Cecilia Colledge
British skater Cecilia Colledge

In February 1936, there was universal expectation that Sonja Henie, aka The Ice Queen of Norway or The White Swan, would win her third gold medal in the women’s individual figure skating competition at the Gamisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

After all, Henie was just 23, and had already won the previous 2 Olympic and previous 9 world championship figure skating competitions. But up-and-comers, as always, are always nipping at the heels of champions. According to sports-reference.com, a 15-year-old Brit named Cecilia Colledge burst onto the scene by being the first female figure skater to execute a double Salchow, propelling her to victory at the European Championships only three weeks before in Berlin, Germany.

Additionally, Colledge had such strong appeal that Henie was no longer the only darling on ice. According to this article in The Independent, the powers-that-be in Nazi Germany were fans:

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Sonja Henie at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics, meeting der Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler

The British team manager, T.D. Richardson, wrote that the 40,000 spectators who filled the outdoor stadium to capacity, included Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis. “Goering, in particular, could not keep his eyes off Cecilia. He asked me all about her on several occasions.”

After the first part of the competition – compulsory figures – Henie was ahead. But to the Norwegian’s surprise, not by much. Henie was not pleased.

In 1936 in the twin villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany, Colledge was only a few points behind Henie after the school figures section. The closeness infuriated Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on a wall in the competitors’ lounge, swiped the piece of paper and tore it into little pieces.

Fortunately, in the free skating part of the competition, Henie may have gotten the star treatment. While the first place competitor should skate last, it might follow that the second place competitor would skate second to last. Instead, Colledge was asked to skate second of the 26 total number of skater. As The Independent states, in the subjective world of figure skating, there is a distinct advantage to skating later in the day.

The early start was seen as a disadvantage, with the audience not yet whipped into a clapping frenzy and the judges known to become freer with their higher marks as the event proceeded. (Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was adopted to counteract this situation.)

Additionally, as sports-refernce.com details, Colledge’s nerves may have gotten the best of her, as she fell early in her free skate program, resulting in a good, but not great average score of 5.7. Henie, who benefited from the energy and excitement of a crowd waiting to see the Ice Queen crowned champion for a third time in a row, skated without error, well enough to maintain her hold on first, and the golden medal.

 

Sonja Henie_1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics
Sonya Henie competing at the 1936 Winter Olympics
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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.”

Jesse Owens

What is an amateur today?

Decades ago, the Olympics represented the very best of the so-called “amateur” athlete, those who excelled at a sporting discipline and did not receive financial gain from it. The Sullivan Award has had a storied history of recognizing the very best athletes in the United States who happened to be amateurs, including such greats as golfer Bobby Jones, basketball player Bill Bradley, swimmer Mark Spitz and American football quarterback Peyton Manning.

Today, athletes in a much wider variety of sports have ways to make an income in their sport, via competition prize money, professional leagues, and sponsorship deals, which render the pool for Sullivan Award recipients shallower than decades past.

And yet, when the obvious choice for the Sullivan Award winner of 1936 was Jesse Owens, arguably the athlete with the most significant accomplishments of the Berlin Olympics, the powers that be selected Glenn Morris, the winner of the Olympic decathlon. Winning the gold in the decathlon, perhaps in another year, should have been enough to win the Sullivan. But Owens, who was a black American, took four gold medals under the glare of Adolph Hitler in a clearly bigoted regime. Morris was white, and that may have been the overriding criteria for the judges.

“We have overlooked people,” Roger J. Goudy, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) acknowledged in this New York Times article. “Jesse Owens went to Berlin and won four Olympic gold medals in 1936. He did not win the Sullivan, which went to his white teammate Glenn Morris in a close vote, 1,106 to 1,013. Owens had been the overwhelming winner of The Associated Press poll for the best athlete of the year, amateur or professional.”

But yesterday, on April 11, 2017, a wrong was righted. Jesse Owens was awarded the inaugural Gussie Crawford Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented to Owen’s granddaughter, Gina Hemphill-Strachan. She had this to say about her grandfather:

I would say the thing that makes me most proud of his legacy is the fact that he does have a legacy. At 80 years after his accomplishments in Berlin, that he’s still relevant. People still speak about him with such passion and compassion and reverence. He certainly left a mark with so many young people because he was an unofficial ambassador, traveled all over the world, speaking to so many young people, encouraging young people, training and all that.

Carl Lewis, no slouch himself in track and field, reflected on the amazing athletic accomplishments of Owens:

“I tell you something, it is tough to win the long jump and something else, period,” he added. “I think we kind of overstate how easy it (winning four events at one meet) is. And for him to do it back then with all he had to deal with…I looked at him as someone to aspire to, someone to emulate, not just athletically.”

Jesse Owens in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Jesse Owens in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

According to Ron Perelmen of the Sports Examiner, this belated recognition of Owens was due to Peter Cava, a former communications director for the AAU.

“Soon after I went to work for AAU in 1974, the ’73 Sullivan Award winner was announced,” said Cava. “Looking over the list of previous winners, it was shocking to see that Jesse Owens’ name wasn’t on the list.” When Cava noted at the Rio Olympics that it was the 80th anniversary of Owens’ historical accomplishments, he thought it was about time to recognize him. “The Sullivan Award has been called ‘An Oscar for Amateurs,’ said Cava. “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents Oscar Awards for lifetime accomplishments.”  

So here we are, 80 years later, finally recognizing Jess Owens as we should – as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

naoto-tajima-prone-on-grass
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.