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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.
In sharp contrast to the U.S. boxing teams of recent years, all our boxers in those Olympics were white, except for a single American Indian. Many were collegians. My brother, Joe Lazarus, was a 20-year-old Cornell senior. His slight build—he weighed 116 pounds—and studious appearance made it hard to believe he was a fighter. Yet his speed, punching power and boxing skills were so outstanding that within a year he would be the No. 2 contender for the world professional bantamweight championship. This rating created a furor in the sports columns, because Joe had never boxed professionally.
Our Olympic team had won nine straight matches when Joe stepped into the ring to fight Oscar Andren of Sweden, the European amateur bantamweight champion. From the venerable president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Colonel Robert M. Thompson, on down, the Americans in Paris were excited at the prospect of keeping our victory string unbroken.
Colonel Thompson was a most unusual man. His erect carriage, snow-white mustache, bushy black brows and piercing blue eyes left an indelible impression. He was an immensely wealthy copper magnate and was as generous with his time as with his money. He had accompanied the U.S. team to France on the S. S. America but had also had his palatial yacht brought over with a view to post-Games cruising. To Paris he brought his limousine and his personal servants. Although Thompson openly enjoyed all the luxuries his wealth afforded him, he also cherished friendships with people from all walks of life. By sitting with me near Joe's corner, Thompson was making good on his promise, made to Joe while aboard ship, that he would watch him in competition.
Under the prevailing Olympic rules, the referee didn't enter the ring but functioned from a seat at ringside. For Joe's bout, it was the turn of Maurice Siegel, a Frenchman, to serve as referee.
As the bout began, Joe and Andren boxed carefully, looking for openings. Andren proved to be a fairly scientific boxer. Joe probed his defenses with lightning jabs and effectively parried his counterpunches. The action was so fast and furious that the round ended to a burst of applause.
I was sure that Joe had outscored Andren and would have no trouble eventually outpointing him. But as Joe sat down in his corner, I heard coach Spike Webb shout to him, "It's too close for comfort, Joe! We can't win another decision on points. You'll have to knock out this Swede to win." Joe nodded to show that he understood.
The boys rushed into action at the start of Round 2. Joe scored with two snappy jabs to the head and a left hook to the body. He backed Andren into a neutral corner, where they exchanged light jabs. Then Joe stepped back, feinted a left to the body and crossed a short right that landed explosively on Andren's jaw. Andren lurched forward and fell face first to the canvas. His body twitched, then was motionless. The crowd rose to its feet, yelling wildly at the suddenness of the knockout. A French band struck up the opening bars of The Star-Spangled Banner. The American flag began to rise on a pole in the corner of the arena.
Amid the hubbub, only Joe seemed to see the referee pounding on the canvas and hear him shouting "Disqualifi�!" Joe walked over to the ropes and made a questioning gesture.
A stunned silence fell over the arena. Andren's seconds had carried him to his corner and were reviving him. Moments passed. Then the American flag came down, the band began to play the Swedish national anthem. The Swedish flag slowly ascended. There was pandemonium. The ring was strewn with hats, paper and other debris as evidence of the crowd's displeasure. Then, small groups began to debate what they had just seen.