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Gold Medal For Conscience

Gold Medal For Conscience

Lake Placid, N.Y.

If the United States has a winter sports capital, it is this hilly village 40 miles from the Canadian border and site of two Winter Olympics.

And if this capital has its 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it is 218 Main St., across from the shore of Mirror Lake, where the Olympic Center skating rink is located, where the "Miracle on Ice" gold medal victory of the U.S. men’s hockey team in the 1980 Games took place, where the Winter Olympics Museum Lake Placid displays the community’s proud photographs and artifacts from 1932 and ’80.

And if Lake Placid, a town of 2,700, has a First Family, it is the Sheas.

They are an Olympic dynasty, a three-generation Olympic family with a well-developed sense of noblesse oblige. Jack Shea, winner of two gold medals in figure skating in his hometown in 1932, is the patriarch of the Irish Catholic clan, enshrined in the museum.

Lake Placid, which put up a plaque with Shea’s name in a park down the street from the Olympic Center, honors Shea for his accomplishments on the ice.

To the Jewish community, Shea is a hero for what he did away from the ice: specifically for why he was not on the ice to defend his medals at the 1936 Winter Olympics.

He didn’t go because the Games were in Nazi Germany. And his act (nearly forgotten for seven decades and only now coming to full light as the XX Winter Olympics are about to begin in Turin, Italy) stands as testimony to one person’s resolve to follow his conscience and oppose both popular culture and the athletic establishment.

"It’s an act of giant moral courage: it’s too rare," says Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who had not previously heard about Shea’s act until informed by The Jewish Week. "The man’s a giant in my eyes … he was willing to give up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Widely known as an Olympic champion and as the grandfather of Jimmy Shea, gold medalist in luge at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jack Shea was reluctant to talk about his political stand of 1936, and it was a footnote in his life, barely mentioned in his obituaries when he died at 91 on the eve of the Games four years ago, killed by a drunk driver.

"He talked when asked," says Shea’s son James, an Olympic skier at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964. "As he became older he became prouder of it."

Sitting at a table at Aneillo’s, a popular Italian restaurant in the heart of the village, a few blocks from the Olympic Center, James Shea pulls his father’s 1932 Olympic scrapbook, yellowing and crumbling, from a blue duffel bag.

He carefully leafs through the black-covered scrapbook, showing a visitor scores of newspaper clippings about Jack Shea’s athletic career. In the pages are a few clippings from the mid-1930s, when Shea was working in Lake Placid and wondering whether he would try out for the U.S. Olympic squad in 1936.

Cutting a pizza pie, James Shea starts to relate what he heard from his father, a few facts and stories, about those years. Jack Shea, he says, didn’t even discuss it with his own family.

"He was a modest man," James Shea says.

A hometown hero, a newlywed, a first-year law student, Jack Shea faced a decision in 1934: Should he go to Germany in two years and defend his gold medals or stay home and defend his principles.

Nazi Germany helped make Shea’s decision easy. The government, which had instituted a series of anti-Jewish measures since taking power the previous year, added another one in October 1934, depriving Jewish religious institutions of their tax-free status.

Shea would stay home.

His son points to a letter that Shea sent that month to the American Jewish Congress announcing his decision to boycott the ’36 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, German villages in the Alps.

James Shea explains why his father (offended by the German actions, church-going and politically aware) took his stance in support of the Jewish community, members of which had patronized his family’s general store, members of which had suggested this act of solidarity to him, large members of which were already suffering in Germany.

"Irrespective of promises for courtesy to the Jews by the Nazis," he wrote the AJCongress, dismissing the Third Reich’s pledges to halt its anti-Semitic campaign in the period leading up to the Winter Olympics and the ’36 Summer Games in Berlin, "if I were chosen and in the mind of competing again in Olympic competition, I would refuse curtly to do so."

Beyond the letter, Shea made no effort to publicize his decision, James Shea says.

Taking On Avery Brundage

While the Nazis’ attempt to capitalize on the financial and image-building benefits of the so-called "Nazi Olympics" in Berlin, and the loosely organized and largely unsuccessful attempt to boycott the summer competition are a part of Olympic lore, the Winter Games in Germany, and Shea’s choice not to be part of them, have largely faded from memory.

But Shea’s legacy as an athlete and a humanitarian are a guiding presence here.

His lone action (as far as is known, he is the only non-Jewish American athlete who declined to take part at Garmisch-Partenkirchen because of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies) is recalled when the Winter Games are held every four years. He received further recognition when inducted posthumously in December into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame along with such better-known stars as sprinter Bob Hayes and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s announcement of Shea’s selection, which called him "the patriarch of the United States’ first three-generation Olympic family," simply mentioned that Shea "chose not to defend his Olympic titles at the 1936 Winter Games in Germany."

The International Olympic Committee awarded both 1936 competitions to Germany in 1931, while the country was still a democracy. After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, and the extent of Germany’s human rights violations became known, calls arose in the United States and several European countries to boycott the Games or move them.

Hitler downplayed the Olympic concerns; he promised not to discriminate against Jewish athletes. A satisfied IOC, not wishing to mix sports and politics, kept the Games in Germany.

As a sop, the German Olympic Committee put one Jew, an ice hockey player, on Germany’s Olympic team in 1936.

Avery Brundage, the clearly pro-German, anti-Semitic president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, originally considered supporting the boycott, but let himself be convinced by German declarations of sincerity.

In opposing the boycott, Brundage argued that "the Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians" and that U.S. athletes should not become involved in "the present Jew-Nazi altercation." He further alleged that a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy" wanted to keep the U.S. out of the Games.

In October 1935, a month after the Nazi government promulgated the Nuremberg Laws that further codified restrictions on German Jews, Shea wrote Brundage a long letter urging the U.S. to follow his path away from competing in Germany.

He called Brundage’s inflexible position "un-American, untrue, unsportsmanlike and thoroughly vicious."

"I cannot refrain from asking you why you are so insistent upon having the games played in Nazi Germany, or why you, an American, who presumably believes in freedom of speech and action, should attempt to throttle the free discussion of the entire issue involved in the holding of the Olympic games in Germany," he wrote. "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? Would you deny the existence of hundreds of decrees of oppression and discrimination against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Free Masons, Liberals, Pacifists and, in fact, all those who dare dissent from the Nazi views?"

Shea’s letter posed many similar rhetorical questions.

"May I ask who invested you with the authority to speak for the athletes and whether you were authorized by the athletic world to inject race and politics into the discussion of those who favor withdrawing America from the games as a protest against Nazi barbarism and the repeated violation by Germany of the spirit and the regulations underlying the Olympic games?" he asked Brundage.

Brundage never responded to Shea’s letter, James Shea says.

"Jack was very independent," says his brother Gene, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. "He didn’t like Hitler and his policies against the Jews. We were very close to the Jewish people."

"He was always interested in public welfare," James Shea says. "Athletics aside, what he did as a human being is more important" than anything he did as a skater.

‘I Would Have Whupped ‘Em’

Shea turns to more pages in the scrapbook and points to a letter from Rabbi Steven Wise, honorary president of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Wise, a leading American Zionist in the mid-20th century, had vacationed with his family at Lake Placid, as did many Jews from New York City, and knew Jack Shea, who had worked for years as a clerk in Shea’s Market.

"I notice in the Lake Placid News … that you have made this decision as an expression of your resentment against the possible participation of an American team in the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Germany in 1936," the rabbi wrote in the typed note. "It is good to find this reaffirmation of the stand previously taken by you and indicated in your letter to me of some months ago. It is to be hoped that the same courageous Americanism will be evinced by other American Olympic champions."

One newspaper wrote of Shea, "Like many other earnest people, he is convinced Germany has been guilty of flagrant injustices to the Jews. He thinks that participation in an event where such incidents might occur would be contrary to his principles and to those of our country."

Sensitized by his dealings with Jewish neighbors and customers as a child, Jack Shea followed the unfolding events in Germany as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, James Shea says.

"He knew what was going on in Nazi Germany," James Shea says. "He thought the United States should not be a part of it."

Jack Shea tried to convince other athletes not to go.

By the time of the Olympics, in February 1936, he had left Albany Law School, taking a job during the Depression as a mailman back in Lake Placid. He was delivering mail during the Games.

"I assume he followed the stuff in the newspaper," his son says.

Over the years, Jack Shea would say "I was in great shape," and speculated that had he competed in 1936, "I would have whupped ’em."

The Norwegians who won the 500- and 1,500-meter races in Shea’s absence beat or equaled his 1932 times.

Did Shea ever have second thoughts about his decision to sit out the ’36 Games, his last shot at athletic glory? His son says no.

Jack Shea would keep his gold medals in his basement, out of public view.

"The Olympic medals didn’t mean a big deal to Dad," James Shea says.

Since his death, the medals rest in a family safe deposit box.

"That’s where Dad wanted them," James Shea says.

In the close-knit community of Lake Placid resident and summer visitors, Shea’s 1936 decision still merits comments.

"It happens occasionally," James Shea says. "Old people would come up to me and say they remember Dad."

Jack Shea, who served as a town justice and a supervisor in the Town of North Elba, headed the committee that brought the Winter Olympics back to Lake Placid in 1980.

In retrospect, his concerns about the intentions of Nazi Germany were quickly proven true. Twelve days after the 1936 Winter Olympics ended, German troops began remilitarizing the Rhineland, a violation of the Versailles Treaty.

Next week: The security situation surrounding the XX Winter Games in Turin, plus a roundup of Jewish athletes who will be competing.

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