InterMat Rewind: 1932 Olympics

Mark Palmer

8/11/2008
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

For wrestlers and wrestling fans, it's the ultimate competition, bringing together the best athletes from all over the world … but only once every four years.

It's the Summer Olympics, this year being hosted in Beijing, China.

Seventy-six years ago, the 1932 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles from July 30 through August 14 … and, for the U.S. wrestling team, it was a blockbuster event with a happy Hollywood ending.

Challenging times

Like today, times were tough three-quarters of a century ago. In 1932, the world was in the grips of the Great Depression, a time of great economic hardship, high levels of unemployment, bank and corporate failures, and individuals and families struggling to keep a roof over their heads and bread on the table.

The Depression affected even an event as significant as the Olympics. Los Angeles was the only city to place a bid to host the Games of the X Olympiad. (The city had put in a bid for the 1928 Olympics, losing to Amsterdam.) Many athletes and nations were unable to afford the trip to California. Fewer than half as many athletes competed at the Los Angeles Olympics as had in 1928.

One of the most heartbreaking stories about poverty and sacrifice involved the Olympic athletes from Brazil. Severely impacted by the Depression, the only way Brazil could afford to send its athletes to Los Angeles was to put them on a barge loaded with 25 tons of coffee, with the expectation that profits from selling the coffee at ports along the way would fund the $1 per person head tax to enter the U.S., and the $2 per athlete entry fee for the Olympics. Sadly, they were able to sell only $24 worth of coffee by the time they reached California. The athletes' last hope: the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco, which sent a courier to Los Angeles with a check for $45 U.S. However, in the time the courier was traveling south from San Francisco, Brazil's currency devalued … and the check was worth only $17 when it arrived in Los Angeles. To add insult to injury -- the check bounced.

Despite these hardships, approximately 1,400 athletes from thirty-seven nations competed at the 1932 Olympics. By comparison, just over 3,200 athletes from 46 nations participated in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics … and, approximately 10,500 athletes from 205 nations were expected for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

World premieres

The 1932 Los Angeles Olympics were notable for a number of firsts. It was the first to feature the now-familiar three-step victory podium. In addition, the 1932 Games were the first where the national anthem of the gold medal winner's country was played. The Games of the X Olympiad were the first to welcome athletes from Colombia and the Republic of China. What's more, it was also the first modern Olympics to last 16 days. (To this day, modern Olympiads last 15-18 days.)

Despite the Great Depression, the 1932 Olympics was a showcase for some then-new technology that we now take for granted today. It was the first Summer Games to feature the precision of electronic timing. What's more, it was the first time that photo-finish technology was used to determine winners of incredibly close races.

On a not-so-positive note, the 1932 Los Angeles Games were the first in which the elected head of the host country's government did not attend. U.S. President Herbert Hoover did not make an appearance at the Opening Ceremonies, nor at any of the specific sporting events.

While the athletes and fans may have been disappointed that President Hoover chose not to come to the Olympics, Hollywood's brightest stars made appearances at sporting events. Among the celebrities who took their seats at various venues were movie superstars such as Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper and Douglas Fairbanks, along with beloved humorist Will Rogers, and early 1900s multiple sports star Jim Thorpe.

A number of star athletes participating at the 1932 Olympics experienced fame beyond these games: Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, who won two gold medals in javelin, and in hurdles, and was considered by many to be the greatest woman athlete of the 20th century … Clarence "Buster" Crabbe, who won the gold medal in 400 meter freestyle swimming, and went on to play Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in movies… and Takeichi Nishi, gold medal winner in equestrian show jumping from Japan, whose involvement in World War II was featured in the Clint Eastwood film "Letters from Iwo Jima."

The first Olympic Village

One of the most enduring legacies of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics was that it was the first to feature an Olympic Village, a special community to house the 1,200 male athletes. (The 126 female athletes stayed at the Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.)

The idea for the Olympic Village sprang from economic hard times brought on by the Great Depression. To increase participation among the athletes of the world, the Los Angeles Olympic Committee (LAOC) agreed to provide food, housing, and local transportation to each athlete for $2 a day. To make this offer economically feasible for the LAOC, it made sense to house the athletes together.

Here's how Jack VanBebber, a three-time NCAA champ from Oklahoma State University, described the Olympic Village in his memoir, "A Distant Flame":

Representatives of the Los Angeles Olympic Committee met and escorted us to the Olympic Village, located in the Baldwin Hills, just outside the municipal boundary of Los Angeles. As we entered the Village, we saw a picturesque place that covered 250 acres of rolling terrain.

The escorts took us directly to the administration building where a committee certified and gave each of us our credentials. Next came the assignments to one of the 500 cottages in the Village. Each cottage had two double rooms with a private entrance for each room. A closet, washstand and cold-water shower separated the rooms.

The Village residents, all males, included the employees, administrators, coaches and competitors. As far as possible, the administrators arranged each national group together. Each nationality had a separate dining room and a chef who served food the athletes of that nationality were accustomed to eating.

An Olympic official pointed out that the communal arrangement of the Village provided all necessary accommodations. For recreation, a main hall was provided. There one could meet and mingle with international rivals. For contestants' transportation to and from the different events, an Olympic bus was available.

In the Village the atmosphere was clean, the weather pleasant, and the overall setting rated as a perfect place for training, as well as providing an inspiring view of Los Angeles, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sierra Madre mountain range.


Jack VanBebber
In his memoir, Jack VanBebber talks about doing roadwork on the streets of the Olympic Village, working out on wrestling mats spread out on the grass outside the Village's athletic building … though, apparently, the U.S. wrestling team conducted some of its workouts at the Fremont High School gym.

It wasn't all roadwork and workouts for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. In "A Distant Flame", Jack VanBebber talks about the team being taken on a tour of Hollywood, where they met Will Rogers, who posed for a photo with the team. Later that day, they also had a chance to talk with Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics star. (VanBebber, Rogers and Thorpe were all Oklahoma natives.)

It's showtime!

The Opening Ceremonies were held on Saturday, July 30, 1932 at what was then called Olympic Stadium, but is now known as Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Built in the early 1920s as a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I, the facility was also the site of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and track and field events for the 1984 Olympics, and is still the home for the University of Southern California Trojans football team.

For the Parade of Nations during the Opening Ceremonies, each of the U.S. wrestlers -- and the other American male athletes -- wore a white pullover sweater with the blue American Olympic emblem, white shirt with blue tie, white slacks, white sport shoes … all topped off with a blue beret. As is custom to this day, the first country in the Parade of Nations was Greece (site of the ancient Olympics); the other nations followed, arranged in alphabetical order, with the athletes of the host nation -- the United States -- being last.

Normally the leader of the host country welcomed the athletes to the Olympics during the Opening Ceremonies. President Herbert Hoover sent Vice-President Charles Curtis to perform that function.

Before taking to the mat …

Both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling events were held at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, an arena built in the 1920s. At the time, it was the largest indoor arena in the U.S., seating 15,300. In addition to being the wrestling venue, the Auditorium also hosted boxing and weightlifting for the 1932 Olympics.

1932 Olympic Team (Photo/A Distant Flame)
Freestyle wrestling was scheduled for August 1-3, 1932; Greco-Roman competition was held August 4-7. There were a total of fourteen wrestling events -- seven weight classes in each discipline. All the wrestlers were men; women's wrestling first made its appearance at the 2004 Athens Olympics. At the 1932 Games, the United States only competed in freestyle competition.

A pre-Olympics newspaper article by sportswriter Chuck Weinstock carried the headline: "Mat Sport to Play Big Part in Olympics." The article said, "The original sport of the ancient Greeks is still a prime favorite of the young manhood today… No less than twenty nations of out a total of forty-seven have entered teams in the wrestling events… In the number of countries entered, wrestling ranks in second place right behind track and field …"

Mat medal tally

At the end of the wrestling competition, Sweden claimed the most medals, with a total of ten: 6 gold, 1 silver, and 3 bronze. Second was Finland, with eight wrestling medals: 2 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze. The United States was third in mat medals, with a total of five: 3 gold, 2 silver, and no bronze … all in freestyle competition. Fourth place in the medal count was Germany, with four medals: 1 gold, 2 silver, and 1 bronze … all in Greco-Roman competition

For the U.S., the medal count for wrestling surpassed the two (one gold, one silver) won at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics … and tied the tallies for the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, with five wrestling medals at each of those Summer Games.

Meet the mat medalists from USA … and their coach

By any measure, the U.S. wrestling team had an incredibly successful performance at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. All seven U.S. wrestlers placed fourth or higher in freestyle competition … with five earning medals.

1932 Olympics: Wrestling Medal-Winners

Freestyle

Bantamweight (56 kg)
Gold: Bobby Pearce, USA
Silver: Odon Zombori, Hungary
Bronze: Aatos Jaskari, Finland

Featherweight (61 kg)
Gold: Hermanni Pihlajamaki, Finland
Silver: Edgar Nemir, USA
Bronze: Einar Karlsson, Sweden

Lightweight (66 kg)
Gold: Charles Pacome, France
Silver: Karoly Karpati, Hungary
Bronze: Gustaf Karen, Sweden

Welterweight (72 kg)
Gold: Jack VanBebber, USA
Silver: Daniel MacDonald, Canada
Bronze: Eino Leino, Finland

Middleweight (79 kg)
Gold: Ivar Johansson, Sweden
Silver: Kyosti Luukko, Finland
Bronze, Jozsef Tunyogi, Hungary

Light Heavyweight (87 kg)
Gold: Peter Mehringer, USA
Silver: Thure Sjostedt, Sweden
Bronze: Eddie Scarf, Australia

Heavyweight (over 87 kg)
Gold: Johan Richthoff, Sweden
Silver: John (Jack) Riley, USA
Bronze: Nikolaus Hirschl, Austria

Greco-Roman

Bantamweight (56 kg)
Gold: Jakob Brendel, Germany
Silver: Marcello Nizzola, Italy
Bronze: Louis Francois, France

Featherweight (61 kg)
Gold: Giovanni Gozzi, Italy
Silver: Wolfgang Ehrl, Germany
Bronze: Lauri Koskela, Finland

Lightweight (66 kg)
Gold: Eric Malmberg, Sweden
Silver: Abraham Kruland, Denmark
Bronze: Eduard Sperling, Germany

Welterweight (72 kg)
Gold: Ivar Johansson, Sweden
Silver: Vaino Kajander, Finland
Bronze: Ercole Gallegati, Italy

Middleweight (79 kg)
Gold: Vaino Kokkinen, Finland
Silver: Jean Foldeak, Germany
Bronze: Axel Cadier, Sweden

Light Heavyweight (87 kg)
Gold: Rudolf Svensson, Sweden
Silver: Onni Pellinen, Finland
Bronze: Mario Gruppioni, Italy

Heavyweight (over 87 kg)
Gold: Carl Westergren, Sweden
Silver: Josef Urban, Czechoslovakia
Bronze: Nikolaus Hirschl, Austria
Bobby Pearce, gold medal at 56 kg/123 lb freestyle: Robert E. Pearce was born in Wyconda, Missouri but moved to Oklahoma as a child. He wrestled at Cushing High, where he was a three-time Oklahoma state champ … and, in fact, was undefeated in three seasons. As a senior in high school, he tried out for the 1928 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, making as far as the semifinals of the Olympic Trials.

After graduating from high school, Bobby Pearce went to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, where he wrestled for head coach Ed Gallagher (Click HERE to read about Coach Gallagher) As a Cowboy, Pearce compiled a 19-3-1 record, winning the 126 lb title at the 1931 NCAAs. One year later, he won the freestyle gold medal as a bantamweight at the 1932 Olympics.

After college and the Olympics, Pearce was a professional wrestler for five years … then had a long career as a high school and college wrestling coach. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater in 1981. Pearce passed away in 1996.

Edgar Nemir, silver medal at 61 kg/134.5 lb freestyle: Edgar Nemir, a native of Kentucky, wrestled at the University of California-Berkeley. As team captain, he led the Bears to undefeated seasons in 1929 and 1930. At the 1932 Olympics, Nemir earned a silver medal in featherweight freestyle competition … with victories over wrestlers from Denmark, Canada and Great Britian; his only loss was to gold medalist Hermanni Pihlajamaki of Finland. After the Olympics, Nemir served as boxing coach at Cal from 1934 to 1969. He was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame in 1988.

Jack VanBebber, gold medal at 72 kg/158 lb freestyle: Jack Francis VanBebber was born on a farm outside Perry, Oklahoma. He suffered a near-fatal accident at age seven, but, in high school, became a two-time Oklahoma state wrestling champ.

Jack VanBebber came to Oklahoma State in 1927, where he joined Bobby Pearce on the Cowboy wrestling team. In his three years on the mat, VanBebber built a perfect 22-0 record… winning three straight NCAA titles in 1929-1931. In 1932, he capped off his mat career by winning the gold medal in welterweight freestyle competition at the Los Angeles Games, defeating a three-time Olympic medalist in the finals.

Immediately after the Olympics, Jack VanBebber coached wrestling and dabbled in professional wrestling for a couple years … then settled down, got married, and had a long career with Phillips Petroleum. He was a member of the initial class inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1976. A decade later, VanBebber passed away. (To read more about VanBebber, click HERE.)

Pete Mehringer, gold medal at 87 kg/192 lbs freestyle: Born in Jetmore, Kansas, Peter Joseph Mehringer is considered to be among the greatest athletes born in the Sunflower State. Legend has it that he learned to wrestle from the famous Farmer Burns' mail order instruction course. Although Kinsley High School did not have wrestling team, Mehringer competed in two Kansas state championships on his own … and won both.

Pete Mehringer
At the University of Kansas, Mehringer was a two-sport star. On the mat, he was a three-time Missouri Valley Conference heavyweight champ … and, at the 1932 NCAAs, lost to Olympic teammate Jack Riley in the heavyweight title match (but earned All-American mat honors). In addition to wrestling, Mehringer was a two-time All-Conference and All-American defensive tackle for the Jayhawks.

In the summer of 1932, Pete Mehringer became the first University of Kansas student to win an Olympic gold medal, taking the ultimate prize in light-heavyweight freestyle competition.

After that golden summer, Mehringer returned to KU, where he coached wrestling for a while … but did not graduate because of financial hardships. He played pro football for thirteen seasons in Chicago and Los Angeles, where he also did some professional wrestling, and worked as a Hollywood stuntman. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1983. Mehringer died in 1987.

Jack Riley, silver medal at over 87 kg in freestyle: John Horn Riley was born in Wilmette, Illinois in 1910. He attended New Trier High School in suburban Chicago, then completed his prep education at St. John's Military Academy before entering Northwestern University in 1928.

While at Northwestern, Jack Riley was a star athlete. On the football team, he earned All-American honors at tackle. In his third year of college, Riley was persuaded to take up wrestling; he soon became the Wildcats' starter at heavyweight. In his junior and senior years, Riley was a two-time Big Ten heavyweight finalist, winning the conference title in 1931 … and a two-time NCAA heavyweight champ in 1931 and 1932. A few months later, he earned a silver medal in heavyweight freestyle competition at the 1932 Olympics.

After college and the Olympics, Jack Riley had a rich and varied career that included professional wrestling for two years, pro football for the Boston Redskins, service in the United States Marine Corps in World War II, and nearly a decade as head wrestling coach at Northwestern. In the late 1950s, Riley embarked on a successful business career.
He passed away in 1993.

Hugo Otopalik
Coach Otopalik: Coaching the U.S. Olympic wrestlers was Hugo Otopalik, highly respected head coach at Iowa State. Otopalik wrestled for the University of Nebraska under Dr. Raymond Clapp, winning the 175-pound Western Conference title in 1916 and 1917. (He also played football for the Cornhuskers.) In 1920, he came to Iowa State. Three years later, when Cyclone head coach Charlie Mayser resigned, Otopalik agreed to "handle" the wrestling program until a replacement could be found. He ended up coaching the Cyclones for 29 seasons, amassing a 159-66-5 dual-meet record.

Otopalik's coaching career went far beyond Ames, Iowa. In addition to coaching the U.S. wrestling team at the 1932 Olympics, he hosted the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 1948 and 1952, and served as a vice-president of FILA. Otopalik fell ill after the 1953 NCAAs, and died a few months later.

"We Love L.A.!"

The U.S. wrestling team's medal success at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics helped to put the host country in the lead in terms of total medals won. Overall, U.S. athletes won 41 gold medals, 32 silver, and 30 bronze medals. In second place in the medal tally was Italy, with 12 gold, 12 silver, and 12 bronze medals. France placed third, with 10 gold, 5 silver and 4 bronze medals. Sweden claimed fourth, with 9 gold, 5 silver, and 9 bronze medals.

The 1932 Los Angeles Olympics were considered a success in many ways … even financially. Newspapers of the era reported that Games organizers made a profit of $1,000,000 … a surprise, given the rugged economic conditions of the era.

Decades later, the International Olympic Committee decided it was time for The L.A. Olympics: The Sequel. In 1984, Los Angeles again hosted the Summer Olympics, using some of the same venues as in 1932, including the Memorial Coliseum for Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as well as track and field events.

For the U.S. wrestling team, the 1984 Olympics were an even bigger Hollywood blockbuster than the 1932 edition. Out of a total of twenty events (ten each in freestyle and Greco-Roman), American wrestlers claimed nine gold medals, three silver medals and one bronze medal, for a total of thirteen medals. But, that's another story…

Special thanks to Kristie Stubbs, wrestling writer for Amateur Wrestling News and Wrestling USA magazines, for conducting detailed research for this article.

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