As athletes fight it out in Torino, Italy, hoping to win that disk of precious metal to hang around their necks, we’d like to remember and honor an Olympic athlete who once gave up the quest to honor a higher ideal than personal or national glory.
Jack Shea with one of his gold medals, left.
In 1932 Irish-American Jack Shea won the gold medals in both the 500 and 1500 meter speed skating events in the 1932 in his hometown of Lake Placid, NY. He continued to skate and would have been one of the favorites in those events in the 1936 Olympics as well, had he chosen to compete. The 1936 Winter Olympics were not simply another Olympics like any other. They were held in the neighboring villages of Garmisch and Partenkirchen in Germany.
Germany in 1936 was a country that had come under the control of the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler. Many Jewish-Americans boycotted those Olympics because of the Nazis persecution of the Jews in Germany, but only one American gentile did the same, and that was Jack Shea. Given the incredible sacrifice that a world class athlete must endure for most of their lives to that point just to get to the Olympics at all, no one could make such a decision lightly. If Shea could have had he swept his two events again he knew he would have been known as one of the greatest speed skater in Olympic history.
Shea saw a cause that was bigger than athletics, however, and thus he became the only non-Jewish American to personally boycott the games in 1936. Shea even attempted to persuade the American Olympic Committee to boycott but they refused. “Would you deny that the discrimination against Jews, with which Nazidom inaugurated its reign, has now been extended to include virtually every minority group in the country,” he asked Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage in a letter. Brundage never answered him.
Jack Shea never asked for any sort of recognition for his courageous and totally selfless act over the rest of his days. He died in January 2001 at the age of 91, the victim of a drunken driver. So as you are watching athletes glory in their Olympic triumphs in the coming days, as well they should, remember Jack Shea, a man who chose principle over personal glory.
Read more on Jack Shea in “The Jewish Week.”
Jack Shea dies at 91
Irish Americans dominated the 1908 US Olympic team. From coaches James Sullivan, the son of Irish immigrants who led the team, to trainer “Mike Murphy,” to the many participants from the Irish American Athletic Club, the American team at the 1908 Summer Olympics in England had a very Irish-American flavor to it. That team included the winner of the marathon, 19 year-old Johnny Hayes. The games themselves featured nearly constant battles between the British and American Olympic officials.
This marathon won by Hayes had perhaps the most famous ending in Olympic Marathon history. Near the end of the race Hayes was running 2nd to Dorando Pietri of Italy. When Pietri entered the stadium, however, he first went the wrong way, and then collapsed several times. He was helped up each time by officials and eventually virtually carried over the finish line just as Hayes entered the stadium. In spite of this obvious breach of the rules, the British officials at first ruled Pietri the winner. This nearly resulted in an all out brawl with incensed US officials, but eventually logic prevailed and Hayes was declared the winner.
The Irish started the whole event off with an incident somewhat reminiscent of Michael Corcoran’s refusal to have the 69th New York militia march for in honor of the Prince of Wales. When the delegations marched past King Edward VII’s box in the parade of nation during the opening ceremonies the flag bearer dipped their national flag. The flag bearer for the US delegation was Irish-born (County Mayo) Martin Sheridan. As he marched past he refused to dip the Stars and Stripes to the King. “This flag dips to no earthly king,” Sheridan said. Sheridan did more than make a statement for that day, he began a tradition that has continued, as the Stars and Stripes has bowed to no member of royality in any parade since.
In addition to beginning that tradition, Sheridan did extremely well in the games, winning the gold medal in the discuss and Greek discus and a bronze in the standing jump. This was his third Olympics. His career medal count was five gold, three silver and one bronze.
Read more about Irish-America’s contribution to the 1908 team HERE.
The 1908 Summer Olympics.
A shorter trip to Ireland. If you’ll be in the Scottsdale, AZ area this Saturday, the Louise Lincoln Kerr Center invites you to "Ireland" with AN EVENING OF IRISH LOVE AND LYRICS. This is a night where the heart of Ireland is brought to us through music and words, song and dance - "where words and music meet." With Kathleen Keane, Celtic Fiddler Redmond Gleeson , Irish Actor Thomas MacGreevy , Irish Actor Margaret O'Carroll, Soprano Christine Parker, Pianist 8:00P.M. Louise Lincoln Kerr Cultural Center, Arizona State University 6110 N.Scottsdale Road.
More events HERE.