13 May, 2016

Avery Brundage, a paradoxical personality

The term "paradoxical" is not mine. Frank Zarnowski, the great combined-events specialist, in his book "All-around men: heroes of a forgotten sport" has a chapter on Brundage introduced by the statement that Brundage is the most paradoxical personality in the book. While the book's theme are great athletes of the past, heroes of a discipline that does not exist anymore, Zarnowski decided to include Brundage in order to show how the administrative career of the latter has been instrumental in propagating the idea that Brundage has been a great athlete. Well, he has been many things and Zarnowski presents a (probably non-exhaustive) list:

a taciturn, secretive man, [...] construction czar, anti-Semite, sports administrator, Nazi sympathiser, polygamist, art collector, ideals evangelist, womaniser and general curmudgeon

But one thing is clear: he was not a great athlete. Zarnowski analyses in great detail Brundage's athletic career and shows that as he climbed the sports administrative ladder the details of his track achievements were overlooked and his successes took on an added degree of significance. Zarnowski does not attempt to run down Brundage's accomplishments. He was a hard-working, skilled but slowish athlete. (In the 1912 Olympics official report there is a smarting note concerning the performance of Brundage over the decathlon 100 m, where he was caught in 12.2 s: "the USA man Brundage apparently has not trained very much for short distance running"). His participation at the 1912 Games was, in Zarnowski's words, one of providence. He qualified thanks to a favourable combination of factors. 

In his own saying a heel-and-toe, i.e. walking, specialist

His olympic performance was a disastrous one. The official olympic report claims that Brundage did not finish the pentathlon dropping out of the 1500 m race. However he was allotted 7 points for last place which allowed him to figure at the the 6th place of the classification of an event he did not finish. In the decathlon things went even worse. After eight events Brundage was near the bottom of the classification (11th among 15 continuing athletes) and again he quit. Had he continued, with an average javelin throw and hanging on for a distant last place in the 1500 m, he would have amassed around 6500 points finishing 11th among 13 athletes.

I like a lot this art-nouveau poster

Brundage was more suited to the all-around discipline where running events comprised only 20 % of the total (as compared to the pentathlon and decathlon where the percentage is 40 % and 30 % respectively). His 1914-1918 successes in the all-around have certainly profited from key retirements, remote cities meets, rule changes and war-reduced fields. Of course, he cannot be blamed for this, but it is noteworthy that he had so many fortunate breaks in his career. Still he never was a great athlete. In Zarnowski's words "[he] was a plugger (I prefer the english term 'drudger') who outlasted his contemporaries".

If you wish to learn everything about Brundage's athletic career there is no better source than Zarnowski's book. But this is not and by far the only reason I recommend this book. Zarnowski tells the tale of the beginning of combined events and the athletes that excelled in them in his usual deeply documented way. If you are a fan of combined events the book is a must.

After retiring from competition in 1919, Brundage became a sports administrator and risen rapidly through the ranks first as member of the Amateur Athletic Union (president from 1928) and from 1929 as president of the American Olympic Association and the American Olympic Committee. In 1936 he became member of the International Olympic Committee and acceded to the presidency in 1952. He served as president of the IOC for 20 years retiring in 1972. Was Brundage more successful as a sports administrator than as an athlete? This would appear so on the surface. But when an eminent journalist like Roger Butterfield, already in 1948, writes that Brundage was from the start of his career displaying "a dictatorial temperament" and that canadian journalists were using the sobriquet "Slavery" when referring to Brundage one starts to doubt.

He rode the bobsled in an exhibition of chutzpah after the latter had been sabotaged  (probably 
by a disgruntled hickey player) following some absurd IOC decision in the 1948 Winter Olympics

One of the scabrous affairs that tainted Brundage as Nazi sympathiser was the US participation at the 1936, Berlin, Olympic Games. The Games have been awarded to Berlin before the rise of Nazism but, after 1933, Hitler's abusive exclusionary policies became clear. In 1934 Brundage visited Germany and returned satisfied that the Nazis would respect the Olympic chart. He managed, against a substantial opposition, to foil a US boycott of the Berlin Games. As we well know today the Games went on to become a Nazi propaganda playground. Modern historians explain Brundage's pro-Nazi behaviour as due to his extreme anti-communism. For him communism was the extreme evil before which all other evils were insignificant. In Berlin Brundage himself was instrumental in the exclusion of the only two US athletes of jewish origin, Stoller and Glickman, from the competition. While a technical argument was presented by Brundage (the two runners had finished 5th and 6th at the trials and thus they were reserve athletes for the 4x100 m relay) the doubt of the choice being due to pure anti-semitism remains.

The Nazi salute did not shock Brundage

Brundage, a reputed womaniser and polygamist (he fathered two sons out of wedlock), was well-known for his misogynic attitude towards female athletes. In a pure "de Coubertin" tradition he was convinced that the place for women was not in the stadia. In a demonstration of total ignorance of ancient Greece he declared: "You know, the ancient Greeks kept women out of their athletic games. They wouldn't even let them on the sidelines. I'm not so sure but they were right". Hadn't he heard about the Heraean Games? 

A young greek girl runner

Apparently, not. The anecdotes abound. In 1936 he excluded from the team the 1932 olympic champion E. Holm Jarrett because on the ship to Europe she participated at a party drinking champagne. (She later claimed that the true motive for the exclusion was that Brundage had propositioned her and she had refused). He forced B. Ann Scott, a canadian figure-skater, to return a car offered her by her native city. As a whole he was suspicious of female athletes, suspecting that some were actually men in disguise. Perhaps he knew that the Nazis had presented a male (well, most probably a hermaphrodite) athlete at the women's high jump olympic event: Dora Ratjen who finished 4th while the best german high jumper, Gretel Bergmann, was excluded from the Games because she was jewish.

Throughout his career Brundage was a fervent advocate of amateurism again following in the steps of baron de Coubertin. For the latter separating amateurs from professionals in sports was essentially an argument of class separation. To Coubertin's eyes amateurism was a strategy for excluding the plebeians from sports which would thus be reserved to athletes of aristocratic extraction. In the case of Brundage the best explanation I have found is one based on a religious analogy. In the words of one of his critics "Avery has always made that fundamental mistake-confusing sport with christianity and himself with the Pope. He thinks he has a divine authority to decide what's right and what's wrong and who's a heretic". Both de Coubertin and Brundage have showed their deep ignorance of the history of sports. While admiring Ancient Greece they did not realise that the ancient greek athletes were in fact professionals. Trying to enforce amateurism they only managed to slow down the development of sports in the 20th century. And in the case of Brundage his devotion to amateurism led to one of the greater injustice in modern athletics. I am talking here about the Thorpe incident. Jim Thorpe won the olympic decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, dominating completely the two events. However the next year it became known that Thorpe had played professional baseball while a college student (a standard practice at that time for college players during the summer season). Promptly his amateur status was withdrawn retroactively and as a result Thorpe lost his olympic medals. There is no indication that Brundage had played a role in that initial disqualification of Thorpe. However where he did indeed play a major role was in refusing vehemently, throughout his stint as IOC president, the rehabilitation of Thorpe. The latter could only be reinstated in 1982, post mortem, and in a curious ruling whereby the IOC declared Thorpe co-champion. (But of course we are accustomed to unusual rulings from the IOC: try to find the 2000 winner of the women's 100 m).

Thorpe was an all-around genius and an accomplished hurdler

One of the most awkward incidents in Brundage's career occurred just at the very end of his presidency at the IOC. During the 1972, Munich, Olympics 11 members of the israeli olympic team were taken hostages by a palestinian commando who had the support of german neo-nazis. The hostages were eventually killed. (Wikipedia gives a very detailed account of the massacre). The competition was suspended and a memorial service was held at the Olympic Stadium. And there Brundage pronounced a speech where with minimal reference to the murdered athletes he profited in order to settle the score with his opponents who a few day earlier had prevailed in a vote in order to exclude Rhodesia from the Olympics. In his own words: "The Games of the 20th Olympiad have been subjected to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail. We have only the strength of a great ideal. I am sure the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement". Yes, he said that, certainly without blushing.

But Brundage was not only a devout anti-semitic personality, he had also very strong anti-negro feelings. In 1968 following the movement Olympic Project for Human Rights initiated by the african-american sociologist Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated during the medals award ceremony in Mexico City with what is now known as the Black Power salute. Brundage promptly expelled the two athletes from the games. It was the same Brundage who was comfortable with the nazi salute during the 1936, Berlin, Games. What is even more tragic is that the silver medalist Peter Norman was also penalised for being sympathetic to his two african-american colleagues: despite he fact that Norman had qualified for the 1972 Games, the australian federation decided not to allow him to participate. I will never forgive Brundage for depriving us of Tommie Smith's talent. I am convinced that, had Smith been allowed to pursue his career, he would have brought both the 200 and 400 m world records to an amazing level, necessitating all the talent of Usain Bolt for an eventual improvement.

The Black Power salute: a moment of history

Why did I write this article on Brundage? Everybody knows that he was a most unsavoury individual and many people have written thorougher analyses than the present one. The reason is that I hold a personal grudge. This has to do with the 1906, intercalated, Olympics. Those who would like to know all the obscene details should consult the article of the historian Karl Lennartz, where he explains how de Coubertin tried to stifle these Games, oblivious to the fact that after the Paris and St. Louis fiasco the Olympics were in dire need of new life. Despite the baron's objections (and subtle sabotage) the 1906 Games took place and they were a huge success, reviving the moribund Olympics. Still later on de Coubertin did everything to rob these Games of their equality status and to discredit them as Intermediate Games. The question was revived in 1948, when the Hungarian historian Ferenc Mezö proposed a motion to recognise the event in Athens 1906 as ”IIIb Olympic Games”. The matter was dealt with by the so-called Brundage Commission (comprising, apart from Brundage himself, Sidney Dawes of Canada and Miguel Angel Moenck of Cuba). Without examining any historical sources they came to the conclusion that it would not be advantageous to recognise the Games as Olympic ones. There you have it. Even if Brundage's life had been exemplary, even if he had refrained from his machinations, I would still hate him for the blow he dealt to the hellenic olympic history.

As an insult to Greece and the Greeks, the heart of de Coubertin is kept in Olympia in a commemorative stele erected by greek sycophants. (I already explained that we are a nation breeding traitors). Fortunately Brundage did not ask for such a honour. 


  1. In a 1929 speech to the Chicago Association of Commerce, Brundage reveals that he believed that sport not only redeemed the individual but was the basis for a better society, which may explain his single-minded determination to keep sport 'pure.'

    "Perhaps we are about to witness the development of a new race, a race of men actuated by the principles of sportsmanship learned on the playing field, refusing to tolerate different conditions in the other enterprises of life; a race physically strong, mentally alert and morally sound; a race not to be imposed upon, because it is ready to fight for right and physically prepared to do so; a race quick to help an adversary beaten in fair combat yet fearlessly resenting injustice or unfair advantage; a race of free independent thinkers accustomed to the democracy of sport; a race disdaining sharp practice, tolerant of the rights of others and practicing the Golden Rule because it believes in it; a race of athletes imbued with the virile dynamic philosophy of sport, brought up to the best traditions of the code of sportsmanship, playing the game of life for the sake of the game itself."

  2. Thank you very much for your comment and extended citation.
    Reading these few lines from Brundage's speech I cannot help thinking about the various eugenics ideas and the plans for race purity that culminated with the Nazi holocaust.