(1912 - 1999)
The scandal involving the 2002 Salt
Lake City Olympics reminds us that the Games have often
been enmeshed in controversy. The first time the United
States team was caught up in Olympic politics was in
the years before the 1936
"Nazi" Olympics. American Jewish athletes
were at the center of the political maelstrom.
In 1932, the International Olympic
Committee chose Berlin as the 1936 Olympic site. In
1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of the Reich. The Nazi Partys anti-Semitic violence
and legal decrees particularly those banning
Jews from participating with "Aryans" in sports
spurred the American Jewish Congress and the
Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to call for America to
boycott the Berlin Games. They argued that, since Olympic
rules decreed that no athlete can be denied the right
to compete because of race, ethnicity or religion, the
Games should be relocated to another country. The American
Jewish Congress took its case to the American Olympic
Committee (AOC), hoping to persuade the committee to
boycott the Games if Germany remained the host.
The plea fell on deaf ears. Avery Brundage,
president of the AOC, had received assurances that no
Jewish athlete would be barred from competing for the
German team and that no Jewish athlete from any other
nation would be barred from the Games. Brundage persuaded
his fellow AOC members to vote for American participation.
The American team was going to Berlin.
As an act of protest, several American
Jewish athletes refused to go to Berlin. Among them
was a young woman named Syd Koff, born Sybil Tabachnikoff
in 1912 on the Lower East Side of New York. In her teens,
against her parents wishes, Sybil sneaked out
of the house to compete in high school and other amateur
track and field events. In 1930, a member of the Millrose
Athletic Club, of which the great Jesse Owens was a
member, saw Sybil practicing the broad jump on the beach
at Coney Island and asked her to join the club. Syd
began competing and winning against such
famed rivals as Babe Didrickson, Lillian
Copeland and Stella Walsh.
In 1932, Syd Koff represented America
at the first Maccabean Games in Tel
Aviv, Palestine. It took three weeks for the American
team to arrive in the Holy Land by boat, train, donkey
cart and camel. Once there, Koff competed against the
worlds best Jewish athletes and emerged as the
1932 Games greatest star, leading the American
team to the overall championship. She won the gold medal
in 4 events: the 50 and 100 meter dashes, the high jump
and the broad jump, and finished fifth in two other
field events. Syd made such an impression that, on the
streets of Tel Aviv that young Jewish women wore berets
at the same jaunty angle that Koff did. When she competed
in her second Maccabean Games in 1935, Koff garnered
two additional gold medals.
When it was time to compete in the 1936 Olympics, Koff faced a difficult
decision. She qualified for the 1936 Olympic Team in the broad and high
jumps. By the time the American team was ready to depart, however, Jews
in Germany were clearly being persecuted and the Nazi regime seemed
bent on destroying the German Jewish community. German Jews were losing
legal rights, being physically brutalized, having their businesses boycotted
and their synagogues destroyed. Syd and other American Jewish athletes
who qualified for the 1936 Olympics had to make a choice: compete and
prove that Jewish athletes could defeat the specious Aryan "superrace,"
or honor the plea of a handful of Jewish organizations to boycott the
Games rather than lend legitimacy to the Nazi regime.
Koff chose to join the boycotters.
As experience indicates, the Brundage-chosen US Olympic
coaching staff, under apparent pressure to keep Jewish
athletes from winning medals, may well have found some
excuse not to let Koff compete, much as the mens
track coaches refused to let Jewish sprinters Marty
Glickman and Sam Stoller run as part of the mens
4x100 relay team.
In 1940, despite the outbreak of war a year earlier, the Olympics were
scheduled for Helsinki, Finland. Just weeks before, in a ruthless surprise
attack, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The Olympics were canceled.
Koff never got her chance to win a medal. She married, had children
and "retired" from competitive track and field but the call
of the cinders was too strong. In the 1960s she returned to competition
in the Masters division, in which she competed until 1972, when
she was stopped by a broken hip. Syd Koff, deprived of her Olympic moments
of glory, never lost her competitive drive. Syd died in New York City
Jewish Historical Society