Editor’s note: As the 31st Games of the Olympiad approaches, August 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, I thought it would be interesting to resurrect stories of former Olympics as written in Coconut Times in the summer of 1992, year of the Games in Barcelona, Spain.
(June 26 issue)
Imagine a time when millions of Americans were out of work, businesses were failing at record numbers, hundreds of banks were closing, the stock market had taken a major drop three years before and a sitting Governor was running for President of the United States, while his campaign was trying to hush up talk of adultery. This was the atmosphere in America for the 1932 Summer Olympics. Los Angeles, California was staging a major international extravaganza as the entire world fell deeper into the Depression.
This Olympiad was not without controversy. Athletes were required to sign documents stating they had no intention of turning professional. Physical education teachers and recreation directors were barred from participating. So “hot” was the issue of amateurism, that Paavo Nurmi, “The Flying Finn,” was disqualified for making a small profit on his expense account. Just prior to the games, Nurmi had become the first man to run two miles in under nine minutes, so the media made an issue of his expulsion. Not long after the games ended, another athlete was banned from all future participation in Olympics, because she appeared in an automobile advertisement. Amateurism versus professionalism still haunts the games today.
Many obstacles were faced in hosting the 10th Olympiad. As early as 1920, L.A. real estate tycoon William Garland began his quest to get the games in some part of the world other than Europe. After much politicking, the International Olympic Committee agreed to allow Los Angeles to host the games. Many nations expressed great displeasure at having to travel halfway around the world to the “boondocks.” This geographical isolation and fear for safety would contribute to the low participation of only 37 countries and 1500 athletes.
In the Spring of 1932, even the L.A. organizers began to doubt the chances of success for the games. Unemployment in Los Angeles was more than 50 percent and mini-riots broke out protesting the opulence. In April, the L.A. Olympic Committee almost voted to cancel the games, but cowboy millionaire Zack Farmer volunteered to organize them. Thousands of L.A. laborers were hired to build a 550 cottage village that included group bath houses, a post office, fire station, telegraph office and separate dining rooms, each with its own chef to prepare native foods.
Even though Prohibition was going on, the French were allowed to serve wine with meals, because it was “essential to their diet.” A theater was built for the athletes to review the events of the day. The entire compound was fenced and patrolled by horseback to keep out unwanted visitors. Isolated and able to concentrate on the games, the athletes were able to break every female and almost every male record.
The extravaganza went on and on! The traditional opening day ceremony of the parade of athletes and the lighting of the flame was staged in Hollywood fashion including fireworks, a huge chorus singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and cannons exploding. A world press publicity campaign was set up to reverse sentiment for the games. When athletes arrived, they were met by silver screen idols and photographed for magazines hobnobbing with the film community.
Automatic timing devices and a photo finish camera were used for the first time. Previous games had struggled to break even, but a little American ingenuity managed to make these Olympics turn a profit with a record attendance of 5 million people, including a closing ceremony crowd of 95 thousand, and an additional 60 million dollars in the L.A. economy. In our “advanced” society today, it is difficult to associate with all this “modernization.”
These games were not only an economic success for America, but a political one, too. Never in Olympic history had a country won so convincingly. The U.S. won 41 Gold, 32 Silver and 31 Bronze medals. The nearest competitor, Italy, won 12 of each. This overwhelming triumph surprised the nation and the world; for just four years before, the over-confident American team had performed terribly, winning most of its reputation at the games in Monte Carolo - gambling.
These games were not without their heroes. Track and field was considered the heart of the games and 15 records were set in the 23 events with most of them belonging to Americans. The decathlon was considered the greatest measure of an athlete, and the record set by American James Bausch would not be broken until 1976 by Bruce Jenner. Yosihu of Japan and Metcalfe and Tolan of the U.S. would compete in the 100 yard dash with it ending in a dead heat - record time. Most people thought Metcalfe had won, but seven judges viewed the film and several hours later announced that Eddie Tolan had won his second Gold medal. Even though Metcalfe had “reached” the finish line first, Tolan had “crossed” it first.
Swimming was dominated by Japan, but one American did win the Gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle. Clarence Crabbe won by only inches, but that tenth of a second changed his life. In coming from behind, Hollywood had discovered a true American hero and “Buster” Crabbe would go on to fame as Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
Female participation in the Olympics did not begin until 1928, but by 1932, it was dominated by Americans. They won five of the six track and field events. The only non-American to win a Gold medal was Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland. She had moved to America as a child; and in 1930, “Stella Walsh” became the first woman to break the 11 second barrier in the 100 yard dash.
In early 1932, she lost her job, and the only new job offer she had was with the Cleveland Recreation Department. To avoid deportation, she was about to apply for naturalization, take the job and lose her Olympic eligibility forever, when Poland offered her a job in its Consulate. She won the Gold medal and would go on to win more than 40 U.S. and world titles, including every world record in the 60 meter, 100 meter, 200 meter and 220 yard dashes by the time she retired at the age of 42. In 1948, at the age of 37, in an AAU track meet, she astonished the world by winning the 220 yard dash and the long jump.