Sporting Fever

Interview with Robert Mitchell,
British Olympic Athlete

Photograph of Robert Mitchell Q: Do you enjoy watching sports?

Mitchell: I have never really watched sports very much. I've always tried to play it...occasionally I would go to very big things. For instance, I played [water polo] for a team which used to play about every couple of weeks in the Empire pool, that's the Wembley Pool, you know, there's a swimming pool and there's the stadium. Well, we used to play every couple of weeks. They used to bring Continentals over, and we used to beat them pretty well. But, ah, in the winter they used to hold the big boxing matches there, and they used to give us tickets and I, then I used to watch the boxing matches. But, ah, by and large, I haven't been a great sport watcher...

As far as we were concerned, we really were complete amateurs. We paid our own fares in most places...

I mean to go slightly on, when I was swimming in the '48 Olympics, when I was running my own business and it was at Wembley, if we weren't on until the evening, I used to go down and work in my own business in the morning, in the afternoon. And then catch the tube back to Wembley in time for the evening. And so, yes, we were, and of course in cricket there, there were separate gates. The amateurs came on to the field from one gate and the professionals came on from another gate, and only amateurs could be the captains of cricket...but as far as we were concerned, there were no professionals...and what's...more, there was no sponsorship, and nobody made any money out of it.

...There is no doubt that you could not compete at the level today, training as we did. I mean we thought we were training very hard, but we were training in our spare time, there was no question of training all day. We'd go in the evening and train, and that was it. There is no way that you could compete with the people today on that basis. But I think it's a one-way track, there is no way back. but I think it's a great pity because we had very much more fun. I think there was a better spirit in sport, and I think sport has lost an awful lot. Of course it's gained a lot, it's gained high, more proficient athletes, better times, and all the rest of it. And people who, who do more. I mean I have got photographs of races which I won with the times on the back, and as I think I said to you, I dare not ever show people those times on the back because they were good times in those days, but little girls are doing them now.

Q: When you were competing, there must have been a strong sense of national pride...

Mitchell: ...Yes, as a team game, you were representing your country and you were proud of that and so on. But in the individual events, people then were really competing obviously for their country and all the rest of it, but it was an individual thing, and there weren't any tables then of how many medals every country had won and all that sort of business. You really competed each man for himself. And, you know, we had people, people like Jackie Lovelock who was, in those days, the great miler of the world. He was a New Zealander but he was up at Oxford, and he came and he was just as much in our team as anybody else. He was in the New Zealand team of course, but I mean he came and mixed with our team. So there was all that interchange. It, it wasn't, there was nothing of the nationalistic fervor. Perhaps '36 was the first time when it started to come in...I mean I think I was very lucky. I believe I competed in the last of the old-style Olympics and the first of the new in reverse order.

Q: How aware were you of what was going on in Germany?

Mitchell: ...I was actually very politically conscious, and I took all sorts of books which I, I read...I was very conscious of Germany and what was going on. But, when you got into a sport, that was different. You know you'd been training for years to do this, and when you had finally succeeded and you got there, we lived between the stadium and, and the village and the bus was going in between. It was only when we finished that you went and looked at the world outside. So that while you, we, I was very conscious of what was happening to the Jews and all the rest of it, in that time when I was there, which was only a week, you know, we didn't go out like they do now.

And of course also they made a tremendous effort to make sure that it was all cleaned up. All the Jews were, were put away, all the yellow stars were taken down. There were no yellow stars or anything like that around. So that we, it didn't intrude itself upon you. And of course Hitler was around all the time. And, ah, so that I mean now one feels perhaps a little bit surprised that one wasn't more conscious except, you know, you'd been training for this for years, and now you were here. This is what you were there to do. You weren't there to go and look outside. You were there to get in that pool and swim.

Q: Were you there when Hitler refused to shake Jesse Owen's hand?

Mitchell: I didn't see when Hitler refused to shake hands because of course he didn't. I wasn't there, so what I say is only what I heard. But I believe a man named Matthews, [a] colored man, won the 400 meters hurdles or flat, I'm not sure which, and when Hitler saw who was coming up to be greeted, he canceled it. And from then on he didn't greet any of the winners. And so when it came to, when Owen won, there was no question of him going up. There was no question of Hitler refusing to meet him. The situation didn't arise. Now, that is only hearsay, I wasn't there when it happened, but so I understand.

Q: What was the general mood during the closing ceremony?

Mitchell: The closing ceremony was very impressive indeed. This stadium held about a hundred thousand, it was packed of course. And, ah, the, ah, closing ceremony itself, it was after dark when it was held and the lights were coming down. And the Olympic flame went out and then there was utter silence and utter darkness. And it really was most impressive. I'm not sure whether that was the first time that flame was done or not.

Ahm, then after that, Hitler ranted away, and he really did, and he flung his arms about and screamed and all the rest of it in Hitler fashion, went on for a long time. And then I think, my memory is getting slightly vague here, this was a long while ago, but I think after that then the whole special song was sung and then they started "zieg heil" and that was when a hundred thousand people were going "zeig heil, zeig heil." And I literally put my hands in my pocket, literally to stop myself being hypnotized into doing it with them. It was absolutely hypnotic.

And I found it absolutely frightening not because the crowd was going to do anything about it, they couldn't care if whether I was saying "zeig heil" or not but I thought, if one man can get these people, these hundred thousand stirred, because they were all out of their minds. They were all zeig heiling. And they were no longer men zeig heiling, they were just automatons zeig heiling and this was a very, very frightening experience to see the, the effect that the rantings and it was just rantings, the rantings of one man could transform this crowd from a...hundred thousand reasonable people into a hundred thousand hypnotized automatons. It was very frightening.

Q: Was there ever any feeling of antagonism between the German teams and other nations' teams?

Mitchell: There was a bit of a feeling against the...countries which were lining up with the Germans. You see, playing water polo, now when we started a game, certain countries, particularly if Hitler was there, would line up in front of Hitler and all give the Nazi salute in the water, the whole team would line up. And we sort of stood and lounged against the goal post at the other end, you see, and tried to look as lounging as we could, you see. The, ah, the, the Hungarians, I think the Yugo, certainly, obviously the Germans, probably the Austrians, though I don't remember, but there were those that lined up. Now against them, yes, there was a feeling, we'll show them. But, ah, not in exactly those words as a matter of was an amateur feeling. These were all sportsmen. There wasn't any great international, national feeling one against the other, you were all sportsman. You were all playing your games. You were all doing your sport. And, ah, so generally speaking, they, there was the obvious rivalry, who was going to win and so on. But there was no bitterness about it except...when it came to the Hungarians and the Germans and the Yugos who, who lined up in front of the, front of the fuhrer and gave the salute and so on, which we didn't approve of.

Q: After the games were over, was there a feeling that, in a broad sense, a nation has won?

Mitchell: There was no doubt that the German organization, the, the way they had done it, the spirit they had done it, they, they had not introduced militarism in, into the games at all. Militarism was all around it, but there was no militarism in the games. And I think the...extent to which Hitler and all his entourage had come and shown the interest of the, of the leaders of the nation in what was going on. I think, there's no doubt at all, that he did Germany a tremendous amount of good...[and] the answer, what nation won in the broadest possible sense, not sporting but in the broadest possible sense. Yes, without any doubt, Germany.

Q: So the Berlin Olympics were about nationalism and not about sports...

Mitchell: No, I don't think that's so. I don't think obviously the, the Olympics games was a political thing...this was governed not really by politics, it was governed by the national feeling which was across the nation, across both nations irrespective of politics. What I do believe now as it has come, now as in the Olympics and everything else, you get the tables of how many medals each country has won and all that sort of thing. Then you get -- and of course you had it in the Olympics in Moscow when I tried very hard, indeed got letters into the Times urging that we should wake up, which we didn't do of course. But, ahm, then I think when it's become as nationalistic as it has now, I think to the great detriment of sport...I don't think it's sport in the way I know sport. And I think it, it's a one-way track, you can't come back to it. No use regretting has lost a tremendous lot by being now politicized to the extent that countries aim and Russia is desperate to get ahead of the States who is just as desperate to get ahead of Russia, ah, nothing to do with how many medals they win really. It's who's the boss nation, and that has come out very much of course with the politicization of sport, well, sorry that's the wrong word, I shouldn't say politicization, the lack of the true amateur in sport...the eternal detriment of sport. But its a one-way track. Nothing you can do about it.

Note: Red text is available in RealAudio.

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