It’s no surprise that the dominance of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 would overshadow every other story that emerged out of those iconic pre-World War II Games.
But thanks to a new documentary aired in the US this week, one of the sadder moments from behind those scenes was the removal of two Jews from the US 4x100m relay team.
Marty Glickman would spend 50 years as a legendary sports broadcaster in New York but in the mid-30s he was a bit of a folk hero around the city for his exploits as a high school athlete.
He qualified for the Olympic team alongside Owens following a star-studded sprint at the trials in Randall’s Island on the East River but it would all end up being for nought.
“Glickman” is a fascinating account of the man credited with introducing much of the lexicon unique to basketball like “lane” and “swish” and he is also credited as a guru to the biggest names in modern sports announcing (to use the American): Marv Albert and Bob Costas, to name just two. And as is the case with so much of the vital visual output of modern New York, it was produced by that other famous Marty, Scorsese.
We tend to disparage our commentators these days but Glickman was more authentic than any of us could hope. He had the sporting pedigree — an all-rounder who played football and ran track at Syracuse — and like many of his generation he had experienced a lot, and maybe too much, by the time he took up a microphone full-time.
Before he enrolled at the upstate New York institution, he was on the verge of becoming an Olympic gold medallist. All his dreams seemed to be coming true.
There had been some talk of a US boycott and members of the American Athletics Union forced the issue in late 1935. The Germans, ably assisted by the head of the AAU Avery Brundage, managed to successfully pitch their case that anti-Semitism wasn’t going to be a part of the Games, pointing to the example of their star female athlete, Gretel Bergmann. A day after the SS Manhattan which carried the American athletes docked in Europe, world record-setting Bergmann was removed from the German team for ‘under-performance’.
Meanwhile, as it was becoming clear that the planned dominance of the Aryan super race hadn’t exactly delivered on its promise, the tension that led up to the crowning event, the 4x100m relay, was building fast.
On the morning of the relay heats, track coach, Lawson Robertson, and his assistant Dean Cromwell called the seven sprinters into a meeting at which he declared his suspicions that the Germans were saving their best sprinters to upset the Americans in the relay.
Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe were being drafted in to replace the only two Jews on the American team, Glickman and Sam Stoller.
“We’ll worry about that later,” was the reply to Glickman when the Brooklyn-born 18-year-old pointed out the potential of their being dropped probably causing a stir. Stoller was frozen in silence.
“Coach,” Glickman continued, “no matter who we run, we’re going to win by 15 yards.”
Owens, according to Glickman, spoke up at this point and declared himself both fatigued and contented with his three gold medals for the 100m (in which he edged out Metcalf), the 200m (beating Jackie Robinson’s older brother Mack) and the long jump.
“Let Marty and Sam run,” said Owens. “They deserve it.”
“You’ll do what you’re told,” Cromwell hissed at the black athlete whose stunning success was not enough to cast off the real dynamic that existed between the races in those days.
With Owens leading off, the relay team won in a canter, of course. Instead of the 15-yard victory achieved that early August day, Glickman’s involvement might have downgraded it to a 14-yard winning margin. There was no sensational drafting in of some secret German surprises — they came fourth and gave Adolf Hitler even more to frown about.
Both Metcalfe and anchoring athlete Frank Wykoff would subsequently make public their grievances at how Glickman and Stoller were denied a gold medal, both saying anti-Semitism was at play.
Even more tragically, a subsequent track meet in London a couple of weeks later saw Owens and Glickman team up to break the relay world record.
“I had no idea how great an athlete he was,” said the director James Freedman. “He was once the third-fastest man in the world... Also, I never knew just how deeply ‘36 hurt him... what happens when an 18-year-old kid’s dreams are crushed by prejudice.”
Although Glickman and, posthumously, Stoller were recognised in the 1990s for what should have been their gold medals, the bitterness never left him until he died in early 2001.
* [email protected] Twitter: JohnWRiordan
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved