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Cool Things - Olympic Village Letter

Cunningham letter

Kansas athlete Glenn Cunningham wrote this letter while competing at the 1936 Olympics.

"The Olympic Games are over as far as track and field is concerned. As you know I lost my 1500 m. race. Lovelock ran a beautiful race. "
--Glenn Cunningham, Berlin, 1936

The Olympic Games captivated the world in the summer of 1936. Germany hosted the games in Berlin, and the Nazi regime created a politically charged atmosphere by showcasing its ideology at every turn. One Kansas athlete stood witness to the events and wrote home about his experiences competing amidst this tension.

Glenn Cunningham, "The Iron Horse of Kansas," wrote this letter while participating in the 1936 games. Originally from Elkhart, this phenomenal runner had also competed at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics after dominating collegiate mile racing at the University of Kansas. His talent for running was miraculous considering that, as a child, a schoolhouse fire damaged his legs so severely doctors had considered amputation.

Cunningham wrote this letter three days after competing in what many considered the premier event of the games, the 1500-meter race. Cunningham's time of 3.48.4 minutes was his fastest ever, but he was outrun by New Zealand's Jack Lovelock. The legendary race was so competitive that the first five runners to cross the finish line shattered the world record.

The Olympic Village

The letter was drafted on official Olympic Village stationary. Located just outside Berlin, the village was a marvel of modern design. Nazi planners attempted to impress the world by equipping the 136-acre landscaped facility with assembly halls, practice tracks, swimming pools, and a sauna. Athletes could find vast shooting ranges and horse stables nearby. At the request of Adolf Hitler, who considered baths unsanitary, each of the 140 single-story dormitories was fitted with showers.

Every comfort and convenience was addressed at the village. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra provided entertainment three nights weekly. German cooks served cuisine from every nation in attendance. Each of the forty kitchens was fitted with a previously unknown technology--the ice machine.

Cunningham competing for the University of Kansas

The concept of an Olympic Village was novel (having first appeared at the 1932 games), but it was not the only innovation at the competition during the 1930s. The torch relay was introduced in 1936 by Nazi officials who envisioned its journey from Greece, home of the ancient Olympic Games, as symbolic of Germany's connection to Greco-Roman culture. Also for the first time, television crews broadcast the competition to screens throughout the city.

Cunningham's experience was memorable despite his loss. On the boat traveling to Germany, he was voted "Most Popular Athlete" by the U.S. Olympic Team. Finishing second was Jesse Owens, an internationally recognized sprinter who won a record four gold medals at the games. The two roomed together throughout the Olympics and established a life-long friendship.

Apparently unimpressed with the Olympiad's pomp and circumstance, Cunningham kept his letter brief (read a transcription). It was addressed to Leslie Heath, whom Cunningham first met in Elkart while playing youth baseball. Heath was working as a postal clerk in Texhoma, Oklahoma, at the time and often traveled to the southwest Kansas community to referee games. Heath was an avid stamp collector, and wrote Cunningham in 1936 to request German stamps. Although Cunningham received hundreds of fan letters while in Berlin, he answered all of them in longhand.

In the letter, Cunningham complains of Germany's cold and rainy weather. Throughout his career the runner was plagued by leg pains aggravated by cool weather. Cunningham blamed leg pains for his loss in the 1500-meter race. Though never officially diagnosed, Cunningham linked the pains to an infection caused by a childhood baseball injury.

Heath may not have been the first to read Cunningham's letter. Clandestine tactics were used to monitor the communications of athletes during the games. Letters such as Cunningham's were routed from the Olympic Village through a postal center in Berlin, where Nazi agents often screened them.

A descendant of Leslie Heath donated this letter to the Kansas Historical Society in 2006. It is in the State Archives collections.

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Entry: Cool Things - Olympic Village Letter

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2007

Date Modified: December 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.