The Olympics That Almost Wasn’t

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General Secretary Zack Farmer, a gutsy forty-year-old, was not one to depend upon saints. In 1930 he had presented the Olympic Congress in Berlin with a revolutionary plan to house all athletes and attendants in a common village. Traditionally the nations had lived apart, trained secretly, broken no bread together, and mingled only in competition. Farmer found this sad and asked for a “spiritual assembly” where brotherhood could flower through close daily association. To many of the Congress, sharing one space was collectivism; they met the plan with mockery and hostility. Farmer wrote in his memoirs, “Some were afraid … open racial clashes were predicted … the idea was shot full of danger, no doubt about that. ” But the secretary continued to push his “Dream Village,” and suddenly in late spring, only ninety days before the opening gun, it met an encouraging response. The British, Danes, and Swedes said they’d compete, and explained why: a cost-cutting, unified camp would enable their California hosts to offer housing, meals, and local transport for two dollars per person per day. The promoters had also guaranteed to bring them to America at charges they could afford. How was this possible? “First we found that a cooperative village could support a two-dollar fee, ” explained Zack Farmer. “Then we told the Transatlantic Steamship Conference that they were sailing with empty cabins in the Depression and made a deal. ” The deal provided a 20 percent fare reduction on off-season rates for all comers, matched by U.S. railroads in cross-country travel (one hundred dollars roundtrip, New York to the Coast). Total overhead for faraway countries would average five hundred dollars per man, far under the normal two thousand dollars. Various federations had doubted that such a saving was possible but, shown the proof, changed their attitude. Japan, abruptly reversing itself after the Manchukuo incident, said it was coming and with a splash. It named no fewer than 203 athletes and, for good luck, threw in a paper-kite-flying team of boys and girls. Argentina had failed to raise travel money, tried again, succeeded, and signed up sixty participants. Cuba hit on the shrewd method of loading its team’s ship with sugar and tobacco and then auctioning the cargo at ports en route, thus subsidizing its boxers and runners. Still, half a dozen sign-ups with time running out amounted to little.

Then from Vienna came sensational news. Prince Ferdinand von und zu Liechtenstein declared, “We Austrians will hold the faith and go, even if I must pay the cost myself. Immortal Olympia must prevail!” Challenged by the prince, European pride was stirred, and France and Italy entered a combined 196 contestants. In the Reichstag, Hitler’s campaign against fraternizing came under attack, and a flickering chance remained that Germany would join. Good things were happening to the LAOC so quickly that hope revived and Billy Garland, the intrepid gambler, rushed construction of a 250-acre, decorative “village of the universe” that would house two thousand on a mesa near the Coliseum. Economists bit their lips. The “village” boasted kitchens, lounges, barbershop, post office, Greek theater, saunas, wireless center—even valets. It cost $400,000.

Signs were changing, but Americans still were not backing their own champions. The fund-raising drive lagged everywhere—and the Los Angeles public remained as coldly uninterested as ever. Ticket manager J. F. Mackenzie looked out his Coliseum window at fewer buyers than you’d find at a small college football game. Mackenzie wondered if Avery Brundage might not be right in his latest speculation from Chicago: “I wonder if this will be the first of the series to play mostly to a crowd of newspapermen.” (In Garland’s later years—he died in 1948 at age eighty-two—he spoke of haunted nights, of a nightmare of Vice-Président Charles Curtis, named by Hoover as his stand-in, opening the festivities to ten thousand kids, some pensioners, and the LAOC’s creditors.)

Something rather Zeus-like, however, was looking out for the party givers at zero hour. Governor Jim Rolph at last stopped complaining. In June the funding of America’s team suddenly picked up, and within weeks most of the needed $350,000 was banked. President von Hindenburg circumvented Hitler and, on the two-dollar-per-day, all-you-can-eat plan, named a 125-man German contingent. Mexico signed up fifty athletes. Finland forty. India and South Africa added thirty-six. Along came the Australians, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish, Greeks, Canadians, Hungarians, Uruguayans, and New Zealanders. The Brazilian team, taking its clue from Cuba, stored fifty thousand bags of coffee aboard a freighter and started north, peddling beans as it went. As the entry list reached thirty nations, with such world champions as hammer thrower Dr. Patrick O’Callaghan of Ireland, broad jumper Chuhei Nambu of Japan, and swimmer Clarence (“Buster…) Crabbe of the United States to be on display, townspeople awoke and the first ticket queues formed. The lines grew daily, from dozens to hundreds to many hundreds. Idled clerks were returned to work and midway in the last-ditch month of July they were swamped by fans.