L.A. Games a success even with Depression Didrikson steals show in '32 with two golds

Olympiads in review

April 14, 1996|By Bob Herzog | Bob Herzog,NEWSDAY

As part of the countdown to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a chronological look at past Olympiads is appearing each Sunday.

The United States and much of the world was in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, but there was a great rejoicing in Los Angeles, site of the Summer Olympics.

Thanks to a Southern California real estate magnate, William May Garland, enough money was raised through business and government grants to attract more than 1,400 athletes from 37 nations, despite the world's economic crisis. Garland built the first Olympic Village in the hills south of Los Angeles, creating a camaraderie among athletes from all countries that hadn't always been evident in previous Olympiads.

Outside the village, the athletes enjoyed themselves as well. An exceptionally fast track made of crushed peat resulted in seven world records for the men and another three among the women. American sprinter Eddie Tolan was the only male athlete to win two gold medals, capturing the 100 and 200. He benefited in the latter event from another innovation -- the first use of the photo finish and electronic timing in track.

The track star of the Games was an American typist named Mildred "Babe" Didrikson who had won five events at the Olympic trials, but by the rules of that era, was only permitted to compete in three events in the actual Olympics. "I could have won a medal in five events if they'd let me," she said. In L.A., she won the 80-meter hurdles and javelin, and might've had a third gold medal in the high jump but for another quirky ruling. Her western roll style was deemed illegal and she settled for a silver.

While 1932 was her only Olympics, it was far from the end of her athletic career. Didrikson went on to became one of the greatest women's golfers of all time, winning the U.S. Open three times after World War II. In 1950, the Associated Press voted her the greatest female athlete of the first half century.

There was one incident that nearly spoiled the friendly atmosphere. In the 5,000-meter event, American Ralph Hill challenged favored Lauri Lehtinen of Finland. Every time Hill made a move, Lehtinen cut him off. The runners crossed the finish line with the same time, but the Finn was declared the winner. The hometown crowd jeered loudly and there were some uneasy moments for officials when the USOC refused to enter a protest. Order was restored when announcer Bill Henry pointedly told the crowd, "Remember, please, these people are our guests."

The only American gold medalist in swimming was Clarence "Buster" Crabbe, a 24-year-old hunk of a law student from USC. In the 400-meter freestyle, he dueled French world record-holder Jean Taris. As 10,000 partisan fans cheered, Crabbe caught and passed Taris, winning by one-tenth of a second.

"That one-tenth of a second changed my life," Crabbe reflected later. The gold medal led to a movie contract from Paramount, even though Crabbe had never acted before. He later was

known for playing fantasy movie heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

1932 Games

Site: Los Angeles

Dates: July 30-Aug. 14

Men: 1,281

Women: 127

Nations: 37

Medals leaders:

.................... G ..... S ...... B ....... T

United States ...... 41 .... 32 ..... 31 ...... 104

Italy .............. 12 .... 12 ..... 12 ...... 36

France ............. 10 .... 5 ...... 4 ....... 19

Sweden ............. 9 ..... 5 ...... 9 ....... 23

Japan .............. 7 ..... 7 ...... 4 ....... 18

Hungary ............ 6 ..... 4 ...... 5 ....... 15

Finland ............ 5 ..... 8 ...... 12 ...... 25

Germany ............ 4 ..... 12 ..... 5 ....... 21

England ............ 4 ..... 7 ...... 5 ....... 16

Austria ............ 3 ..... 1 ...... 1 ....... 5

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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