Santa Barbara’s Not-So-Secret Racist Olympic History

How Avery Brundage and a Pickleball Court Are Loosely Related

A former International Olympic Committee chair and onetime owner of the Montecito Country Club, Avery Brundage (pictured center at the 1936 Berlin Olympics) vigorously and successfully fought efforts to boycott the Berlin games, which were a Nazi propaganda showcase. | Credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Shelter from the Norm: The good news is that the Olympics are nigh upon us. Finally. A spectacle — no, an oasis — almost as vast as the pit we’re all trying to dig out of. A safe and mindless distraction that doesn’t involve alcohol, opioids, or shooting innocent people. (And who among us are truly innocent?) I intend to engorge myself and enjoy the temporary illusion of community the Olympics allows. The tragedy, of course, is the world will have to wait four years — at least — before pickleball is acknowledged as an official Olympic sport. Climbing walls? Sure, no problem. Surfing? Skateboarding? Curling, even? But pickleball, tragically, will have to wait.

All this begs the much bigger question: What would Avery Brundage have thought?

Once upon a time, Brundage was a household name throughout the U.S., but especially in S.B., where he lived from 1941 — where he allegedly came in hopes of gobbling up  prime coastal real estate on the cheap after the pseudo-attack on Ellwood by a Japanese submarine — to his death in 1975. Brundage chaired the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972 but served on the committee going all the way back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. To the extent anyone on the planet personified the Olympics, it was Brundage, a hard-charging purist who yoked his unforgiving zeal to the wheel of amateurism in sports. 

Closeup of Avery Brundage in 1970. | Credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

And for many years, Brundage — a Midwestern construction magnate by trade — happened to own the Montecito Country Club, which just happens to have emerged as Ground Zero in the gathering pickleball storm threatening to engulf the South Coast.

Pickleball is loud, fun, slow, and said to be forgiving to one’s joints, making it extremely popular with the demographic bulge navigating the existential nether-regions bordered by arthritis and dementia. Played on tennis courts with wiffle balls and wooden paddles, it’s typically accompanied by gleeful screaming. Traditional tennis players regard pickleballers with the same withering moral scorn Norwegian cross-country skiers reserve for drunken snowmobilers. 

As has been reported elsewhere in the Independent, Beanie Babies mogul Ty Warner — current owner of the newly named Montecito Club — is now embroiled in scorched-earth litigation with his neighbor Angelo Mozilo — former Countrywide bank mogul — in part because of the two pickleball courts (70 feet from Mozilo’s home) Warner had built without the necessary city permits.

For those who care about such things, the Feds recently forced Warner to pay a $53 million fine and $27 million in back taxes, but no jail time, for a massive tax scam that hid hundreds of millions in secret Swiss banks.

Mozilo, no slouch as an economic reprobate himself, got hit with a $67 million fine for selling mortgages to chumps who couldn’t hope to pay them off, thus helping to precipitate the 2008 economic collapse.

Even in this company, Brundage would have stood out — a spiritual Brown Shirt and fawning admirer of Adolf Hitler and Nazi culture. He vigorously and successfully fought efforts to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a Nazi propaganda showcase for Aryan superiority, even though Jesse Owens, a Black American sprinter, famously cleaned up, winning four gold medals. The Nazis gave assurances they’d allow Jews to compete in the games, and Brundage was only too happy to swallow that lie.

He complained how “the Jews” owned all the newspapers and movie theaters and how “certain Jews” — by which he meant “Jews with communistic and socialistic antecedents” — wanted to “use” the Olympics as a vehicle to express their displeasure with the Third Reich. (Not to quibble with a dead racist, but the man leading the charge to boycott Germany was a retired Catholic judge named Jeremiah Titus Mahoney.)

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In October 1936 — when the full brutality of the Nazi agenda was manifest — Brundage extolled the joys of the New Germany at a German-American Bund rally in Madison Square Garden. “We have much to learn from Germany,” he later wrote. “An intelligent beneficent dictatorship is the most efficient form of government.” Little wonder that in town, he became known as “Excelentismo Señor de Santa Barbara.” 

When, in the 1960s, South Africa had become an international pariah for its brutal apartheid laws, questions arose as to whether it should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Brundage proved a constant supporter of the white regime, fighting all efforts to ban South Africa and then pushing, albeit unsuccessfully, for its reinstatement in 1968.

Brundage’s efforts on behalf of South Africa prompted basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then still a UCLA student named Lew Alcindor — to refuse to play for the U.S. team. In 1968, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists from the winners’ podium in protest as the national anthem played, Brundage had them kicked off the team and evicted from the Olympic Village. When the U.S. Olympic Committee refused to comply, Brundage threatened to ban the entire track team. 

Four years later, Brundage would fight again unsuccessfully to allow Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to compete in the Munich Olympics despite its brutally enforced white-supremacist laws. Brundage was so furious at this defeat that when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich games, he mentioned Rhodesia’s exclusion in the same breath as he lamented their slaughter.

On the subject of women athletes, Brundage suspected many were actually men in disguise and tested them accordingly. He also questioned whether they should be able to compete in long-distance running and the shot put because they were not sufficiently ladylike. 

In the meantime, who cares what Avery Brundage thinks? Let the games begin.

And if Mae West were still alive, she’d no doubt say, “Is that a pickleball in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

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