MR. HYPOCRISY: Once owner of the Montecito Country Club, Montecito Inn, Presidio, and El Paseo and a multimillionaire praised in Santa Barbara, Avery Brundage was also a bigoted, dictatorial ruler of the Olympics. But while he demanded a ruthless Victorian standard of pure amateurism and ran roughshod over athletes like the great Jim Thorpe, Brundage hid his own scandalous private life.
By all accounts, the Santa Barbaran was an anti-Semite who fawned on Hitler in the 1936 Olympics, and he reportedly banned Jewish athletes in order to please Hitler. He believed, along with others of the Olympics ruling class, that athletics was the proper province of the rich.
If he’d had his way, there would be no Winter Olympics or women Olympians. On the other hand, Brundage was a womanizer who had many lovers while married and sired two boys out of wedlock whom he refused to publicly acknowledge or remember in his will.
As the 1936 Olympics in Berlin approached, Brundage willingly swallowed German assurance that there would be no discrimination against Jewish athletes. But it was apparent that none would be allowed on the German team. Brundage vociferously opposed pressure for a U.S. boycott. On the ship over to Germany, Brundage made headline news when he and the American Olympic Committee, which he controlled, kicked swimmer Eleanor Holm Jarrett, a 1932 gold medalist, off the team. Brundage claimed she was at a party. She later claimed that he had propositioned her and she had refused.
The Santa Barbara Independent’s Brandon Fastman wrote earlier this year about what happened when two American Jewish relay runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were pulled from the lineup. Glickman believed that Brundage didn’t want to embarrass Hitler by putting Jews on the winners’ podium. The film Glickman, directed by James Freedman, tells the story of how the athlete overcame the disappointment to win fame as a sports broadcaster. Glickman and Stoller, the only two Jews on the U.S. track-and-field team, never got to compete in Berlin.
In Santa Barbara, Brundage was showered with praise and in 1949 was presented the Chamber of Commerce “Excelentismo Señor de Santa Barbara” award. On August 14, 1952, Brundage was named president of the International Olympic Committee at a Swiss gala, blustering on that the world was sick. “It is sick for only one reason — lack of fair play and good sportsmanship in human relations.”
His wife, Elizabeth, was at his side. Five days later, according to a 1980 piece in Sports Illustrated, “a beautiful blonde Finnish woman named Lilian Linnea Dresden, 33, gave birth to Brundage’s out-of-wedlock son in San Mateo, his second in two years by Dresden. Brundage kept both secret.”
For decades, he remained the most powerful man in world amateur sport and enforced an outdated all-amateur purity code. Since Brundage departed from the Olympic scene in 1972, skiers have been sponsored by ski-makers, and “dream teams” have been composed of NBA all-stars.
Despite the great affinity for women that Brundage demonstrated behind closed doors, he had problems with them as athletes. According to writer Roger Butterfield, Brundage once 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 that they were right.” (The Greek ban may have been partly because some male runners ran nude.)
Few recall that a young Brundage, himself a good athlete, competed against Thorpe in the legendary 1912 Stockholm Olympics but lost. Brundage was not involved in stripping Thorpe of his gold medals, because the collegian had played some games as a professional baseball player. But once he took power, he stood stolidly against the latter-day movement to restore the medals to the aging Thorpe. It’s been debated: Was this small-minded, petty revenge against Thorpe or just part of Brundage’s massive ego and “purity” obsession?
Thorpe, a Native American and possibly the finest all-around athlete in U.S. sports history, died in 1953 without receiving his medals back. In a July-August 2012 edition of Smithsonian magazine, author Sally Jenkins told how the IOC finally bowed to public opinion in 1982, delivering two replica medals to Thorpe’s family, but refused to change the official record. To this day, the Olympic record does not mention the 15 events Thorpe competed in.
“It made Thorpe an asterisk, not a champion,” Jenkins wrote. Thorpe’s story and Brundage’s role in denying him his medals are told in the recent book Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford.