Olympic Games champion swimmer Eleanor Holm with her portable typewriter and surrounded by swimming medals in her penthouse apartment in Biscayne Bay, South Florida, in November 1976. She was axed from the US team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Avery Brundage.
Four days before the opening of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games - at which, under Avery Brundage’s watch, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by Palestinians - Associated Press filed a farsighted column from veteran foreign correspondent Jim Becker (left), which appeared in US newspapers under the headline, “Someday, Maybe Nobody Will Come to Olympics!” Forty-nine years later those Olympics have arrived, and are about to open to a small group of VIPs in a stadium in a Covid-19 ravaged Tokyo. The ghost of Brundage – crying “The Games must go on” – will be hovering over them. The 1972 AP article, in which Becker unmercifully lampooned the then International Olympic Committee president Brundage, forecast a disastrous 1984 Olympics in Houston, Texas, opened in an empty stadium by a wild trumpet blast from Al Hirt and hosted by a 97-year-old Brundage (to the eternal relief of world sport, Brundage died in May 1975, aged 87). But Becker wasn’t all that far off the mark: the 1984 Games were held in Los Angeles and 14 Eastern Bloc nations boycotted them. Al Hirt wasn’t required but Etta James was there.
History continues to treat Brundage badly, and rightly so. The man who tried so hard to take the 1956 Olympic Games away from Melbourne is remembered as a hypocritical authoritarian, an overt racist, an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer. He was also a male chauvinist pig, a sexist who was never comfortable with women competing in the Olympics and in Berlin in 1936 called for compulsory sex tests. Criticising the great Babe Didrikson (right) as a publicity seeker in December 1932, Brundage, then president of the US Amateur Athletic Union, said, “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.”
Apart from his many other shortcomings, Brundage’s idea of “fair play” in matrimony was to swear fidelity to a woman of financial substance (the daughter of a Chicago banker) then proceed to sow his wild oats as far and as often as he could. In marrying Elizabeth Dunlap in 1927, he threw over his long-time partner, Frances M. Blakely, but then kept Frances on as a paid mistress, secretary and executive assistant. Notwithstanding the openness of the arrangement, Blakely remains a very shadowy figure, about whom nothing is known, except for mentions by a Congress Select Committee investigating real estate bondholders' reorganisations.
In his coverage of the Berlin Games for the New York Daily News, Gallico (above) tore strips off Brundage, labelling him “Herr Doktor, chief wowser of the American Olympic Committee on temperance, morals and prohibition of nearly everything”. Gallico reported Brundage had tried to have Holm barred from competing as an amateur anywhere in Europe. As a result of remarks made by Holm in a Gallico interview, other American newspapers called for a “very, very thorough investigate of Brundage”. Holm was described as the victim of Brundage’s “autocratic wrath”. It turns out he was more likely to be a man who Holm told to keep his pants on.