By Thomas F. Schwartz
The Olympic games originated in ancient Greece as a religious and athletic festival, providing a forum of friendly competition among otherwise factious city-states. Revived in the late 1800s, the tradition of holding games every four years was well established by the 1920s. The United States hosted the 1932 winter games in Lake Placid, New York and the summer games in Los Angeles, California. A future president, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, opened the winter games. Herbert Hoover, invited to open the games in Los Angeles, originally accepted but later declined owing to the Bonus Army demands before Congress. Hoover’s Vice President Charles Curtis had the honor of opening the games. He was only the second President to decline opening the Olympic Games hosted by his country. Theodore Roosevelt set the precedent in 1904 when St. Louis Mayor David R. Francis chose to officiate the opening rather than deferring to Roosevelt.
The global depression affected the competition. Only seventeen nations competed in the 1932 winter games, down from twenty-five of the previous games. The summer games fared no better with thirty-seven nations competing, down from forty-six. Although absent from observing the games, Hoover followed their progress in news reports. When one hundred black representatives attended a National Planning Committee event at the White House on October 1, 1932, Hoover boasted, “recently we have seen a great achievement of two splendid youths, Tolan and Metcalfe, in world supremacy in the Olympiad.” Edward “Eddie” Tolan achieved gold medals in the 100 and 200-meter dash. Ralph Metcalfe obtained a silver in the 100-meter dash. Their achievements as young blacks became role models for later Olympic gold medalists. One was Jesse Owens who claimed, “When I was in high school, Eddie and Ralph were my idols.” Owens achieved a record-setting four-gold medals in the 1936 Berlin games. His athletic performance undermined the Nazi ideology of Arian racial superiority. Often asked if he regretted not being able to meet with Hitler, Owens replied, “I wasn’t invited to shake hand with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.” In other interviews Owens claimed “…it was Roosevelt who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”