BY VIC ALHADEFF
August 20, 2016
The headline in New York’s Kingston Daily Freeman was unambiguous: “Named to carry baton in Olympic sprint relay”. The date was July 24, 1936 and it accompanied photographs of the four athletes selected to represent the United States in the 4×100 relay at the Berlin Olympics.
What transpired instead was shameful capitulation to racism as practised by Nazi Germany. While the incident is a mere footnote of Olympic history — albeit one which impacted the legendary Jesse Owens — it saw the US buckle under Nazi pressure to keep Jews out of the Games, or at least off the winners’ dais.
The backdrop is pre-war Germany. Hitler is flexing his muscles, the Nuremberg Laws restricting the civil rights of German Jews have been passed and the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is being built outside Berlin. Hitler appoints himself patron of the Games, notices condemning Jews are removed and a 110,000-seat stadium is erected by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to showcase German supremacy.
Over in England, France and the US debate rages over whether the Games should be boycotted, African-American and Jewish groups in particular protesting Nazi racial policy.
Days before the 4×100 heats, the US team holds a race to settle the athletes’ running order; Sam Stoller places first, Marty Glickman second. But on the morning of the 4×100, all the US sprinters are summoned. They include Owens, who has already won the 100, 200 and long jump.
Glickman: “We were called into a meeting with Dean Cromwell, assistant track coach, and Lawson Robertson, head track coach. Robertson announced that he had heard rumours that the Germans were saving their best sprinters, hiding them. Sam Stoller and I were to be replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe.
“We were shocked. Sam was stunned. He didn’t say a word. I was a brash 18-year-old and I said ‘You can’t hide world-class sprinters’. Jesse said ‘I’ve won three gold medals. Let Marty and Sam run, they deserve it’. Cromwell said ‘You’ll do as you’re told’. In those days black athletes did as they were told.”
Allegations immediately flew that the decision to drop Glickman and Stoller — the only Jews in the 66-person American athletics team — was to appease Hitler, with US Olympic Committee chair Avery Brundage anxious to avoid embarrassing him by having Jewish athletes win gold medals.
The US won the race in a record 39.8 seconds, giving Owens his fourth gold. It stood for 20 years — and Germany never produced any hidden champions. Stoller, who turned 21 on the day of the race, stayed away, prompting Glickman to observe bitterly: “A fine present for Sam, wasn’t it?”
“There was antisemitism in Germany — I knew that,” he said. “And there was antisemitism in America. There were places I was not welcome. You went into a hotel and you’d see a sign which read ‘Restricted clientele’, which meant no Jews or blacks. In the history of the Olympic Games no fit American track and field performer has ever not competed, except Sam and me — the only Jews on the team.
“Watching the final, I see Metcalfe passing runners down the back stretch,” he reflected. “That should be me out there. I vowed that come 1940, I’d win the 100, the 200, I’d run the relay. I was going to be out there again. 1940 never came. There was a war on. 1944 never came.” Brundage and Robertson both rejected the claim that they had yielded to bigotry, adamant that their intention was simply to field the fastest foursome and citing the winning time as vindication. However, it was abundantly clear that the suggestion that Germany would field hidden champions was absurd, and Glickman claimed Goebbels had told Brundage that Hitler would be “displeased if Jews were to race in ‘his’ Games”.
It emerged that Brundage was a founding member of the pro-Nazi America First Committee, which objected to the US admitting Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and funded antisemitic leaflets called The International Jew. In opposing a boycott of the Games, he insisted that “American athletes not become involved in the Jew-Nazi altercation” and slammed the proposal as a “Jewish conspiracy”.
Hitler reportedly rewarded Brundage by granting his construction company the contract to build the German embassy in Washington, DC, and he went on to serve as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972. As for assistant coach Cromwell, he too belonged to the America First Committee.
Stoller described the incident as “the most humiliating episode” of his life, while Glickman joined the US Marines to fight Hitler.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.
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