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Their Day in the Sun

Overview

The 1932 Olympic games took place in Los Angeles in the depths of the Great Depression; that they were held at all falls barely short of miraculous. The United States sent thirty-seven women to compete?seventeen swimmers, seventeen track and field athletes, and three fencers. It was not easy, and far from acceptable, for a woman to be an athlete in 1932. As late as April 1931 the International Olympic Committee seriously considered eliminating women?s events. The young Americans did their part to capture the ...

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Overview

The 1932 Olympic games took place in Los Angeles in the depths of the Great Depression; that they were held at all falls barely short of miraculous. The United States sent thirty-seven women to compete—seventeen swimmers, seventeen track and field athletes, and three fencers. It was not easy, and far from acceptable, for a woman to be an athlete in 1932. As late as April 1931 the International Olympic Committee seriously considered eliminating women’s events. The young Americans did their part to capture the imagination of spectators and reporters. Through the sports press they catapulted the Olympic Games and women’s athletics into the nation’s consciousness as never before.

Doris Pieroth creates vivid portraits of the women, including the great Babe Didrikson, the confident and outspoken track and field star; Tidye Pickett, one of only two African American women who represented the United States despite encountering racial discrimination; and Helene Madison, winner of three gold medals in swimming, who returned triumphantly to Seattle’s West Green Lake Beach—as a hotdog vendor (park department rules barred women from teaching swimming).

The team truly represented America—a democratic cross-section from New York to California, Washington to Florida, Minnesota to Texas and points in between. Drawn from public pools, schools and playgrounds, municipal and industrial recreation programs, and private clubs alike it reflected the country’s entire socio-economic spectrum. Their attainments and triumphs went a long way toward insuring that women’s events would continue as an integral part of the Olympic Games—a prospect by no means certain in 1932.

Pieroth’s account is drawn from interviews with eleven of the women athletes, family members, other Olympians of the era, and witnesses of the 1932 games. She also quotes extensively from contemporary journalists such as Paul Gallico, Westbrook Pegler, and Damon Runyon, whose mixture of condescension, fulsome admiration for the "glamour girl" swimmers, and genuine, if sometimes grudging, admiration for the accomplishments of the athletes provides an intriguing view of the stereotypes these Olympic contestants were challenging.

Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics is the story of those remarkable people—their dedication and their delight in competition. In recounting their Olympic summer and their varied routes to Los Angeles, it adds to the history of sport the identities and details of a specific athletic cohort and their experiences in striving for excellence and acceptance.

University of Washington Press

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Olympic swimming events for women began in 1912, but it was not until 1928 that track and field events were included. Many sportwriters wrote that the appearance of women runners was "dreadful" and "depressing." That is why the extraordinary medal count of the 37 U.S. women, including the fabled Babe Didrikson, during the 1932 games was so pivotal in changing America's attitudes toward women athletes. Historian Pieroth has written an account of these Olympians, relating the various roads each woman took, the controversies, the Hollywood glamor, and the drama at the competition. She also includes an epilog that tells of their post-Olympic lives. The author enlivens her research with interviews of 14 surviving athletes as well as many eyewitnesses. Thus, not only the bare facts, which are very detailed, but also the personal stories are recorded. This is a fine contribution to women's sports history. Recommended for academic libraries.Kathy Ruffle, Coll. of New Caledonia Lib., Prince George, B.C.
Kirkus Reviews
An oddly touching compendium of the female Olympic athletes of 1932, a year the author considers "pivotal" for female athletes.

In 1931, the International Olympic Committee considered eliminating women's events. But the 1932 Los Angeles venue, and the participation of such star athletes as Babe Didrikson, helped establish the reputation of women's sports. Historian Pieroth here collects the stories of the 1932 female Olympians from the Olympic trials to the Los Angeles Summer Games. Some of their stories are vivid: Didrikson's formidable skill and her controversial victory in the 80-meter hurdles—as she crossed the tape, Babe held up her arms as a sign of victory, though observers and a still photo show her in a dead heat with teammate Evelyne Hall. Ever the favorite, Babe took the gold. Swimmer Helene Madison, confident of victory in the 100-meter freestyle race, casually strolled onto the pool deck just as the race was about to begin. The embarrassed swimmer won. Other stories are sadder: Black sprinters Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes were not allowed to run in the 4 X 100 meter relay. Perhaps most interesting is the gender-based bias of the 1932 Olympic rules. American divers, lined up at the board, were sent back to the dressing room to don less revealing suits. In the high jump, women were expected to daintily hop over the bar in a sitting-up position. Didrikson, though the highest jumper, was fouled out of her gold when she jumped over the bar head first, as the men did. And it frequently took judges more than an hour to decide who had won a given running event and what the time was, since watches were inaccurate.

Though the book is somewhat disorganized, and women's sports have become much more competitive in the last 64 years, Pieroth's admiration for these athletes is infectious, and their determination remains impressive.

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