Avery Brundage’s complicated Olympic legacy

Examine the annals of Olympic history, and one name is sure to jump off the page: Avery Brundage. The name is memorable not only for the sheer number of times it appears in connection with the Olympics, but also for the controversies that seem to affix themselves to it.

Brundage dedicated his life to the Olympics, first as an athlete; then as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU); and finally as president of the International Olympic Committee for 20 years.

At his best, Brundage was a true believer in the Olympic movement. At his worst, he was willing to turn a blind eye to discrimination and the basest of human behavior.

The Detroit native competed in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games where he finish 6th and 16th in the respective competitions, both of which were won by fellow American Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe was later stripped of his gold medals from the 1912 games when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball prior to competing, thus violating the Olympic rules of amateurism. Throughout his involvement with the International Olympic Committee, Brundage steadfastly refused to entertain calls to restore Thorpe’s medals. Although not directly involved in the Thorpe controversy, Brundage’s links to it portended things to come.

By the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Brundage was head of  the AAU and the U.S. Olympic Committee and the preeminent figure in American amateur athletics.

Due to his position, Brundage would have a large role in determining whether American athletes would participate in the games or not. With evidence of Hitler’s abusive exclusionary policies mounting, public pressure was increasing to take action and boycott the games.

In 1934, Brundage embarked on a fact-finding mission to Germany to investigate for himself. Brundage returned satisfied that the Nazi’s would remain true to the Olympic ideals and open the games to all participants.

Brundage reported his findings to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which, in turn, voted to send a team to the games. Despite criticism for his willingness to accept the word of the Nazis over contrary indicators, Brundage stood by his decision to encourage American participation in the 1936 games.

Jesse Owens emerged as the unquestioned star of the 1936 Olympics as a result of his dominant performance on the track. The four-time gold medal winner returned from Germany a conquering hero after defeating Hitler’s Germany.

Unfortunately, a controversy involving Owens’ decision to forego a pre-arranged post-Olympic tour in favor of a potentially lucrative commercial engagement led to him being stripped of his amateur status, immediately ending his Olympic career and any chance of repeating his heroics in 1940.

Brundage’s vehement advocacy of amateurism in the Olympics would be a hallmark of his tenure in that movement. He steadfastly maintained that the Olympics were a competition for amateurs and punished athletes who sought rewards for their performances. For Brundage, amateurs represented the epitome of the benefit of sport: those who competed and won for the love of sport itself and not for monetary gain.

Although a noble belief, it fell on many deaf ears among athletes who saw sport as a way to potentially change their station in life by capitalizing on their success.

In 1952, Brundage was elected president of the International Olympic Committee. Bundage’s time at the pinnacle of the Olympics represented, arguably, the most tumultuous period in the storied history of the games. Increased commercial and political influence seemed to invite high-profile controversy which each passing Olympiad.

Brundage decried the politicization of the Olympics, yet saw them as a symbol for the ideals of democracy and capitalism and a hedge against communism.

He forced Germany to compete as one nation until the 1968 Mexico City games. Overlooking the obviously fractured nature of German team, Brundage praised the power of the Olympics to succeed where politicians failed.

Brundage also seemed willing to overlook the Soviet system, which provided jobs, housing and compensation for state athletes by comparing it to the scholarships offered to NCAA collegiate athletes.

The IOC, under the direction of Brundage, was also slow to take action against South Africa for its apartheid policies, and he ignored calls for the country to be banned from the 1960 Olympics following the Sharpsville massacre.

After not participating in 1964, South Africa was invited by Brundage to participate in the 1968 Olympics until he was forced to rescind the invitation under increasing threats of a boycott and definitive evidence of racial discrimination.

It was Brundage’s own American team that drew his ire in 1968. Brundage and the IOC pressured the U.S. Olympic team to take action against Tommy Smith and John Carlos following their black-gloved protest. Under threat of expulsion from the games, the American team sent the sprinters home.

The 1972 Munich Olympics represented the tempestuous nature of Brundage’s involvement in the Olympic Games.

After being overruled by the IOC in his attempts to allow white-minority ruled Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to participate in the 1968 games, Brundage was again thwarted by the IOC prior to the 1972 games after African nations threatened to boycott unless Rhodesian athletes were excluded.

The games were marred by the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by members of the terrorist organization Black September on September 5, 1972.

Brundage made the decision to allow the games to continue in spite of the tragedy. In his statement, Brundage referenced the Rhodesian exclusion as a parallel to the massacre and vowed that the games would continue despite the “two savage attacks.” Initially praised for his decision, Brundage was later rebuked for referencing the Rhodesia affair in the aftermath of the Munich attacks.

A January 1956 Sports Illustrated article reveals Brundage as a complex figure, someone who recognizes his popular perception as a villainous overlord, but maintains that he is a misunderstood guardian of amateurism and the Olympic ideals, tasked with preserving the true spirit of the games while all around him seek to destroy it.

Whether he was a tyrant or an advocate, idealist or sympathizer, true believer or facilitator, philanthropist or villain, Brundage was undeniably the driving force behind the U.S. Olympic movement for 40 years and an influential force in defining American participation in the games.

Michael Simzak is the Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.

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