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

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

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

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

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

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George Gulack in 1980, from the book Tales of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dale Kephart_2_Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs.jpg
Team USA 1964: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart

The US women’s gymnastics trials were done. The women’s team was set.

Doris Fuchs, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Methany, Dale McClements Kephart, Janie Speaks, and Marie Walther were selected to represent the United States in Tokyo at the XVIII Olympiad in 1964. The USSR and the Czechs were heavily favored, and the US women were not expected to medal. But you still have to play the game. You still have to believe you have a chance.

But even world-class athletes balance their emotions on the razor’s edge of confidence and collapse. Going into major competitions, many demand that they keep to their routines, and be steered clear of interruptions and distractions. And yet, the women’s gymnastics team faced the ultimate of distractions – a second trial to again determine which gymnasts would compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

According to a member of the women’s gymnastics team, Dale McClements Kephart, the head coach, Vannie Edwards, unexpectedly held an intra-squad competition on October 15, only a day prior to the start of the women’s competition. Of the 7 members of the women’s gymnastics team (including the alternate), four were asked to join the competition: Fuchs, Grossfeld, Speaks and the alternate, Kathy Corrigan.

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Dale McClements Kephart, from her own collection

This is how McClements Kephart described the day in her diary, through her 19-year old eyes:

October 15th:  All the teams competing with us worked with us in the competitive gym and it was run like the meet.  We marched in, a gong was sounded at the beginning or our workout at an event and at the end.  We had 30 minutes.  then we marched to the next event, etc.  Our order of competition will be F.X., vaulting, Bars and Beam.  As far as our team is concerned, the order is not good, but it probably won’t matter that much.  Again we ended up making fools of ourselves (officials).  Here all the other teams made good use of the time by going through approximately 2 compulsories and an optional.  Instead three of us had a meet and all we worked was compulsories.  Doris, Muriel and Kathy competed compulsory and optional and Janie in only 2 events. 

A big strain was put on all of them and Linda, Marie and I didn’t get to hardly get up on the equipment because they had to all warm up and go through compulsories and optionals.  Then we had our little meeting and Doris was named the alternate.  This wasn’t really a shock, but it still hurt to know they were making such a big mistake.  Doris did crack during the competition.  Many of the Japanese, the Czechs and Russians feel it is all wrong and cannot understand it.  I do know the officials dislike her as a person and I’ve decided that this is what really happened.

When McClements Kephart wrote the word “officials”, she was referring to George Gulack, the head of the chair of AAU Gymnastics, and his wife, Fay Gulack, who was the women’s team manager in Tokyo. McClements Kephart felt that the Gulacks, for some reason, did not like Doris Fuchs personally.

At the end of that impromptu competition, the alternate on the team, Corrigan, was added to the starting team, while Doris Fuchs was unceremoniously switched from starter to alternate.

Abie Grossfeld, who was the assistant coach of the men’s team, and who observed this intra-squad competition, watched as Fay Gulack judged Speaks, and watched as Speaks fell off the balance beam twice. Muriel Grossfeld told me that Fay Gulack claimed Fuchs’ performance in the trial’s uneven bar competition was flawed, that her split – a leap off of the beam with legs spread – wasn’t high enough. But Fay Gulack didn’t buy that explanation because she also saw Speaks fall off the beam in the compulsory twice.

To the Grossfelds, Speaks performed poorly, and Fuchs was the third best member of the team as well as a superior performer in the uneven bars, so the change in team roster was seemingly inexplicable.

 

Abie Grossfeld
Abie Grossfeld

 

 

A day away from the biggest competition of their lives, the team was in turmoil, and the issue was escalated to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In a hastily arranged “trial”, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld argued the defense of Fuchs, explaining that Fuchs had already made the team in the trials and should be one of the final six members of the team. The Grossfeld’s explained that she wasn’t the seventh best on the team, she was actually the third best overall performer.

But the passionate appeal fell on deaf ears. When all was said and done, the USOC official said that it was the head coach’s decision. The head coach of the women’s gymnastics team was Vannie Edwards, who refused to change his mind. According to Abie Grossfeld, after the gymnastics teams arrived in Tokyo, Edwards told him that George Gulack, wanted Doris Fuchs to be the alternate. Grossfeld said that Edwards went along with the decision because “he was afraid that GG (Gulack) would hurt his future gymnasts in competition.”

In the end, Speaks finished worst on the American team in the all-around individuals, 62nd of 83 competitors. But to be fair, Marie Walther and Muriel Grossfeld finished 60th and 58th respectively. The team overall finished an underwhelming ninth, as the powerful Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Japan teams took gold, silver and bronze.

Then again, was the team given a chance, prepped to be their best on the biggest stage in their sport? Probably not. 

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George Gulack, former AAU gymnastics chairman and gold medalist at the 1932 Olympics, from the book Tales of Gold

Imagine you have a sport growing in popularity, growing so quickly that it takes roots in countries all over the world, developing at different speeds, with slightly different rules depending on where it was played. When judo first began holding international competitions, a rift occurred between the rules that dictate judo in its birthplace, Japan, and the rest of the world.

Judo-ka in Japan were traditionally not classified by weight classes, so you would have a 90 kg judoka face off against a 60 kg judoka. International bodies believed that fairness could be better achieved by having people of similar weight compete, as has been done with success in boxing.

Who makes the rules? Who decides who goes to a national or an international competition? In the case of the Olympics in the post-war years in America, when money began to be invested in the development of sportsmen and women, it was the Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as the AAU, which emerged as the national governing body for many sports disciplines, including track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball and many others.

According to the book, “History of the United States Wrestling Federation / USA Wrestling” by Werner Holzer, the AAU had become a very powerful entity, frustrating coaches and athletes alike due to perceived lack of funding and support. This frustration was particular true in the “smaller” disciplines of wrestling and gymnastics where AAU mindshare appeared much greater in track and field.

Top of the list of complaints was the perceived AAU disregard for the views and expertise of the coaches to identify and select athletes for major competitions. Holzer explained that “the 1964 Olympic Games selection process personified the problem of the AAU being the ruling body for the sports of gymnastics. The AAU gymnastics chairman, George Gulack, selected the internationally inexperienced Vannie Edwards as the women’s 1964 Olympic Team coach. He appointed his wife, Fay Gulack, who was incapable and unknowledgeable about gymnastics, as the team manager. It was an arrangement destined for disaster!”

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Ron Barak

Ron Barak, a member of the 1964 men’s Olympic Gymnastics team, and today a practicing lawyer and novelist, first met George Gulack in 1962, when Barak was a sophomore at USC. Barak competed in that year’s National AAU Championships which served as the trials to select the U.S. men’s team that would represent the U.S. in the 1962 World Gymnastics Championships. Natural grade inflation in subjectively graded sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating favored the more established veterans in those sports. It’s just the way it was, according to Barak. This was Barak’s first appearance on the national scene, he told me, and he personally had no expectations of making the 1962 World Gymnastics Team and so he felt he was there to pay his dues and gain experience for what he was really after, a chance to make the 1964 Olympic Team.

But something strange happened over the three-day trials. For the first two days, Barak said he flew under the radar, largely unnoticed. He recalled that he was performing well and scoring well, and yet still felt more like a spectator than a competitor. However, after two days, he found himself in serious contention to make the 1962 World Games Team. He began to believe that all he had to do was perform at the same level on the last day and score at the same level, and he would make the World Games Team. Barak said he performed even better on the third day than on the first two days, but strangely, he told me, his scores plummeted, and he missed the team by a slim margin.

Barak said that Gulack came up to him after the competition was over and said “Don’t worry about it, Ron, your time will come. Just be patient.” Barak wasn’t sure what to make of Gulack’s words. Literally, they were nothing more than innocent words of encouragement. But Gulack, Barak said, presided over that three-day competition like it was his personal fiefdom and he was calling all the shots. Gulack was used to having his own way. He could occasionally be pleasant, Barak recalled, but more often he was a bully, if not an outright tyrant. Did Gulack’s words to Barak signify something more than their plain meaning? Lots of innuendo but no way to know.

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Gymnasts competing for the USA Men’s Gymnastics Team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Come 1964, Barak won the NCAA All Around Championships and finished high enough in the 1964 Olympic Trials to make the team . “Gulack continued to act as if he were making all the decisions, but the fact was that the seven U.S. gymnasts who made the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1964 were the seven best male gymnasts in the country that year. No one made that team who didn’t earn it and no one not on that team deserved to be there.”

Barak suspected that because the male gymnasts on the whole were a veteran team, most of whom would not continue to compete much after 1964, Gulack had little to threaten them with even if he could.

According to others, Gulack appeared to exercise significant influence in the selection of the women’s gymnastics team. During the Olympic Games, several weeks after the official trials had ended in the United States and the women’s gymnastics team roster had been set, Gulack re-set the team roster in an unscheduled competition.

Members of the women’s team were rankled, and itching to push back. A rebellion was brewing and would come to a head in Tokyo in October of 1964.