When the US welcomed the world to Los Angeles 1932 | Sunday Observer

When the US welcomed the world to Los Angeles 1932

10 May, 2021
The Opening Ceremony of Los Angeles 1932
The Opening Ceremony of Los Angeles 1932

Like London and Paris before it, Los Angeles will host the Summer Olympic Games for a third time in 2028. The 1932 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the X Olympiad, was held from July 30 to August 14, 1932, in Los Angeles, California, United States. This article looks back at the huge success of the 1932 Games hosted in California, notwithstanding the challengers of the Great Depression and geographical isolation.

Pierre de Coubertin in his Olympic Memoirs wrote: “The time had truly come to bestow recognition upon the sporting youth of the United States for the effort they have made since Athens and for their ever-brilliant and numerous contributions to Games past.” “It was for these three reasons that the members of the IOC unanimously elected Los Angeles the host city of the X Olympiad.”

The sole candidate, the “City of Angels” was duly confirmed as the host city at the 21st IOC Session, held in Rome in April 1923. Six years later in Lausanne, the US ski resort of Lake Placid was named the host of the Olympic Winter Games 1932, in accordance with the rule at the time, that the Summer and Winter Games take place in the same country, as long as it could offer a location with suitable mountains.

A total of 37 nations participated at the 1932 Games. Colombia made its first appearance and the Republic of China competed for the first time after its failed appearance at the 1924 Games. The United States comfortably won with 41 gold, 32 silver, 30 bronze and a total of 103 medals. Italy came second with 12 each of gold, silver and bronze medals totaling 36 whilst France secured 10 gold, 5 silver, 4 bronze and a total of 19 medals to come third.

The Memorial Coliseum

One of the most of illustrious of all Olympic buildings, the Memorial Coliseum had a capacity of over 105,000. Renamed the Olympic Stadium, it was the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and for athletics, equestrian, gymnastics and field hockey. Standing 32m high, its signature torch-shaped Olympic cauldron was installed atop the central arch of the peristyle and housed the Olympic flame. Having also been the main venue at Los Angeles 1984, the Memorial Coliseum will in 2028 become the first stadium in the world to host the opening and closing ceremonies and athletics at three separate Olympic Games.

The 15,000-seater Grand Olympic Auditorium, then the largest indoor arena in the US, was the venue for boxing, wrestling and weightlifting. New aquatics stadium closer to the Memorial Coliseum, hosted swimming, diving and water polo, while the Rose Bowl was converted into a velodrome for track cycling. Located in Baldwin Hills in southern Los Angeles, the Olympic Village comprised over 500 portable houses, a post office, cinema, hospital, bank and a range of other amenities. These were exclusively for the male athletes; their female peers were obliged to take up residence at the Chapman Park Hotel.

The Legacy and Innovations

Los Angeles 1932 proved hugely successful and shaped the template for many features that define the Olympic Games as we know them today. They also instilled the host city with a feeling of Olympic pride, which has endured over the decades. “The story of the success of the Games of the X Olympiad is carved in the depths of a dark abyss of world depression,” reads the Official Report.

“But the spirit of Olympism has illuminated that abyss, and those who came to the Games from all the far corners of the earth have taken home with them something of a new hope engendered by a finer understanding of and a more intimate friendship for their fellow man, regardless of race or creed.” They are words that could easily be applied to the world today.

At a time when commercial aviation was still very much in its infancy, athlete participation was only 1,332 - 126 women and 1,206 men from 37 countries. They took part in 177 events across 14 sports. The Games lasted just 16 days, setting the template for the format that has remained in place ever since.

In another innovation, athletes climbed on to podiums for the first time to receive their medals, with gold medalists occupying the highest step in the middle, flanked by the silver and bronze medalists on their right and left respectively, on lower steps. And the athletes received their medals at the venue where they competed, with their national flags being raised to the sound of the winners’ national anthem.

Another first was the creation of a complex telecommunications system. Other enduring innovations included the introduction of timekeeping equipment accurate to the nearest hundredth of a second, and a new maximum quota of three athletes per nation per event.

At the Opening Ceremony, on July 30, 1932, the Olympic Stadium set new standards for the Games and provided a fitting backdrop. Accompanied by a 300-strong orchestra, a choir of 1,200 singers performed the US and Olympic anthems, while the fencer George Calnan took the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes. After Charles Curtis, the Vice President of the US, had declared the Games open, hundreds of doves were released.

The 10th Street, one of the city’s most important thoroughfares and which stretches for several tens of kilometers from the ocean at Santa Monica to the eastern side of Los Angeles, was renamed Olympic Boulevard, a name it retains to this day. An Olympic mascot, Scottish Terrier Smoky, was featured for the first time. The Art competitions awarded medals for works inspired by sport-related themes in five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

The Heroes of Los Angeles 1932

The women’s foil final between Great Britain’s Judy Guinness and Austria’s Ellen Müller-Pries saw a remarkable example of Olympic values in action. On being declared the winner, Guinness pointed out to the judges that they had missed two of her opponent’s hits, a selfless act that led to her collecting silver instead of gold.

The most successful athletes at Los Angeles 1932 were American swimmer Helen Madison and Italian gymnast Romeo Neri, who won three gold medals each. Kusuo Kitamura of Japan won 1500m freestyle at 14 years and 309 days, to become the youngest Olympic champion his sport has ever seen.

Sweden’s Ivar Johansson achieved the unique feat of winning middleweight gold in freestyle wrestling and then shedding 5kg to win Greco-Roman welterweight gold, making him the only Olympic wrestler to win two different weight categories at the same Games.

Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi, participated at Los Angeles 1932, winning a gold in equestrian at the show jumping individual. This remains Japan’s only Olympic medal to date in equestrian. Nishi, a graduate from the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in October 1924 and promoted Lieutenant in October 1927.

In 1930, Nishi encountered what would be his favorite horse, ‘Uranus,’ while in Italy. As the Japanese Army wouldn’t pay, Nishi bought, ‘Uranus’ with his personal funds. After the Olympic Games 1932, he went back to the Army and was promoted Lieutenant Colonel in August 1943. He was killed-in-action during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 at 42.

Istvan Pelle’s Unique Achievements

For the first time, individual competitions were held for all the different gymnastics’ apparatus, as well as tumbling, rope climbing, and club swinging. And in another break with tradition, the scoring for the team competition was separate from the scoring for individual events. According to the Official Report, “the innovation of individual competition on the horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommeled horse, rings, and vaulting horse proved to be very popular with contestants and officials.”

It was one such event – the “pommeled horse” – that saw Istvan Pelle, the 25-year Hungarian gymnast claim one of his two gold medals, while the other came in the floor exercise. He also won two silvers. He also went on to achieve distinction in a non-sporting field, finishing his studies with a doctorate in law. After World War II he left Hungary, touring the world as a singer and violinist, before settling in Argentina, where he died aged 78.

Eddie Tolan’s Olympic Sprint Double

Born in Denver in 1908, Eddie Tolan’s early sporting forays came on the football field, but a knee ligament injury curtailed his chances of making the grade. After securing a scholarship to the University of Michigan he instead took up sprinting.

In 1929, he thrust himself into the spotlight after achieving a world record of 9.50 in 100-yard dash and over the next two years he beat 100m world record twice. In an era where racial segregation remained a blight on the hopes of black men and women across every sphere, Tolan’s strength of character made his accomplishments ever the more impressive.

Tolan pipped at the post in 100m, equaling the world record with a time of 10.3 sec. In the days before technology could solve such disputes, it was settled as a dead heat and the same time given to two athletes. Later, Tolan won 200m with a new Olympic record of 21.2 sec. In doing so he became the first American track athlete to win double Olympic gold medals. He died at 57 and his legacy as a torchbearer for high-achieving black sprinters lives.

Attilio Pavesi Crowned King of the Road

The 21-year Italian cyclist Attilio Pavesi came well prepared for the 100km road race. The journalist claimed that he had with him on his handlebars “a bowl of soup and a bucket of water. In his bib that hung from his shoulders were a dozen bananas, cinnamon buns, jam, cheese sandwiches and spaghetti.” For good measure, the article continued, “around his neck were two spare tires.”

While that report was perhaps guilty of artistic embellishment, whatever provisions Pavesi brought with him provided a recipe for success. Born in 1910, the 11th child in a family from Italy, showed his form in Los Angeles.

“The road race, while on a surface unfamiliar to all the contestants, was ideal from the standpoint of smoothness and lack of obstructions, and unusually good time was made by all the contestants in this event,” the Official Report comments. “Careful regulation of traffic through the services of hundreds of police enabled the participants to travel the distance of 100 km, without interruption or accident.”

Cycling along the picturesque course, Pavesi won two golds for both individual and team road races. At the beginning of World War II, Pavesi emigrated to Argentina where he opened a bike shop and organized bike races. At his death in 2011, two month’s short of his 101st birthday, he was thought to be the oldest living Olympic gold medalist.

Helene Madison’s Greatest Swimming Feats

It was not until 13, that she learned to plunge into the water with finesse. The late bloomer then set about making up for lost time in the most sensational fashion. In 1929, at 15, Helene Madison broke the state and Pacific Coast records for 100-yard freestyle. Over the next three years she seemed to smash records every time she entered a swimming pool.

Her name was now common currency in the US and beyond and two years before her Olympic debut, a Michigan newspaper described her as no less than “the greatest woman swimmer the world had ever known.” She always found the mental side of competition to be grueling.

In her first race, 100m freestyle, Madison won with a time of 1:6.8, lowering the Olympic record. Four days later, she secured her second gold in 400m relay in which the US quartet clocked a world record time of 4:38.0. The following day, competing in 400m freestyle, she made it three golds with a time of 5:28.5.

That race would be remembered as one of the most exciting in Olympic history. It would also, to the surprise of everyone, be Madison’s final act as a competitive swimmer. No sooner had she stepped out of the pool; Ray Daughters announced to the press that Los Angeles would be “the climax of Helene’s swimming career” a mere five years after it had begun.

As it turned out, while Madison’s dedication to her sport was unquestionable, her heart lay elsewhere. After a brief incursion into the movie industry, she met her future husband while training to become a nurse and in 1937 the couple gave birth to their only child. “Of course, 1932 was a thrill,” she told a California newspaper in 1938. “But I have found more happiness and contentment in my marriage than in my career.”

Mildred Didrikson, Most Accomplished Athlete

Texas-born Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson has always thrown up performances at multiple disciplines. She had proved accomplished in a myriad of sports including running, swimming, diving, high- jumping, baseball and basketball.

But it was her accomplishments in track and field while competing on the amateur circuit for the Dallas-based “Golden Cyclones” team of female athletes that propelled her into the Olympic firmament. At the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union Championships, she set four world records in javelin, 80m hurdles, high jump and baseball throw, over a single afternoon.

Didrikson qualified for five Olympic events, but official Games guidelines at the time decreed that women were only allowed to compete in three. Given her ability to turn her hand to almost anything, the ruling will have come as some relief to her would-be competitors spared the prospect of coming up against this sporting polymath.

Many athletes ease themselves into form, only hitting their stride as the competition progresses. Didrikson though opted for something of a more accelerated approach. In the prestigious setting of the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium, with her very first act at the Games, she threw a javelin just over 143 feet, securing gold and a new world record in what was the first ever women’s Olympic javelin event.

Next, Didrikson set her sights on further glory in the Olympics’ inaugural 80m hurdles. Summoning all the strength, technique and discipline that had earned her the nickname “Babe” (after the big-hitting baseball star Babe Ruth), she doubled her gold medal haul, and set another new world record with a time of 11.7 sec. Indeed, according to the Official Report the race “shared the distinction with the men’s 100m of being the closest finish of the Games.”

In her third and final event, the high jump, only a highly contentious ruling deprived her of a rare hat-trick of gold medals. Both Didrikson and compatriot Jean Shiley broke the world record with jumps of 5 feet 5 inches, but the official ruled Babe’s effort to be illegitimate (her head was deemed to have cleared the bar before the rest of her body), and Shiley was awarded the gold.

Her two gold medals in Los Angeles made Didrikson a household name, and there were more remarkable sporting endeavors to come. In later years she took up golf with such ferocious determination that, according to her obituary in The New York Times, she “drove as many as 1,000 golf balls a day and played until her hands were so sore, they had to be taped.”

After turning professional in 1947, she went on to win every available golf title. And in 1949 she was voted the greatest female athlete of the half century by The Associated Press. Tragically, Didrikson died just seven years later, aged 45, after a three-year battle with cancer. However, her legacy continued to burn brightly and in 1976 a museum dedicated to her life and career was built in Beaumont, Texas. It was a worthy monument to one of the greatest Olympians in history.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)