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Dreams and nightmares

May 23, 2011

This is really lovely. The story of Mary Lou Petty-Skok – a member of the American swimming team for the 1936 Olympics. She speaks powerfully about the universal power of sport, at a time when race and nationality cast far greater divides between people than they do today and yet at the same time, she conveys a believable sense of the awe people felt in the presence of Hitler. The difference between the dream of the Olympics and the nightmare of Nazi Germany is clear-cut now, but for ordinary people and competing athletes at the time, it might not have been so obvious.

I was particularly interested in the story of how the American team (including Jesse Owens) traveled to Europe in the hold of boat, playing skittles with oranges and bottles and playing around-the-world on a table tennis table.

On the other, they were locked on a lower deck, just like passengers in the movie “Titanic.” When the great actress Helen Hayes invited some of the swimmers to dinner in first class, they weren’t allowed to go. And almost everyone got seasick.

The swimming pool was a rectangular metal tank in steerage; when the ship rolled, swimmers would slam against the side. And after a few days, the water was so fetid no one could use it in any event.

There was one table-tennis table and one volleyball net for more than 300 Olympic athletes. Ten would play table tennis at a time, taking turns with the paddles. “We bowled with an orange and Coke bottles. That’s Americans for you.’

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