Forgotten Jewish Olympian in Berlin

jigoro-kano
Jigoro Kano

The Mayor of Tokyo, Hidejiro Nagata, had a dream of bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 1940. And in order to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he could think of only one Japanese who might have a chance to influence the Westerners, who may have looked on Japan with bemusement at best. His name was Jigoro Kano.

Born into a sake-brewing family in 1860, Kano had advantages over the majority of children in Japan. As a teenager, he was able to study English and German in private schools run by Europeans. And since he was physically small and weak and wanted to become stronger, he had access to the very best practitioners of jujitsu. At the age of 19, he performed his art in front of then-former American President Ulysses S. Grant, who was visiting Japan in 1879. Kano became so proficient at jujitsu that he would go on to form his own school – what the world today knows as Judo.

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Jigoro Kano at a demonstration in Vienna

Kano was considered an authority on sports and fitness in the early 20th century when the IOC was looking to include Japan and Korea in their Olympic roll call of participating nations. The Japanese government received the IOC’s invitation to the 1912 Olympics and turned to Kano to represent Japan officially on the IOC. By 1932, when the IOC was kicking about possible host cities for the 1940 Olympics, Kano was already a veteran of the 1912, 1920 and 1928 Olympics

The 1932 Los Angeles Summer Games was an Olympiad where Japanese athletes did remarkably well, not only making Japan proud and adding momentum to Mayor Nagata’s push for the 1940 Olympics, but also convincing the West that Japan was an up-and-coming power. On the last day of the Los Angeles Olympics, the IOC held a grand celebratory party, and the person selected to give the keynote was Jigoro Kano.

Kano was 72, but full of energy and charm. As Julie Checkoway writes in her terrific book, The Three Year Swim Club, the press in America found him “playful” and “charming”. As Checkoway noted, it was not uncommon for him to lift the hem of his Japanese robes to reveal his legs with a sly smile. But more importantly, Kano was an internationalist. And the world was in need of internationalists.

The League of Nations was formed in 1920 in the wake of World War I, which turned Europe into a bloody war zone for over 4 years, resulting in the deaths of 9 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. The spirit of the formation of the League of Nations was to promote peace and prevent the ugly history of world war from repeating itself. The Olympic Movement, established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was a precursor of the League of Nations – a philosophy of peace and friendship through the competition of sport. Kano understood the Olympic Movement and the heart of the IOC, particularly the IOC leader, Henri de Baillet-Latour of Belgium. Here is how Checkoway described Kano’s address to the IOC.

Jigoro Kano’s remarks at the Biltmore were directed as much at the Belgian baron as at anyone; Kano spoke of the fear that it was too easy for the world to have of other countries. ‘People,’ he intoned, ‘are prone to think that what they are accustomed to is good and right,’ and that ‘whatever is foreign to them is mistaken and harmful,’ and he pointed out that the Olympics, if held in Tokyo in 1940, would serve to echo and reinforce the beliefs and values that served as the foundation set down by the movement’s founder. To hold the games in Japan was to extend Coubertin’s vision and to bridge the global gap that existed between West and East and bring together all nations in pursuit, Kano said, of ‘a common purpose.’ And while Kano hadn’t returned home in 1932 with the candidature yet in hand, he had succeeded in appealing to Baillet-Latour and others like him, who were open to a wider vision of the world.

 

jigoro-kano-at-the-1936-berlin-games
Jigoro Kano at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

And yet, it took another four years before the final decision was made. Kano was now 78 years old. And while he was the face and authority of Japan in the eyes of the IOC, bureaucrats in the Japanese government thought that they could seal the deal by greasing the wheel, which according to Checkoway, created misunderstandings between the IOC and Japan. For example, a Japanese delegate at the 1936 IOC meeting in Berlin apparently tried to convince Mussolini to withdraw Rome’s bid to host in 1940 in exchange for cessation of arms sales to Ethiopia, which Italy was looking to colonize. Baillet-Latour frowned on this blatant attempt to mix backroom political deals with his Olympic Movement.

And yet, Jigoro Kano prevailed. As Checkoway wrote, Kano convinced many in the IOC that “Tokyo was no different from London, Paris, Los Angeles, or any other city, and he had won hearts when he asked that ‘the Olympic torch light the way to the Orient.'”

The great founder of Judo, and the visionary Mayor of Tokyo got their wish – an Olympics in Tokyo!

glickman-icon

I grew up listening to Marv Albert broadcast New York Knicks basketball games, and I loved the smart, silky smooth delivery, and the shout of “Yes” that punctuated big baskets. But I learned recently in the HBO documentary, Glickman, that Albert, along with many of today’s seasoned play-by-play announcers in America, grew up listening to Marty Glickman.

If you’ve ever heard an announcer of a basketball game say things like “baseline”, “front court”, “drive the lane”, that was because Glickman said it first, credited with creating the blueprint of the basketball court in the mind’s eye of the radio listener. And if you ever heard the word “swish” by a broadcaster after seeing a ball fall through the hoop without hitting the rim, that is because Glickman said it first.

Marty Glickman is without a doubt a legend in the American sports broadcasting world. He was the voice of the Knicks, the football Giants and Jets, Yonkers Raceway, and a wide variety of sports for the fledgling cable network, Home Box Office (HBO).

But the general public is not as aware that Glickman was a great athlete and Olympian. He was not only an Olympian, he was one thrust into the tricky geo-politics of how to handle Nazi Germany in the 1930s, before World War II raged.

In 1936, at the Berlin Olympics, the US was heavily favored in the track sprints. With Jesse Owens (100 and 200-meter gold), Archie Williams (400-meter gold), Ralph Metcalfe (100-meter gold), Mack Robinson (200-meter silver), the US was able to win points in the geo-political PR battle over ideology by showing the world that a diverse America was a strong America. (Of course, black Americans at that time realized support from their government was far greater overseas than at home.)

What is perhaps less well known is that the US had a chance to make the diversity pitch even stronger. The track team had two Jews, the only Jews on the US Olympic squad: Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. They flew into Germany in 1936, which at the time was said to actively discriminate against people of Jewish “blood”.

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Glickman and Stoller

In the documentary, Glickman talks about the day he got the horrible news – that he would not run in the 4×100 meter relays.

The morning of the day we were supposed to run the trial heats, we were called into a meeting, the 7 sprinters, along with Dean Cromwell, the assistant head track coach head, and Lawson Robertson, the head track coach. And Robertson announced to the seven of us that he heard very strong rumors, that the Germans were saving their very best sprinters, hiding them to upset the American team in the 4×400 meter relay. And consequently, Sam and I, were to be replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. We were shocked.

Glickman certainly had no grudge against Jesse Owens. In fact, he cited the fact that Owens stood up for Glickman and Stoller in that meeting. But he was shouted down, in no position to overrule the powerful coaches of the track team.

I said, “Coach, you know, we’re the only two Jews on the track team, Sam and I.” “We’ll worry about that later,” said Dean Cromwell. Sam was completely stunned. He didn’t say a word in the whole meeting. I’m a brash 18-year-old kid, and I said, “Coach, no matter who runs this race we’re going to win by 15 yards!” At which point Jesse spoke up and said, “I’ve won my 3 gold medals. I’m tired. I’ve had it. Let Marty and Sam run. They deserve it.” And Cromwell pointed his finger at him and said, “You’ll do as you’re told.” And in those days, black athletes did as they were told.

Glickman watched the finals in frustration and anger. “I look out on the track and I see Metcalfe passing runners down the backstretch. He ran the second leg. That should be me out there!” Adding a bit of levity to the moment was Lou Zamperini, the famed Olympian whose incredible story was told in the book and film, Unbroken. He said, “With Glickman in there, they wouldn’t have won by 15 yards. Maybe 14 yards.” As it turned out, the Germans had no secret sprinters waiting in the wings, finishing third well over a second behind.

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Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff

Glickman has always believed that anti-semitism was at the heart of leaving Glickman and Stoller off the team. As he stated in this clip, it was easier for the Americans to navigate the tricky diplomacy ins and outs with the emerging Nazi power in Europe by keeping Jewish athletes out of the competition.

Here were the great black athletes who couldn’t be kept off the winning podium. They were marvelous. But here were two rather obscure Jewish American athletes who could be kept from the winning podium so as not to further embarrass Adolph Hitler.

Glickman would go on to say that his victimization on the track was nothing compared to what happened to Jews during the war. But being kept off the track in 1936 was a painful memory he took to his grave, when he passed away in January, 2001. According to this obituary in The New York Times, the US Olympic Committee (USOC) eventually did admit, indirectly, that Glickman and Stoller were likely kept off the track to appease Hitler.

While not finding written proof that the U.S.O.C. kept Glickman and Stoller out of the relay because of anti-Semitism, William J. Hybl, then president of the Olympic group, said in 1998: ”I was a prosecutor. I’m used to looking at evidence. The evidence was there.” That year, the U.S.O.C. presented Glickman a plaque in lieu of the gold medal he most likely would have won even if Owens and Metcalfe had not raced. Stoller died in 1983.