BETHLEHEM — After tackling the 1980 Winter Olympics in his first book, Delmar-based author Michael Burgess turns his attention to Jack Shea in his new book, “Keeper of the Olympic Flame: Lake Placid’s Jack Shea vs. Avery Brundage and the Nazi Olympics.”
Burgess examines Shea’s decision to personally boycott the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany and the letter he sent to Brundage and the other leaders of the United States Olympic Committee detailing his reasons why.
“I talked last summer to his son, Jim (Shea), who himself was an Olympian in 1964,” said Burgess. “He showed me a five-page letter that his father, Jack, wrote to Avery Brundage, who was the head of the American Olympic Committee, in 1935, when Jack was a student here at Albany Law School. And the letter was a very strong statement … ‘How can you possibly send our team to Germany when you have Jewish athletes on our team. You claim the athletes are all in favor of this. How can you ignore that 24 of us who opposed it.’ On and on and on about the communist influence and all of that.
“So … he was not only opposed to going, but he was an activist who put his name on a pamphlet that was in the New York Times (and) that he spoke to other athletes about not going. So, it was a courageous act because Avery Brundage stood with him there as he won his gold medal (in speed skating) in 1932, and he sent this very caustic letter to him saying ‘I don’t agree with you.’”
Shea’s stand meant more than missing an opportunity to defend the gold medal he won in his hometown of Lake Placid in 1932. Burgess said it made Shea an unpopular figure around town because it was a winter sports capital, and people were “gung ho” about the Olympics.
In interviewing Jim Shea for the book, Burgess said Jim recalled that his father rarely talked about his decision to boycott the 1936 Olympics, even to his family.
“Later in life, Jack talked a little about it, but there’s not much on the record except at the time that he wrote it, he made a statement that was on the front page of the Lake Placid weekly that ‘I am going professional, I am not going to skate and I discussed it with the Olympics,’” said Burgess.
Burgess said Shea’s stand is part of what the modern Olympics has become over the last 120 years.
“The founders of the modern Olympics in 1896, (they said) ‘This is going to unify the world. We’re going to have camaraderie between the nations – pure athletics and sport.’ But I said (in the book) right from the beginning, there was an intersection with politics and history. Even in the first Olympics, the French who started it were still upset about the Prussian War in 1870,” said Burgess.
And, Burgess expressed his concern about the direction today’s Olympics are heading, in terms of countries balking at the expense of hosting the Summer or Winter Games.
“They had so few bidders for the 2022 Winter Games, they had to give it to Beijing (China),” said Burgess. “All the bidders from Europe pulled out, and the United States pulled out. They were left with Kazakhstan and Beijing.
“These Olympics in Rio cost about $12 billion, and the people are complaining, ‘We could have spent that money on poverty. We have serious problems here.’ So, the Olympics are in trouble, I think.”
That brings Burgess back to another point he makes in his latest book – Jack Shea’s belief that the Olympics should be about the athletes.
“That’s how Lake Placid won the Games in 1980. They said, ‘Look, there’s a lot of money that’s being spent. We will create an Olympics in Perspective.’ That’s what they called the ’80 Olympics. ‘We’re going to have a low-cost Games focused on the athletes.’ I think there’s going to be more of that in the future,” said Burgess.
Copies of “Keeper of the Olympic Flame” can be purchased at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland, Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs and on Amazon.com.