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Summer Olympics: The Spirit of America

Summer Olympics: The Spirit of America

The Unbroken Louis Zamperini

One of the great stories of the 1936 Olympics was about a teenager who just turned 19, not unlike Ginny Thrasher.  Louis Zamperini started running in high school to stay out of trouble. What he discovered was that he had exceptional running skills and starting with his first cross country race, and all the rest of his races for the next three years in high school, he was undefeated. In 1934 he set a world high school record for running the mile at 4:21.2.  In 1936 Zamperini was encouraged to try out for the Olympic Team. In the Olympic Trials, he chose to run the 5000 Meter Race because the 1500 Meter Race was stacked with excellent runners who had far more experience than he did. During the 5000 Meter Trials, it was the 19-year-old teenager who sprinted to the finish line, winding up in a dead heat for first with the American record holder Don Lash.

So at 19, Zamperini was and still is the youngest American qualifier for the 5000 Meter Race. Ultimately, at the Olympics in Berlin, Zamperini finished 8th and running his last lap in 56 seconds. Zamperini was the first American to cross the finish line. It was said that even Hitler was impressed by this young teenager’s fast finish. Hitler experienced the Spirit of America in this young, green runner who competed to the very end in the most important 5000 Meter Race in the world.

After the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini attended Southern California University on a track scholarship preparing him for his next Olympics in 1940. As Louis Zamperini was gearing up for the 1940 Olympics, Germany declared war with Poland in 1939 and the 1940 Olympics were canceled. Louis Zamperini enlisted in 1941 in the Army Air Corp, and his exploits during the war have been written about in a recent book and movie entitled “Unbroken”. Louis Zamperini is a living example of the Spirit of America.

On the Water

Finally, also during the 1936 Olympics, the Spirit of America was lived out in the lives of a group of college kids from the University of Washington who raced against Germany and Italy for the gold medal in 2000 Meter Rowing Competition. These nine Americans all worked separate jobs to pay for their tuition, while they studied and practiced daily. In total, they had only been rowing together for five months, when they learned that their commitment to this sport paid off. They won the Olympic trials to go to Berlin.

In contrast to these hard working college kids, the German and the Italian rowing crews were in the military and their sole purpose at this time was to train for the Olympics and bring home the gold in the 2000 Meter Race.

On the day of the race some of the American rowers were sick from colds and during the initial part of the race, they fell far behind both the Italians and the Germans. The whole race was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, Germany’s top filmmaker, to be used for propaganda following the German victory, in her film entitled “Olympia”.

In the previous rowing competitions, the Germans had captured five gold medals and one silver medal. They dominated the rowing events. The 2000 Meter Race would be the frosting on the cake. As the boats ground their way to the finish line, with 75,000 Germans shouting “Deutschland, Deutschland” waiting, along with Hitler and Goring, for the triumphant victory of the German boat, it was the group of college kids from Washington University who found a new source of energy. In the last stage of the race, they crossed the finish line in what seemed to be a dead heat between the Germans, the Americans, and the Italians.

When all was said and done it was the US winning the gold in 6:25.4, Italy winning the silver in 6:26.0 and Germany winning the bronze in 6:26.4. Grantland Rice called this victory the “high spot” of the 1936 Olympics. Hitler’s reaction to the loss was never recorded. Bob Moch, one of the crew members of the US boat, was asked about Hitler’s reaction, and he said, “We didn’t care whether he existed or not. We were there to do a job.” As the “Star Spangled Banner” played after the gold medals were presented to the US rowers, the Olympic crowd gave the crew of the US winning boat the Nazi salute to honor the American victors.

The Spirit of America has carried this great country of ours through all kinds of Olympic competitions. The men and women who represent this country are from all walks of life and from all kinds of hometowns. From one 19 years old who accomplished something that no other 19 years old has done since, running the Olympic 5000 Meter Race, to another 19 years old from West Virginia who just won gold, they represent what is great about our country. What rises above all the victories and defeats is The Spirit of America and today we once again celebrate this Spirit during these 2016 Olympics.


Jamie Stewart America Unraveled's resident expert on all things higher ed!


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