Eighty-seven years later, a small victory against anti-Semititsm

Recently, the University of Southern California renamed the school track and field Allyson Felix Field in honor of the USC alumna and its illustrious 11-time Olympic medalist. Most media sources did not include in its coverage the previous name of the venue: Cromwell Field. What is the story behind the change?

Dean Cromwell, known as the “Maker of Champions” headed the USC track and field team from 1909 through 1948. During his tenure, he guided the team to 12 NCAA team national championships and 34 individual NCAA titles. A darker story exists: As assistant coach for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Cromwell was one of the people responsible for the expulsion of the only two Jewish American athletes on the track and field team – Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. 

The decision to erase Cromwell’s name follows USC’s recent policy to remove the names of well-known figures with dark pasts. In 2020, USC removed the name of its seventh president, Rufus von KleinSmid, from one of its most prominent buildings, citing his support of eugenics as well as his tolerance and support of pro-Nazi faculty. Soon after, the college removed a John Wayne exhibit at their School of Cinematic Arts following student protests against the actor’s history of racism and homophobia.

Cromwell’s words and actions deserved the same fate. In 1936, he spoke at a Nazi-organized German Day celebration in Los Angeles, California. According to the American Jewish World, the venue was filled with swastika flags and people dressed as storm troopers. In his remarks, Cromwell said, “Oh boy, if I could only be that handsome boy Adolf [Hitler] in New York for an hour.” He also effused that he did not see “a single colored man, woman or children [sic]” during his Olympics time in Germany, adding he did not object if they decided to leave.

As reported in a June 26, 2020, article by Larry Elder on runblogrun.com, Cromwell was also known for his racism and belief that Blacks were not equal to humans. An excerpt in Cromwell’s 1941 book Championship Techniques in Track and Field, he noted “the Negro athlete excels because he is closer to the primitive than the white athlete.” 

Cromwell’s racist rant continued: “It was not so long ago that his ability to sprint and jump was a life-and-death matter in the jungle. His muscles are pliable and his easygoing disposition is a valuable aid to the mental and physical relaxation a runner and jumper must have.” Despite outcries from the Los Angeles community, he not only remained as coach but was later honored by USC’s naming of the venue he oversaw for almost 40 years.

Calls to boycott the games began soon after the Nazi’s rise to power. Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was determined that the United States accept the invitation to Berlin. Known as a Nazi sympathizer and an antisemite, he brusquely dismissed such concerns as the work of “a Jewish/communist conspiracy.” 

The outcry grew louder in 1935, when the Reichstag, the Nazi-controlled parliament, passed the harshly restrictive Nuremberg Laws, which deprived Germany’s Jews of citizenship, forbade intermarriage and decreed that no German girls work as servants for Jews. Many feared the games would be a Nazi propaganda tool where, as stated in an article about Glickman in wwwl.jewishvirtuallibrary.org, Hitler would extol the superiority of “pure Aryans over nations that allowed Jews, blacks and other ‘mongrel’ races to compete on their behalf.”

Brundage travelled to Germany to investigate the anti-Jewish claims that favored the boycott. He returned to the U.S. praising Hitler and dismissing reports of discrimination “In forty years of Olympic history,” Brundage said, “I doubt if the number of Jewish athletes competing from all nations totaled 1 per cent of all those in the games.” [According to a 2020 article in The Nation, Brundage’s number was a fabrication.] In the end, the United States decided to participate in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Both he and Cromwell later joined the isolationist America First Committee, which attracted Nazi sympathizers.

Brundage chose two U.S. college coaches to oversee the men’s U.S. track and field team: Lawson Robertson, University of Pennsylvania, would serve as head coach; USC’s Dean Cromwell was named assistant track coach. Several runners, including Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf qualified for individual events. A second group of men qualified for the relays, including two Jewish college athletes: Marty Glickman, Syracuse University, and Sam Stoller, University of Michigan. Each were to run a 100-meter leg on the 400 meter relay team.

As Glickman later wrote in his memoir The Fastest Kid on the Block, his suspicions about Cromwell and the fairness of the relay team selection process began at the American Olympic team trials in New York. After a very close finish, films showed that Glickman had placed third behind Owens and Metcalf in the 100-meter dash. Under pressure from Cromwell, the judges ruled that he placed fifth, thus losing his place on the team as an individual participant to USC’s Foy Draper, who was openly favored by Cromwell. 

When the athletes arrived in Berlin, there was little public display of the horrors that would soon follow. Hitler had promised there would be no antisemitic demonstrations, and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, ordered all anti-Jewish signs removed from Berlin streets. But the swastikas flew everywhere and the stiff-armed Heil Hitler salute was a constant presence. In a special Olympic edition of Der Stürmer, the virulently antisemitic German weekly recognized as a cog in Hitler’s Nazi propaganda machine, a cartoon was printed that reviled the Jews and said, “Jews are our misfortune.” Earlier, Julius Streicher, the paper’s editor and a Hitler favorite wrote: “We waste no words here…Jews are Jews. And there is no place for them in German sports…Germany is the Fatherland of Germans, not Jews.” 

Hitler’s dreams of a display of his master Aryan race were soon dashed by the accomplishments of the American Black athletes, who won many of the medals.

In the days leading up to their event, Glickman, Stoller, and their teammates practiced diligently for their 4X100 relay, which the United States’ team was highly favored to win. The morning before the scheduled preliminary heats, however, Robertson and Cromwell called a meeting and announced that there were rumors of hidden German “super runners” who were to step into the relay. As a result, Glickman and Stoller would be replaced with two other faster runners, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. 

According to an article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Owens, to his credit, protested against the move. Citing his exhaustion and the three gold medals he had already won, Owens told Cromwell, ” Let Marty and Sam run, they deserve it,” Cromwell pointed his finger at him and said, “You’ll do as you’re told.” Glickman told the coaches there would be a ‘big stink’ if the only two Jews on the track and field team were pulled. Cromwell cut him off. “We’ll worry about that.”

On Aug. 9, 1936, Glickman and Stoller watched from the stands as the United States team of Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, and USC track stars Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff won the 4X100 meter relay in a world record time of 39.8 seconds. With Owens and Metcalfe running the first and second leg, Hitler was spared the embarrassment of another Black man first crossing the finish line. The German ‘super runners’ never materialized, and the German relay team placed third behind United States and Italy, 1.4 seconds slower than the winning time.

Time and history have uncovered the truth. Avery Brundage wanted to spare Hitler the embarrassment of seeing Jewish runners cross the finish line first. Cromwell, also known for his antisemitism and racism, supported Brundage and also wanted his USC athletes in the race. The change in the members of the relay was not a result of lack of speed. It was a result of Brundage and Cromwell’s antisemitism. “What is absolutely clear is that the move was made to spare Hitler and Nazi Germany the embarrassment of having Jews standing on the podium,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in a July 4, 2020, article in the LA Times. “And if that isn’t antisemitism, I don’t know what is.”

Years later, Glickman reflected on his disappointment in The Fastest Kid on the Block. “Watching the final the following day, I see Metcalfe passing runners down the back stretch, he ran the second leg, and [I thought] that should be me out there. That should be me. That’s me out there.” Hopes for a second chance were lost with the onset of WWII. Upon his graduation from Syracuse, he became famous for his broadcasts of the New York Knicks basketball games and the football games of the New York Giants and the New York Jets. But he never forgot the 1936 Olympics or forgave the men responsible for blocking his and Stoller’s participation.

In 1998, the U.S. Olympic Committee awarded its first Gen. Douglas MacArthur medals to Stoller (posthumously) and Glickman. Citing the injustice done, USOC chairman William Hybl said, “We are not only atoning for this, but are [also] recognizing two great individuals.” 

In Judaism, there is an expression that reads “midah k’neged midah,” -measure for measure. One’s actions and the way they affect the world will eventually come to that person in ways one might not necessarily expect. Eighty-seven years after Berlin, the past has caught up with Cromwell with the removal of his name at the field he coached. Unfortunately, neither Stoller nor Glickman lived to see this happen. 

Published in the (Orlando) Heritage Florida Jewish News, February 10, 2023 and in (Capital Region, New York) The Jewish World, February 16, 2023

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