Mr Smith’s Olympics


The Atlantic magazine of May 1936 published the journal of American ski racer Robert Livermore who travelled to the Alps for the Winter Olympics at Garmisch, with an excursion to Kitzbühel for the Hahnenkamm (“much better gelaende”) between practice runs.  The account of the opening ceremony with Herr Hitler (“Mr Smith”) is particularly interesting, as a corrective to the commonly held assumption that the whole thing was a swaggering militaristic Nazi propaganda parade.   The summer Games in Berlin later the same year may have been like that, but Garmisch was low key.  Anti-semitic posters had been taken down in advance.

‘Mr. Smith’ stood in a balcony, rather sloppily dressed in an old trench coat over the official brown shirt. He made no gestures and said, in opening the games, simply, ‘I hereby declare the Fourth Olympic Winter Games open.’ Followed the taking of the Olympic oath by the German skier Will Bogner.

Mr Smith in Garmisch

Mr Smith in Garmisch

The Austrians got the biggest cheer. The Swiss, Sonja Henie, a ten-year-old girl Japanese skater, the Italians, and Negroponte, the lone Greek skier, provoked the most interest. The U. S. A. was criticized for not saluting ‘Mr. Smith’ as it filed past. The explanation is this. The Olympic salute and the Nazi salute are almost identical. The other nations, with the exception of the United States and Poland, gave the Olympic salute; I think Austria really gave a Nazi salute, and Italy the Fascist. The American Committee was afraid of giving anything that looked like a Nazi salute; so we were told to ‘eyes right’ on command and hold it while passing the stands. As it turned out, we were not given enough practice in this gesture, and I believe we were all pretty sloppy in our untutored military bearing. The result was that the stands thought we were doing nothing.

I was impressed by the snappy Italian team, in well-cut military uniforms (girls and all), the non-military effect of the German team, although dressed in military uniform, the very efficient handling of 100,000 people by the police (and their politeness) … 

The German skier Christl Cranz at Garmisch

The German skier Christl Cranz won gold in the combination at Garmisch, despite crashing in the downhill

Livermore’s account of the Kitzbühel race gives a vivid picture of the hazardous and fairly chaotic nature of early downhill racing.

January 25.—Race at 10:45. Up at the Hahnenkamm I found that I was to start No. 1 and Birger Ruud No. 2! He passed me about halfway down the course, when I fell for the nth time!

I was in a blue funk all the way- and skied perfectly miserably. I picked up courage however, after he passed me and trailed after him, but in the last field I misjudged the wood path and fell down below it into the trees, losing a minute in climbing back out again. At the finish I found that Birger had fallen up above, hurting himself, and that I had passed him only to have him pass me again when I fell below the path! Anyway, the whole race was a nightmare of rotten skiing on my part. I took many needless falls and let the racing feeling get me too much. Alex and Tony had the same thing happen to them and had bad luck in falling in bad places. Durrance finished ninth in spite of a costly fall on the ‘Steilhang.’

The dominant ski jumper of his day, the Norwegian Birger Ruud was also an accomplished Alpine skier.  He won the downhill race at Garmisch, but the event was a combination of downhill and slalom and gold went to local skier Franz Pfnur, who went on to become an SS officer.  The British racer James Riddell crashed into a tree in the downhill, rebounded into a river and injured his back.

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