A showing recently of The Jesse Owens Story on television brought to mind the attempt of Jewish organizations and sympathizers to help prevent American participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
One of the Jewish members of the U.S. Olympic track and field team at those Games was Marty Glickman, a football and track star while he was in high school and who gained honors in both sports when he attended Syracuse University.
Just prior to the start of the present Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a reporter for a New York Jewish newspaper called this columnist to verify the fact that Glickman was dropped from the 400-meter sprint relay in the 1936 Games and to ascertain whether the late Avery Brundage, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, was anti-Semitic.
Jewish members of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), such as the late Harry Henschel and Charles Ornstein, headed the boycott forces among the members of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the American Olympic Association (AOA) to have America abstain from participating in the 1936 Games.
The exchanges between the two Jewish athletes and Brundage, who was also the president of the AOA, grew verbally violent at times and forced Brundage to publish a 16-page pamphlet titled, “Fair Play for American Athletes.” One of the outstanding statements in the pamphlet was: “Shall the American athlete be made a martyr to a cause not his own? To involve them in the present Jew-Nazi altercation would completely invert the object of the Games.”
In 1936 — and even today, but not as rampant — a number of individuals and organizations in this country and abroad sought to identify Jews with Communism and to equate the two. This canard was not neglected in Brundage’s pamphlet which stated, “Many believe the present (boycott) outbreak is merely a flank attack of the same old Communist offensive which seeks to destroy the Games themselves.” This had a certain appeal since it condemned Communism and defended the honor and aspiration of the Games as pure sports.
Nevertheless, an effort to boycott the Games was launched and Brundage, in an effort to stem the campaign, wrote: “When propaganda grows hysterical and indulges in lobbying, organized coercion and public rioting, it is not surprising to see a great many false and malicious statements made. Most of them in the present (1936) anti-Olympic campaign are so ridiculous and irrelevant as to be unworthy of refutation.”
He brushed aside all criticism that there was anti-Semitism at the Olympics as merely a meanspirited anti-Olympic attitude. But Brundage was not alone among the U.S. Olympic Games officials who sought to smear its critics.
The American athletes, at that time, were highly favored to be successful in the Games. Gen. Charles Sherrill, the U.S. representative on the International Olympic Committee’s executive committee, was especially vocal and emotional in his protests that Jews, by seeking to keep the U.S. out of the Games, would take away a “birthright” from the American athletes.
He contended that the Jews and their supporters were not loyal Americans, but highly prejudiced, and were disregarding the essence of the Olympic ideals. In all the ensuing hullabaloo, the moral issue involved was buried. Sherrill, in his blunt and strident manner, declared: “It does not concern me one bit the way Jews in Germany are being treated, anymore than lynchings in the South in our own country.”
In an attempt to split the Jewish support for the boycott, Brundage, on several occasions indicated that the boycott could engender a backlash in the United States against Jews. He made this point very explicit in his pamphlet by stating: “Many leaders of the faith believe much harm to the Jewish race is being done by this agitation. The Jewish race suffers from the radicalism and the self-seeking of a few in its ranks who put personal advantages before the welfare of the race.”
Not all American Olympic officials favored the U.S. participation in the Games. Four were opposed, including the late Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, who was president of the AAU, and their stand was supported by many AAU members. The four officials were also opposed to the publication of Brundage’s pamphlet. But the American Olympic Committee (AOC) printed the pamphlet and listed the 62 members of the committee, including the four in opposition, along with their disclaimer.
Ten thousand copies of the pamphlet were printed and distributed to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the AAU, some 200 colleges, 650 newspapers, high school and college coaches and to the chairman of the Olympic Committee’s financial committee so they would not be deterred from raising money to send the U.S. team to the Berlin Games.
EFFORT TO SUGAR-COAT ANTI-SEMITISM
The practice in Nazi Germany of labelling those who opposed holding the Games there as Communists, prompted the AOC publicity director to establish direct contact with the German Olympic publicity department to advise his German counterpart that more care should be taken in disseminating Nazi propaganda, not because he considered the publicity offensive but because he felt different tactics were required.
The AOC publicist pointed out that every time Brundage went out on a limb for U.S. participation, it stimulated stories from Germany capitalizing on Brundage’s words for the benefit of Nazi propaganda.
The PR man, a Chicago journalist, noted that the German exploitation of Brundage’s remarks provide the anti-Nazi forces in the U.S. an opportunity to say, “We told you so,” and this was embarrassing Bru? dage and harming his campaign. The publicist pointed out that Brundage had asked him to convey this message to the German Olympic publicity department.
CHARGES ATTEMPT TO SELL OUT U.S. ATHLETES
How did Brundage himself view this episode? At the start of 1936 he wroteto the president of the International Olympic Committee, Count Baillet-Latour, assuring him that while many in the AAU opposed having the Games in Germany and sought to convince U.S. Olympians not to participate in them under the circumstances, “I can assure (you) that the real sport leaders of the United States are 99 percent on our side.”
Referring to an AAU convention in New York a short time earlier, where Brundage was able to stem the tide among the delegates in voting against U.S. participation in the Berlin Games, he pointed out, in his letter to Baillet-Latour:
“Few, even of the delegates, realized how close amateur sports in this country came to being ‘sold down the river’. The opposition, promoted by the Jews and the Communists, threatened to spend a million dollars to keep our teams out of Germany. They did spend thousands and thousands of dollars and used every contemptible trick known to politics not excluding intimidation, bribery, and blackmail. It became far more than a matter of sports — it was really a test case on the national issue.”
WARNS OF ANTI-JEWISH BACKLASH
From the outset of the boycott effort against the Olympics, Jewish leaders were warned by Brundage that they were courting disaster in the form of a wave of anti-Semitism. One of these leaders, Albert Lasker, a New York advertising executive, received a letter from Brundage stating:
“The great growing resentment in athletic circles in this country against Jews because of the activities of certain Jewish individuals or groups in seeking to prevent the American participation in the Olympic Games next August should be offset by action on the part of some prominent organizations or individuals of your race …. A large number of misguided Jews still persist in attempting to hamper the activities of the American Olympic Committee.
“The result therefore is increased support from the 120,000,000 non-Jews in the U.S. for this patriotic enterprise. My suggestion now is that in an endeavor to offset the growing indignation and resentment to which I have referred, that some Jewish group or committee assist the American Olympic Committee in its campaign to finance the American team. If the records show contributions of $50,000 or $70,000 from Jewish sources, it might be useful in the future.
In his answer to this anti-Semitic diatribe and attempted blackmail, Lasker wrote: “As an American I resent your letter and subtle intimations and reprisals against Jews. You gratuitously insult not only Jews, but millions of patriotic Christians in America, for whom you venture to speak without warrant and whom you so tragically misrepresent in your letter.”
CORRESPONDED WITH ANTI-SEMITIC SPORTS FIGURES
Brundage maintained a steady flow of correspondence with anti-Semitic sports figures, including the German Nazi, Karl Ritter von Halt, and his followers. Von Halt was a member of the Nazi Party since 1932 and was able to, as head of the sports division, use his influence in the reorganized Nazi sports movement. One of his associates, Clarence Count Rosen, an International Olympic Committee member from Sweden, wrote a letter to Brundage congratulating him on his victory in the AAU battle. “I can’t tell you how happy I am that you conquered the dirty Jews and politicians.”
After the war, when the Nazi atrocities against the Jews were revealed in all their horror, Rosen wrote to Brundage: “Do everything possible to stamp out this mad expression of Jewish fanaticism. Jews are at the bottom of all the disturbances in the civilized world. Communism is their political creed and their weapon whereby they hope to destroy all organized civilization.”
Brundage replied briefly: “From your letter I observe with pleasure that you are in fine form and I anticipate a happy reunion next month. In any event, we certainly agree on the subject mentioned in your letter.”
Outside the sports field, Brundage, in 1940, headed the isolationist “Citizens to Keep America Out of War Committee.” In 1944 he made an abortive attempt to run for Governor of illinois. No attempt has been made by any historian or biographer to determine what influenced Brundage to become an anti-Semite. It can only be recorded that he was.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.