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Meet Douglas MacArthur: America’s Olympic General

By Craig Bohnert | July 04, 2016, 2:06 p.m. (ET)

General Douglas MacArthur (standing third from left) stands with members of the press on board the S.S. President Roosevelt with the U.S. Olympic Team on the way to the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games.

In the life of any organization, there is a moment when its fate hangs in the balance, teetering between success and failure, growth and loss, even life and death. The difference-maker in that fateful moment often is a strong leader.

For the United States Olympic Committee, that moment came in 1927, and that leader was Douglas MacArthur.

Olympic Committee President Major General Douglas MacArthur (1927-1928) from the American Olympic Committee Report for the Games of the IX Olympiad.

For history students, MacArthur’s name conjures up an image of the commander of American forces in the south Pacific during World War II and the Korean War, but before he became a national icon framed by aviator sunglasses and a corn cob pipe, he spent a year guiding what then was called the American Olympic Association (AOA). His work to save the nascent Olympic movement in the United States is the subject of an excerpt from Arthur Herman’s new book “Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior,” that appeared in a recent issue of “Time” magazine.

In 1927 the AOA was in the process of preparing for two Olympic Games: the second edition of the Olympic Winter Games, to be held in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and the Games of the IXth Olympiad in Amsterdam. On Aug. 4, the AOA’s president, William Christopher Prout, died suddenly after being appointed to the role only a year before.

With two Games looming and tensions growing between the AOA and its two sources of athletic talent, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), there was a clear need for a leader who could take command of the situation. MacArthur fit the bill.

With leadership skills that were forged on the battlefields of World War I, MacArthur also demonstrated vision in the administrative realm, having instituted sweeping changes during his tour as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. A key part of those changes were his emphasis on sports participation, a legacy that continues today. He required participation of all cadets in the reorganized intramural program he developed, a model that still is used in colleges throughout the country.

A visible portion of his legacy and summation of his philosophy is found in the inscription above the gymnasium entrance at West Point, a building erected during MacArthur’s tenure. It reads:

“On the field of friendly strife are sown the seeds that
On other fields and on other days will bring forth victory.”

On April 18, 1939, while commanding the Military District of Manila in the Philippines, MacArthur wrote a letter to Avery Brundage, his successor as AOA president who eventually would become the only American to serve as president of the International Olympic Committee. The letter is now stored in the USOC’s Crawford Family U.S. Olympic Archives. In that letter he explained the origins of the inscription:

“The training of the athletic field which produces in a superlative degree the attributes of fortitude, self-control, resolution, courage, mental agility, and, of course, physical development, is one completely fundamental to an efficiency soldiery. This fact had been recently emphasized to me on the battlefields of France and I wished that this fundamental concept to be the one which animated the athletic training at West Point. To this end I completely reorganized the athletic system and placed it on the broad and comprehensive basis which has been followed in that institution ever since.”

It was clear that MacArthur possessed the vision and skills necessary to carry the U.S. Olympic Movement forward. He was placed on detached service by the Army to accept the AOA presidency, his appointment being formalized at the organization’s Sept. 16, 1927, meeting. Reporting MacArthur’s appointment in October 1927, “The Olympic” magazine concluded by saying “No better choice could have been made by the American Olympic Committee for its president because in this job the qualities of fearlessness, fight, and organizing ability are absolutely essential and these President MacArthur has to a tremendous degree.”

MacArthur took on the challenge as if he were leading an army of athletes to battle. By his own admission, he was hard on the athletes. “I stormed and pleaded and cajoled,” Herman quotes him as saying. “We are here to win, and win decisively.”

While pushing the athletes onward, he also fended off attacks from critics of the day, sending what Herman called “a furious telegram” that said, in part, “We won’t stand for sniping from the rear.”

MacArthur’s relentless drive did not abate when the team arrived in Amsterdam. Herman relates an episode where the U.S. boxing team’s coach threatened to withdraw his athletes from the competition after a decision he considered unfair. MacArthur would have none of it, snapping “Americans never quit.” Some chafed under his micromanagement and badgering, but most, according to one team member, admired his zeal.

Spurred by the general’s drive, the Americans thrived. By the time the Games ended, they had won 24 gold medals, more than the next two nations combined. Along the way they set seven world and 17 Olympic records.

In his after-action report to President Calvin Coolidge, MacArthur penned words that ring true nearly 90 years later: “‘Athletic America’ is a telling phrase. It is talismanic. It suggests health and happiness. It arouses national pride and kindles anew the national spirit… Nothing has been more characteristic of the genius of the American people than their genius for athletics.”

MacArthur’s efforts not only turned the U.S. Olympic Movement away from an abyss at a time of great need, they also crystallized many of the concepts and philosophies that continue to drive every U.S. Olympian and Olympic hopeful to success today, and they resonate with every chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A!”