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Berlin Olympics 1936 - An Olympian's Memoir

Posted on August 01 2021

Watching the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympics with the highs and lows of athletes’ joy of being there, triumphs, efforts, disappointments and pain, it evokes emotions of national pride and happiness when witnessing the achievements, the team spirit, sportsmanship and friendship shown by all Olympians.  The incredible back stories of athletes’ journeys to fulfil their dreams of being an Olympian and perhaps the thrill of victory. Their talent, dedication, determination, sacrifice and national pride of representing their nation is a joy to watch.

Today, the 1st of August 2021 marks the 85th anniversary of the start of the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which my mother Katharine Connal was an Olympian representing Great Britain.

This is her personal account (written in 1972 as a lead up to the Munich Olympic Games – same country, 36 years on) of her Olympic experience in Berlin 1936 as part of the British Olympic Team. 

She is one of our inspirations for Connal Kit (Kit, Kate or Katharine Connal).

 Katharine Connal 1936 Berlin Olympian
1936 Berlin Olympian: Katharine Connal (1912 -1983).


"The Prelude: London, July 1936

Up, up went the javelin into the light breeze, the tail vibrating with the force of my throw.

As I slowly relaxed, balancing precariously on one foot, eyes fixed on the flying javelin, I felt momentarily like Eros in Piccadilly Circus. Time seemed to stand still and there was a great silence. The point dipped, then, caught by the stronger breeze from above the high walls of the stadium, it lifted again, floating gently through the air before finally plunging downward to land quivering in the short green turf. 

I turned away. Joining the other competitors, I lay on my stomach, chewing a blade of grass to quieten the sick trembling of overstretched nerves. An international got up to take her turn.

"Good throw," she said.

Suddenly the loudspeakers blared. "In the javelin championship, Miss K. Connal, of Leeds University, has already broken the British record ..."

For a moment I lay stunned. Then the other competitors crowded around, congratulating me. In seconds I was surrounded by photographers three deep and was barely rid of them before it was my turn again.

It was the British Women's Amateur Athletic Association championships at White City, London. The date, Saturday, July 18, 1936.

Selection

The Xlth Olympic Games were due to open in Berlin on August 1, 1936. Tension ran high among those striving for selection, but I had come for fun and experience.

Having a stiff ankle after a messy break in a road accident, I had learned a modified throwing technique while still unable to run, and although holding the inter-university record, I had no experience of open competition. A fellow student, Grethe Whitehead, who earned selection for the 80-metre hurdles, had persuaded me to keep her company.

Still dazed, I was presented with my gold medal and the Challenge Cup. Then I was measured for an Olympic uniform.  "Just in case," the officials said.

I was selected as a guinea pig, for I was apparently the first British woman ever to be entered in an Olympic throwing event and the only one that year in the women's team of 11.

Australia's only female field athlete was high jumper Doris Carter, who, with three female swimmers, travelled with the men's team and arrived in Berlin on June 23. The Australians left Sydney on May 13, 1936, travelling aboard the SS Mongolia. A Team of 28 men and 4 women participating in 7 sports. Jack (John Patrick) Metcalfe being the only medal winner with a Bronze in the Men’s Triple Jump.

There is a great difference between those 1936 Olympics and the 1972 Munich Games – the same country, but 36 years and a world war apart. Training methods, facilities, and attitudes have changed enormously. Australian athletes will have two weeks to acclimatise themselves in Munich, and the teams were selected in March, allowing five month’s intensive training.

In comparison we were not only amateurs but amateurish. But I fancy we contributed as much to international understanding and good fellowship and had as much fun as any other Olympic team before or since. At the time as young athletes, not realising the sinister events that were about to unfold and that the Olympic stage was being used to present a charade by the Nazi party.

How did I train? You may well ask!

We had no club trainer and trained "by the light of Nature."

With an inter-university record to my credit, I had received a letter from the WAAA early in 1936 saying I was considered a "possible" for the Olympic team and asking if I needed help with training.

Flabbergasted, I hastily replied, "Yes, please"- and still await an answer.

 Katharine Connal 1936 British Champion Training
Olympian In Training - no coach - on grass track. 


So, three times a week I took some painstakingly collected photographs to the track. There, a groundsman, dead keen but ignorant of the event, would shiver in the cold Yorkshire winds, comparing my efforts with the photographs. During University holidays a friend cycled 30 miles to advise, and a masseur walked 20 miles to give me an occasional rubdown. That was all. 

Journey to Berlin

On Wednesday, July 29, 1936, Grethe and I started our journey, travelling all day from Leeds to London. Next morning the British Olympic team received a great send-off from Victoria (train) Station.

One of the hurdlers was slightly seasick on the cross-Channel boat, and we were jammed like sardines in the train to Brussels. There, to the consternation of our three women officials, the Belgian men's hockey team joined us.

At the German border we missed our connecting train. Instead of getting sleepers at 11pm, we sat face to face, five a side, till 2.45am, then in sleepers at last, we dozed fitfully for a few hours till awakened at 6am.

We steamed (steam train) into Berlin at 8am; the Friedrichstrasse Station was smothered in swastika flags and swarming with sightseers. There was also a military band. All to welcome the Belgians. We British girls were unexpected, so were shepherded aside to watch meekly.

After welcoming speeches, the Belgians dipped their standard while the band played the Belgian national anthem, followed by "Deutschland Uber Alles" and the Nazi song, the "Horst Wessel Lied." We were startled and awed as the great crowd stood throughout with right arms raised in the Hitler salute, the dining-car attendants sticking their arms through the train windows in patriotic fervour.

Special buses took us through streets planted with rows and islands of tall flagpoles flying the 53 flags of competing nations. Huge Nazi banners hung from every window, black swastika on a white circle on scarlet. The swastika or the Olympic rings decorated everything, even the railway locomotives.

At the Reichssportfeld, the complex of sports arenas and halls where we were to live, a locked gate separated our quarters from every unauthorised male. Our men were in the Olympic Village, 12 miles away. 

Team Luggage Missing

Breakfast was strange, but wonderful. Feeling better, we looked for our baggage. Missing - the lot. There we were, in our ordinary long skirts after 36 hours' travelling, with no uniforms or training gear, the Games to be opened next afternoon - and my event the day after!

What now? Our officials knew no German. One had a leg in plaster, so the others searched alone, while we sat apprehensively, or slept, or practised high kicks in the passages in our underwear.

Our brightest hope, 16-year-old high jumper Dorothy Odam (who, as Dorothy Odam-Tyler, was still competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics), could only kick waist-high and the rest of us were worse after the long, cramped journey.

Periodic reports came. Our baggage was in Berlin. In Aachen. Still in London.
At 10 p.m. it arrived except our manager's case containing her uniform and identity card.

Next morning, we attempted a little light training. Our manager, noticing my un-orthodox style, developed to balance my damaged leg, spent half an hour of the only training time left to me, trying to show me a new style for next day's competition, while I stood and watched, almost weeping with frustration and weariness.

I was then advised to rest, "as you are competing tomorrow" while the team manager wore my uniform at the opening ceremony. Among 100,000 strangers, in the stands, I watched the others marching and speculated on the morrow. 

1936 Berlin Olympics Opening
 
1936 Berlin Olympic Games opening ceremony as watched from the stands because Katharine was competing the next day and her uniform was being worn by the team manager. 

 

The Olympic Games

Sunday (Day 1) dawned bright and clear. From our team, I alone was to compete.

All morning we sat still again in the competitors' stand, watching the first men’s events - shot won by Germany, then the African American bombshell runner Jesse Owens.

At 2.45pm a team official led me to my execution. After changing, we descended into the marathon tunnel, closed off from the arena by a locked steel grille. The other competitors already wore numbers. I asked for mine, and the marshal told me in halting English they had been issued days earlier - to the men.

Looking down into my horrified face from his great height, he muttered something in German ending with “disqualifikiert” - and vanished.

Helplessly I sat as the minutes ticked by. On the stroke of three the loudspeaker summoned us.

The marshal returned and patted my shoulder. "Don't worry. You may compete. If your number arrives within two hours your throws will count."

We were marshalled into single file. First a placard saying “Speerwerfen”, then a bevy of enormous officials, marching smartly; then 14 nervous girls from ten nations – three Germans, three Americans, and one each from Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Austria, Poland, Finland, Japan, and Great Britain - trailed out behind them into the brilliant sunshine.

Dazzled, deafened by the cheers of that 100,000 crowd, we marched like the early Christian martyrs round the edge of the arena to our throwing area in front of Hitler's box.

 Competitor Line Up Javelin 1936 Berlin Olympics

On the Berlin stadium field. Katharine, the third from left, seated, tensely waits with her rivals.

One voice penetrated my numbed brain and raised a smile. "Go it, Britain!"

Allowed a few moments' warm-up time to measure our runs, I was appalled to find the run-up was on cinders, not on grass, as in England. Our officials should have known this, months earlier. The effect of the faster surface on a carefully practised run-up was disastrous. I was feet out.

Surveying my first attempt, a kindly judge remarked, "We will count your throws whether your number comes or not." After my last effort he said quietly, "You English can run, but we Germans should teach you to throw." How right he was. The men did no good, either.

Hitler arrived halfway through the event. Everything stopped while every German leapt up to give the Nazi salute, yelling "Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!" before bursting into the two anthems.

The Austrian girl, Bauma, wept bitterly because she was only fourth, and I attempted to comfort her. She shrugged away angrily. The judge sat down between us and, smiling at me, turned to her saying, “Weinen nicht. Grossbritanien weint nicht." (Don't cry. Great Britain isn't crying.)

Later, when not on duty, he often joined us, airing his English, talking of Hitler and how he had given Germany back her self-respect after the degradation following World War I. When we saw the line-up for the women's 100 metres semi-final, in which only three of the runners looked like women, he remarked, "In the next Olympic Games there must be two races in the women's 100 metres - one for the men and one for the women."
Requests for compulsory sex tests were made as a result of the 1936 Games.

There were a number of these men-women in international athletics, mostly holding records. There were several competing in England, but none had been selected for our Olympic team. Many young girl competitors wouldn't use the same change-rooms. Others doted on them. They had hairy legs, flat chests, shaved their beards, or had broken or husky voices. They were fine people and exceptionally sportsmanlike and very kind, but they had an enormous physical advantage over the rest of us. 

Excursions

Chaperoning was ridiculously unimaginative. Our ages ranged from 16 to 28, but we were never allowed out alone, nor were we even allowed to join other girls' teams, let alone talk to any of the men - if our officials were around.

One night our officials took us to a fireworks display at the Olympic Village - but "No women allowed within." So, we adjourned to a nearby hillside. So did a mixed busload of Canadians, but we were not even allowed to talk to them. One of our girls almost packed up and went home, but a showdown with our unhappy chaperons relieved the tension and gave us a little more freedom. In spite of everything we made many friendships, some of them lifelong.

Moonlight glamor

Dr. Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, staged a glittering moonlight garden party on Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island). There was the walk over the pontoon bridge, anchored by handsome soldiers, guided by blonde beauties in white; the fairy lights and music; fireworks and champagne; chatting with King Boris of Bulgaria, Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, Dr. Goebbels himself, and other exotic personalities - it was a fitting climax. 

Undercurrent

But all was not froth and bubble. Hints of Nazi harshness, anti-Semitism, and realisation of the nationalistic hysteria reached through.

There was the abject terror of our 17-year-old guide who accidentally guided us through a slum and implored our silence.

Once one of us was delayed in a shop. Our elderly guide wrung her hands, wailing "Please! One of you fetch her! I must not. It is a Jewish shop."

At the floodlit tattoo (officially nonmilitary) the massed bands suddenly fell silent, the lights dimmed, and an uncanny hush gripped the packed stadium. Then, through the marathon gate, they came marching. Hundreds of the Arbeitsdienst, the Labour Corps, in field grey and black boots, alternately carrying flaming torches and polished shovels.

In deathly silence they goose-stepped round the stadium to form a flaring frame for later events. The eerie crunch, crunch of their boots on the red cinders made our scalps tingle.

The Germans never walked. They marched, greeting one another with the Nazi salute and "Heil Hitler!" Introductions were embarrassing. We would be left open mouthed with hand outstretched, while the Germans raised their arm skyward, chanting "Heil Hitler!" What did one reply? "Hi"?

We stayed on in Germany for an international match at Wuppertal-Elberfeld, and we were mobbed and feted everywhere. At a final banquet in Berlin we danced till dawn. But the fear was here, too.

Seated on the grand staircase, I was talking with a Canadian theological student. He stopped, insisting on closing a window, then stopped again, watching something over my shoulder. A jackbooted Gestapo officer clanked upstairs and into the hall. The Canadian relaxed. "Read Monday's newspaper," he murmured. "Pastor Niemöller will denounce anti-Semitism from the pulpit on Sunday." He did.

 British Olympic Athletes 1936
Some of the British Olympic team visiting Wuppertal Elberfeld. Katharine at left.
Their German guide is in white.


How do those very amateurish experiences of 36 years ago (... now 85) compare with those of present-day Olympians? How does the high-pressure professionalism affect them? Only they can say. We received nothing except the fun, the thrills, the experience, and some small understanding of international friendship and sportsmanship.

Would two Olympic athletes today toss for the silver medal as did the Japanese pole-vaulters?

We did it the hard way. No managed nutrition, no professional coaching, no precision-built tracks, no padded landings, or starting blocks.
But we all did our utmost and enjoyed every minute.
We wept when our national anthem was played, as Olympic athletes do today.
We, too, rebelled against our management.
We made lifelong friendships, though some of us never met again.
We had our depths of despair and our peaks of success.

For me - no medals. My proudest moment was to hear the German judge say to the Austrian who wept because she didn't win, "Weinen nicht. Grossbritanien weint nicht."

Little did we know we would have to wait and survive another 12 years for the next Olympic Games to be held in London in 1948."

... Original story written by Katharine Connal in 1972.
... Original photographs from the family collection. 

 

Found recently on British Pathé YouTube Channel - 

WAAA Championships - Women’s Athletics at White City (London) 1939. 
Katharine Connal winner of Javelin.
WAAA British Champion 1936, 1938, 1939. 

 

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