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Herbert Lazarus
May 07, 1984
When the movie Chariots of Fire won the Academy Award two years ago, my thoughts—although the film focused on the sprint races of the 1924 Olympics—went back to another episode of those games: my brother's quest for an Olympic boxing championship on the afternoon of July 16, 1924, at the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris.
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May 07, 1984

In 1924 An American Boxer Was Put To The Test Of His Olympic Pledge

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I was heartsick as I hurried after Joe and his handlers on their way to the dressing rooms. Why did the referee nullify the knockout?

Joe methodically stripped, showered and dressed. He was knotting his tie when Colonel Thompson entered the dressing room. I can still see the Colonel as he stood before us, straight as a ramrod. He spoke with the authority of his age and commanding position, with all the assurance of a man who enjoyed vast fortune and international fame. I still remember his exact words.

"I'm proud of you, Joe," he said. "I never saw finer boxing or a cleaner knockout. You deserved to win. This is a raw deal. We can protest the referee's ruling, Joe, and there's a good chance the International Olympic Committee will reverse it. But we must remember one thing." He shifted his gaze slowly from Joe to Spike Webb and then to me. "We're here to win—but that's not our one and only goal. We came here to represent our country. At this moment the eyes of the world are upon us, closely watching what we do. This is our chance to show that Americans are sportsmen, that the United States is dedicated to the real spirit of the Olympics. That means much more than just winning. If we really want to show the world that Americans are true sportsmen, we can't protest bad decisions. We must show that we are willing to accept all the breaks of the game, no matter what happens."

Webb spoke up in deadly earnest. "If we don't protest, Colonel, we'll be inviting more trouble. We can't just sit back and let our boys be victimized by a bunch of incompetent officials."

"You may be right, Spike," said Thompson, "but that's not the way I see it. If Joe wants to have our committee meet for an official decision, I'll gladly call them together. We have until midnight to file an official protest. Think it over, Joe. And remember, you're not just an individual competing for yourself. You're representing your country."

Joe was silent during this discussion. I could sense his tremendous effort to hold back tears of disappointment. I behaved like the 17-year-old high school sophomore I was by failing to speak at all. Despondency settled over us as Colonel Thompson left. Eddie Eagan was in the ring for his first bout in the heavyweight division, and everyone went out to watch him. Joe and I were alone.

"What should we do?" I asked. Joe was silent for a moment. Then he said, "He can't realize that winning the championship has been my life's ambition. What will happen if we let these foreign officials act as they please? No one on the team will feel that he can win on merit." That made sense to me.

We went back into the arena and sat there for a while, watching the bouts. Then we left for dinner with two alternates on the boxing team, Rags Madera, a football star from Penn State, and Lester Mayle, a Blackfoot Indian on leave from the U.S. Army. When we returned to the Velodrome, Fred Rubien, secretary of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Bill Cuddy, the boxing team manager, told us they had just chatted, through an interpreter, with Siegel. Siegel admitted he had been overcome by the suddenness of the knockout and had disqualified Joe because he thought the knockout punch had been thrown as the boxers were breaking from a clinch. Siegel was dejected by the belated realization that he had blundered.

Thrilled with this report, Joe and I hurried back to the dressing room. To our surprise, Andren and the manager of the Swedish boxing team were there. Andren was wearing tinted glasses. He clasped Joe's hand, smiled, said a few words in Swedish and indicated by gestures that his manager was his spokesman. The manager talked with an Oxford accent.

"We know as well as you do," he told Joe, "that you scored a clean knockout. No one has any idea why you were disqualified. The referee muttered something about a clinch, but we assured him there wasn't a single clinch during the bout. The Swedish team hopes that the United States will file a protest, because this decision will never meet with the approval of our people. We will gladly consent to the allowance of your protest."

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