An Olympic Story, a dream betrayed.
The Olympics begins in a few weeks amid the pageantry of spectacle that will have many of us glued to our television set. London seems to be a wonderful place to hold this event. For Jews, though, the Olympics are a place in which bad things have happened. We cannot celebrate fully; Munich and the death of Israeli athletes must be with us like shattered glass. But there was even a greater terror, if terror has a yardstick to be measured by. That happened seventy-five years ago, and now begs to be remembered by us all. Again, it was Germany; then Berlin, and the year was 1936, in the time known as the Holocaust years. A little event, in the course of bigger events, this small act of race prejudice may have done more to raise the specter of a “legitimate” Nazi world presence than any other.
Though a few Jews did participate, the United States of America did not field a single Jew though two were qualified, ready and able to compete. Come with me to the spanking, clean facades and boulevards, the smell of cherry blossoms. The lindens, bountiful and wide avenues where white clad officers and S.S. men greeted the 54 nations as guests of the New Nazi regime. Josef Goebbels has begun an amazing propaganda feat. The Olympic Torch run was a Nazi idea. On August 1st, the last Nazi stood on Marathon Gate in the Olympiastaadt, his body moving about the flame like a swastika. Hitler was about to welcome the world to friendly sport.
But the European Jews were not visible and could not participate in the Berlin Games. All houses proclaimed the Olympics with decorative flags, except for the drab Jewish homes that flew no flag and seemed to be ostracizing the glad tidings of the world. But Jews, as we know, were about to disappear and be marginalized on a world stage.
Two American Jews, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were part of the American Track and Field team, captained by Jesse Owens. They were coming to compete and show the world that Jews did belong and could compete. They were going to humiliate Hitler and vanquish race hatred with one 4×100 meter relay run. The pair had won spots on the Olympic track and field relay team, but were prevented from running as a result of a fellow American’s infatuation with Nazi ideals.
The thought that anyone could share a National Socialist agenda sickens us today, but 70 years ago, times were much different. That time, August,’36, was significant; it fell within the period known as the Holocaust years, and marked a change, a giant leap forward, when the world seemed ready to pay homage to Hitler, and to welcome him with open arms.
The Nazis had the Nuremburg Laws that striped Jews of German citizenship, hurt them by taxing their businesses, and prohibited them from entering government jobs, or belonging to any social or sports clubs. There were also strict laws against relationships with Jews, and inter-marriage was forbidden. It was done to marginalize Jews; really it was a key step in Hitler’s aim to rid the world of Jewish existence.
It was also a time when American businessmen visited Berlin, attended the Olympic Games, and partied with their German friends, Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels, senior leaders of the Nazi party. It is hard to believe those infamous beings really lived, but they did. It’s even harder to believe that they were admired by Americans, but they were.
Avery Brundage, an all-around American athlete who competed in the pentathlon and decathlon events in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, and a man with many secrets, became President of the United States Olympic Committee at the time of the Eleventh Olympiad. Owner of a construction company in the United States, Avery thought America could learn a great deal from the new Reich government.
The day the two Jewish American athletes were scheduled to run in the 400-meter relay, Brundage, along with the coaches of the track and field team, made the decision to expel Glickman and Stoller from the team. It was the only time in the modern era that American Olympians who were fit and able, and ready to run, were not allowed to compete.
The question is did he do this -betray the hopes and dreams of the two American athletes- as a result of Germanophilia, the love of everything German, or to secure a construction contract to rebuild the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.? Did he want to spare Hitler from being further humiliated by a Jewish and ‘Negro’ triumph? The Blacks had already posted victories, and Jesse Owens, captain of the American squad, had won three gold medals. Or was there something else; more cynical and deadly? The secret was buried with him in 1975, but truth has a way of staying above ground long after the participants have gone their way.
When I started writing Ghost Runners over thirty years ago, I was confounded by thoughts about the participants in these events, some of whom were still alive at that time. There was interest in my first draft, and I was advised to write the story as non-fiction. But for several reasons mentioned below, I opted to write the story as fiction.
Then, I was in my mid-thirties, and I had hoped that Marty Glickman, a distinguished sports announcer on radio and television, could shed light on some questions I had. So one day in August, 1983, I boarded a train, hoping to visit and interview him.
The main question I had was what happened to his teammate, Sam Stoller, who disappeared one year after the 1936 Olympics?
Marty knew almost everyone affiliated with sports, but not Sam, the young man he met at Randall’s Island, where they both qualified for the Olympics. I feared that Marty wouldn’t have an answer to Sam’s whereabouts though they shared dreams, religion, and an unkind fate.
I began imagining the two of them practicing together like gladiators for two strenuous weeks for the race that would never be theirs to run, on a world stage about to become a pulpit for National Socialism.
What would it be like to run in front of 110,000 Nazis as a Jew? Could winning have changed the world’s perception of a doomed people? Or, most importantly, slowed down the process that led to the extermination camps?
I realized I needed to answer that question, even if it was ‘off the wall.’ How could the running of two American Jewish boys be so important that it could have stopped Hitler, and saved Jewish lives?
I was frustrated, though, and I knew that I wanted to try to answer that question for my readers, and for myself.
I also realized I could not tell the story as it would have been told by Marty Glickman, as he was only 18 years old, then. He was too young and naive to foresee what was coming, and understand its implications. It wasn’t till much later in his life that he saw how his seemingly insignificant dismissal from the Olympic track team was, maybe, important to world history.
At a commemorative ceremony honoring Jesse Owens in 1986 at the same stadium, in the same seat Adolf Hitler had sat, Marty Glickman finally broke down and gave way to tears, to anger and to rage.
But to tell that story, I thought, demanded the feelings that came to Marty only retrospectively. Selfishly, I wanted to express my own feelings about his story, and thought about that other runner, known as the ‘also ran.’
Sam was the one in newsreels who always seemed to be second to Jesse Owens during track competitions. His was the face that turned away from the public eye. But there was no information about him; Stoller, the forgotten man whose bones I needed to resurrect with some flesh around them.
In addition, I feared that if I were to have written this story as non-fiction, the descendants of the participants in the Games of 1936 would suffer from “ghost sickness,” an old Navajo illness about the conjuring up of the spirits of the dead.
When piecing together the words describing the men involved in the four-man relay team that eventually won the 400-meter relay in 1936 in world record time, I took great measure not to diminish their accomplishments, or good names. These were honorable men who deserved the glory of their achievement.
When the train arrived at my destination, I found myself, then, walking to the platform that would take me back to my safe haven, in Brooklyn. I wasn’t ready to face the man who impacted me so much, the man whose story brought out so much rage in me—I was a proud American Jew living in Brooklyn at a time when religious persecution did not seem to exist.
How could I interview that man who was part of my family, whose voice came into my living room every Saturday and Sunday, and brought sports games to life for me over the radio, when I could never imagine the discrimination he suffered just for being of the same race as mine?
His was more than a voice to me—to us who were his fans—he was our eyes; he was our heart. When Marty talked, good things were happening.
Family and friends were gathered in the living room to watch, or listen to the game of the week. He was so interwoven with the memories of my family that, to this day, I cannot separate him from the best of my childhood and the camaraderie of friends and family.
When he talked, you knew his excited voice was giving you an honest play-by-play. Marty Glickman gave his fans that quality, ‘honesty,’ possibly to compensate for the dishonesty and betrayal he experienced at those events in his youth. But in 1936, at the tender age of 18, with a smile a mile long, and a heart as big as gold, he was up against a force greater than he could have fought, a force of the nastiest kind, a force he was too good to share the planet with.
At the time I began writing Ghost Runners, I was also too young to understand the greater picture.
Long before Iran-Contra, Watergate, or, most recently, the lead up to the Iraq War, the concept of “plausible deniability” was but another corporate tool to deny responsibility, to skim from the top, to hide, to steal. It’s a game as old as time, with greed, on a massive scale, practiced on a daily basis.
It wasn’t until well into the writing of this book, though, that I began to suspect the involvement of American corporate, pro-Nazi, business interests in the betrayal of the American-Jewish athletes, and their dreams of glory.
Who was Avery Brundage but a shield of big business? The president of the American Olympic Committee was not forced by Germans to capitulate, nor was he afraid that Hitler would be humiliated if the Jews and the Blacks won medals. That was the story Marty carried around with him his whole life and that is still believed today.
Maybe, but I don’t think so.
I believe the truth was even more obscene. I believe it was a question of which “ism” fit the world’s agenda, and the decision that Judaism did not; too many American corporations jumped on the Nazi bandwagon to become willing, or unwitting participants in the New World Order. They had no problem with the German racial politics designed to make all the Jews invisible—to turn them into ghosts.
Brundage was only their able spokesman. In essence, the two Jews expulsion from the American team helped the Nazis in their program to marginalize the Jews. Like Stoller and Glickman, Jews did not fit; they were to become ghost runners.
In this story, I did not attempt to unmask the psychology of the man that was Avery Brundage. Nor did I address in detail his dalliances, his extreme hypocrisy, or the petty vengeances he had for the athletes Jim Thorpe, or Eleanor Holm Jarrett. You can read in-depth analyses of him in the many studies conducted about him.
The Brundage character in this book represented a mindset in pre-World War II America, which was antagonistic to New Deal and Roosevelt era initiatives. Brundage was no worse than Father Coughlin or other right-wing fanatics who were also taken in by Nazi ideals. But he was not much better. His hand, when he had the power, chose Nazi and American corporate interests as his own, and betrayed the principles of amateur sports he so strenuously upheld.
While I believed that the real heroes of the story were the protesters of the 1936 Olympic Games—the Honorable Jeremiah Mahoney, Lee Jancke, the trade unions, the Catholic organizations etc.— and the thousands of athletes who would not take part in the “Nazi Games”—I did not go into detail about the stand they took against the Nazis.
Some even chose to go to Spain to participate in an alternate Olympic Games only to become witnesses, or victims of the great upheaval called the Spanish Civil War. While relatively tame events were taking place on German soil, Goering’s Luftwaffe, and its bombs were getting ready to obliterate Spanish cities. You can read about these events in history books.
My main purpose here was to put these Games into the perspective of the Holocaust years of 1933-1945, which must stay alive for the purpose of providing a living will to the conscience of humanity. The betrayal experienced by the Jewish American athletes by fellow Americans, who were influenced by an evil force they too easily embraced, or were too weak to resist, was what piqued my interest in this story, and was the concept I wanted my reader to understand.
To tell the events of that reality still upsets us today because race prejudice is an unsettled issue, even though we appreciate freedom of religion, a new era of good-will, and a healthy acceptance of the diversity of our people.
I think it was that more modern perspective that I embraced while imagining the whereabouts of the forgotten Olympian, Sam Stoller. He could have gone anywhere, I thought, when I got off the train in Gallup, New Mexico, the Indian capital of America, to visit my son, recently.
As a former teacher of Special Education, my writer’s brain began working.
What would Sam do with all the Native American children I see walking with canes, being wheeled in the high desert under the red, sandstone cliffs; the poverty that is surrounded by such overwhelming beauty?
Until his own children, or grandchildren, come forward with the real story of their heroic patriarch, I thought that place in the desert would be as good as any for him to make his stand.
I knew that railroad town along old route 66 that houses such beauty and visible heartbreak of a proud, but suffering, Native population would be a proper setting. The passion for sports, in the end, is not only for Olympians, but for physically or spiritually challenged people as well that still dare to dream of glory. But it is ironic, is it not that since these two skinny kids were denied the American Dream by Americans, only one Jew has since participated on the American Olympic Track and Field team in over seventy-five years.
But, indeed, this book is not really about sports, or even a running shoe; it is but a heel, or perhaps, one more speck of dust, under the heels of history.
Racial persecution, an unfortunate part of American history, is always an open wound. The teachings about that from the lessons of the Holocaust are clear: to ignore its effects, can no longer be an option.