The Olympics That Almost Wasn’t


Freakish warm weather and a hostile Avery Brundage were two matters; the Congress of the United States was another. Government aid—fiscal, moral, or both—was needed to backstop expenses and give Uncle Sam’s blessing to a shaky project. Congress offered nothing, however, not even after the LAOC formally invited President Herbert Hoover to preside at the opening ceremony. For thirty-six years it had been unbroken tradition that heads of state or royal consorts did the honors, and from King George I of Greece to Gustaf of Sweden to President Gaston Doumergue of France and beyond, no lapse in this matter of pomp and prestige had been known. Hoover’s answer was, “I will be unable to attend because of the press of duties.” With the Depression tormenting him, Hoover couldn’t spare the time, but in refusing to appear he seemed to be censuring a carnival some claimed would cost $2 million. Hoover reportedly told friends, “It’s a crazy thing. And it takes some gall to expect me to be part of it.” Some newspapers saw the President’s absence as an outright slap in the face.

On the international front there was a frightening silence. Less than five months before the Games were to begin, not one nation had said positively it would attend, and it appeared that California was moving toward a disaster. The Winter Olympic Games of ‘s32 were held at Lake Placid, New York, with a turnout of only seventeen countries (St. Moritz in 1928 had drawn twenty-six teams) and without big crowds. Meanwhile, Japanese troops had invaded Manchuria, creating the puppet state of Manchukuo. This aggression was widely condemned, but Japan blandly requested an Olympic entry blank for Manchukuo. The captured territory had no official credentials whatever, and, badly as the LAOC needed bodies, it was obliged to reject the crude bid. Furious Tokyo sportslords threatened to prevent their vaunted swimmers, pole vaulters, and horsemen from crossing the sea.

On March 1 Billy Garland and Zack Farmer, still outwardly buoyant and confident, were in San Francisco trying to drum up trade. The best they could do was unload a few packets of tickets to convention agencies and American Legion posts; they wrote off the Bay Area and caught a Southern Pacific express home. There they doggedly forged ahead, hiring ticket clerks, planning press accommodations, reserving a fleet of buses for team transport, and polishing up a second vast stadium, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, for what their publicity bulletins insisted would be droves of customers. Sticking to that belief wasn’t easy with “Hoovervilles”—clusters of crate-wood shacks thrown up in arroyos and on hillsides—dotting the city’s outskirts.

Heading into April crippling new setbacks left the LAOC staggering, and its members considered a step, unheard of in peacetime, of calling off the Games. The Comité International’s track-and-field federation, cracking down on amateurs who took illegal payoffs, banned Paavo Nurmi, the fabled “Flying Finn” and defending Olympic 10,000-meter champion, along with Jules Ladoumegue of France, world record holder in the mile run. Two of Los Angeles’s top drawing cards were gone. When Garland asked Coubertin, “How could you do this to us?” the nobleman sternly reminded Billy that the Games were never canceled, “whatever may be the adverse circumstances. ”


In Amsterdam, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye of the Comité dealt another blow: smaller European states were not gaining political support for the trip. “I am desolated,” said the baron. So was the LAOC’s ticket department. Handsomely engraved tickets priced at a low one to three dollars were a drug on the market. Less than fifteen thousand had been sold by early May and, for lack of action, the Coliseum sales force went on half-time shifts. The man on the street wasn’t buying.

Since the autumn of 1931, when the risk to their reputations had become clear, many of the sponsors had lost enthusiasm; they favored admitting a mistake and cutting their losses. According to later disclosures, about half the sponsors wanted to quit. The showdown came at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where Garland, his face pale, and Times publisher Harry Chandler attacked the “cold f eeters. ” Tempers flared; a recess was called. While the defectors waited, Chandler phoned the technical expert Bill Henry in New York and asked him to hurry home. Henry, a persuasive, admired newspaperman, spoke feelingly of “keeping our sacred word,” of not welshing as Americans, even if only a handful of guests showed up. Henry’s words made the difference. The decision was to hang on. The hope, according to one critic, was that the patron saint of the Games—Zeus—would perform a miracle.