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Jean Shiley was elected captain of the team over Babe, a third girl who had been nominated having dropped out because she was afraid that in a three-way election Babe might win.
Los Angeles, a mecca for those seeking overnight fame and instant immortality, was a city ready for Babe Didrikson. The first freeway had yet to be built, but the stucco sprawl that is L.A. today was already moving across vast acres and the tinsel religion of Hollywood was the prevailing influence. Had the Games of '32 been held in Antwerp, Amsterdam, even Paris, it is questionable whether Babe Didrikson would have caused the sensation she did. L.A. was perfect. It offered a marvelous Olympic milieu, a dazzling mixture of movie stars and exotic jocks. The Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, was outlawed for professionalism from these Games, but he stayed on, glowering, in hopes the ruling might be reversed. Japanese swimmers were popular with the press ("merry little brown fellows") and the men won 11 medals. One sportswriter explained their success with succinct expertise: "Having shorter legs than most swimmers, the Japanese need not put their head down so far for balance as do the longer-limbed Americans. This enables them to swim higher in the water, which promotes far more speed." The Japanese women did not win any races, but one reporter gushed: "They have shown such admirable sportsmanship that they have won the hearts of thousands of spectators. And now comes their reward. Each is going to have her shiny, black, straight hair permanently waved by a Southern California beauty expert."
The Los Angeles papers covered the Olympics as they covered Hollywood, spinning out reams of gossipy gossamer stuff. They revealed that the Olympic "starlets" who stayed in the Chapman Park Hotel were doing their laundry in their rooms, wearing hotel soap bars "to fine slithers in a period of nothing flat." Olympic women were constantly questioned about "beauty diets" and when Babe Didrikson was asked about hers she replied, "I eat anything I want—except very greasy foods and gravy. I pass the gravy. That's just hot grease anyway, with some flour or water in it."
The Los Angeles Olympics were the first spectacular Games. The Coliseum had been especially enlarged and now had "30 miles of seats." These were the first Games to make money—more than a million dollars. The first Olympic Village sprouted in Los Angeles; it was a community of portable bungalows that Damon Runyon described as "a glorious feast to the eye with the California sun sparkling on the flowers and on the wee pink and white houses." He reported that the Village (which was for male athletes only) was full of naked young men sprawling "here and there on the turf, all of them tanned the color of an old saddle."
Movie stars—"luminaries"—were everywhere. Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, the Marx Brothers, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Joe E. Brown, Conrad Nagel, Cary Grant, Johnny Weissmuller, the Barrymores, Bing Crosby, Buster Keaton, Tallulah Bankhead, Spanky McFarland and the entire Our Gang (including the dog with the monocle painted around one eye). Anyone who was anyone turned up at the Games.
Even in this sea of dross and glamour, Babe Didrikson stood out. She became "Whatta-Gal" Didrikson, The Texas Tornado, The Terrific Tomboy. Headlines were full of her name: BABE BREAKS RECORDS EASIER THAN DISHES.
She was outrageously boastful, and she was quoted endlessly: "I came out to beat everybody in sight and that's just what I'm going to do. Sure, I can do anything." Reporters gobbled up every grandiose word of it. She had a folksy, hick-town common touch, not unlike that of Will Rogers. Hers was a gap-toothed country wit that tended to deflate pretentious eggheads and city slickers. This was the worst of the Depression and millions of flat-broke Americans were convinced they had been victimized by Wall Street sharks and Washington know-it-alls. Babe's crude boasts had the echo of cracker-barrel retaliation against the Establishment and they produced guffaws through the Tobacco Roads, Hoovervilles, and Gopher Prairies of the nation. Babe rarely failed to capitalize on her rube image, saying things like: "Folks say that I go about winning these athletic games because I have the co-operation thing that has to do with eye, mind and muscle. That is sure a powerful lot of language to use about a girl from Texas, but maybe they are right about it. All I know is that I can run and I jump and I can toss things and when they fire a gun or tell me to get busy I just say to myself, 'Well, kid, here's where you've got to win another.' "
She was producing her own myth in Los Angeles. The remarkable thing about Babe was that, like Ali, her body was able to accomplish the fantastic tasks her big mouth set for it. She put incredible pressure on herself by bragging. She was a wing walker, a daredevil who risked humiliation every time she went into an event in that Olympics. Her own teammates wanted her to be beaten, as the just reward for her bullying.
That never happened because Babe Didrikson was just about as lucky as she was talented. She won the javelin with a herculean throw on her first attempt, flinging it like "a catcher's peg to second base" on a trajectory that rose no more than 12 feet above the ground. The javelin flew 143'4". That broke Babe's own world record by more than 11 feet. When bemused reporters asked her why she was throwing the javelin like that, she said, "No, I haven't got a new technique. My hand slipped when I picked up the pole. It slid along about six inches, and then I got a good grip again. And then I threw and it just went."
Luck? Skill? Both. Next came the 80-meter hurdles. Babe's chief competitor was Evelyne Hall. On the train Babe had told Evelyne that it was a simple matter of psyching the judges at the end of a race: "They're stupid. All you have to do to win if it's close is throw up your arm just before the finish and they think you're first." Babe and Evelyne won their heats in world-record times. In the finals they were to race side by side. Evelyne Hall led by a stride over the first couple of hurdles, but Babe kept coming, her form more powerful than graceful. She pulled even over the last two hurdles and the women hit the finish line together. Babe threw up her arm. Both were timed in 11.7 seconds, another world record. Evelyne said she had a welt on her neck for days from hitting the tape first. The judges huddled in confusion. Evelyne recalls: "After we crossed the line, Babe yelled to me, 'Well, I won again.' I turned and saw some athletes in the crowd cheering me, holding up one linger to show me I was first. I shook my head and held up two fingers. Later I learned that at that very moment a couple of judges were looking at me. It's possible they made their judgment from this gesture of mine. I really don't know. Babe had had so much publicity, it was hard to rule against her. The judges were foreign and to them it didn't matter that much; we were both Americans."