Lilian and the 1936 Olympic Games
The Olympic Games we know and celebrate today originated as early as 776 BC in Ancient Greece. They began as a religious festivity that would be held every four years in Olympia to honor the gods. Over time, these games were adapted by other cultures as well and, in 1890, a French aristocrat named Baron Pierre de Coubertin was inspired to revive the games as an international institution. Over the next few years, he collaborated with 78 leaders from 37 athletic unions, formally establishing the International Olympic Committee in 1894. The first Olympic Games held by the International Olympic Committee were then hosted in Athens in 1896 and featured 241 athletes from 14 nations. Now held every two years in locations all over the world, the Olympic Games have grown exponentially since their IOC debut in 1896. The most recent games were held in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018 and boasted 2,922 athletes, 2,681 more than in 1986.
Each of the games has been of great cultural significance based on the context of their time and location, but few have been held during a tenser political climate than the 1936 Summer Olympics. These games were hosted in Berlin, Germany during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Hitler frequently made use of heavy propaganda during his time as Fuhrer, and these games were no different. He won the bid to host the games in Berlin and ordered the construction of a brand-new stadium that would seat 100,000 people for track and field games alone. This was also the first Olympic Games to be televised and to feature the torch relay. Hitler hoped to ensure his games were better than those that had been held in Los Angeles four years prior and aimed to use them as a means to prove his misguided views of antisemitism and Aryan superiority. He went so far as to exclude Jewish participants from the event, even those who had earned their spots, such as Gretel Bergmann who set a record in the high-jump days before her exclusion. Gretel was used to trick skeptics in the IOC into believing Jewish participants would be allowed before being barred from competing. Despite Hitler’s efforts to promote white German supremacy, African-American sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens proved to be the most popular hero of the games, winning four gold medals in relays and the long jump.
These games are significant because of their place in world history, but they hold a special significance for local history, as well. It just so happens that two notable individuals from Seneca, S.C. attended the Berlin Games, one as a tourist and the other as an athletic participant.
We know from her sizable memorabilia collection that Lilian Lunney traveled extensively between 1924 and 1948. She visited several places internationally as well as South America, Canada, and many areas within the continental U.S. In July 1936, she and more than forty other people traveled to Europe as part of a Good Will Christian tour in collaboration with the World’s Sunday School Convention in Oslo, Norway, from July 6-12, 1936. Throughout this tour, the group traveled to Ireland, England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and France. They stopped in Berlin and, due to a time-table and programme collected from the event, we believe that Mrs. Lunney was in attendance of the Olympic opening ceremonies on August 1st, 1936. The introduction typed inside the first fold of the programme includes the following passage:
Lovers of sport in all parts of the world are therefore invited to attend this classical festival of sport and thus assist in making the celebration a complete success. We count on the participation of the best of the sporting youth of fifty nations. We can only wish that their fellow-countrymen, indeed the entire sporting world, represented by enthusiastic devotees of sport, may be present, so that the incomparable contests may be held before their eyes and the teams be enabled to do their best, encouraged by the applause of their friends and fellow-countrymen.
One such sporting youth participating in the games was Seneca local, Kathlyn Kelley. Kathlyn was sixteen years old and a student at Keowee High School when she earned a spot on the USA Olympic Track and Field team in the Berlin Summer Olympics with a high-jump of five feet, one-and-a-half inches. After she qualified at the tryouts in Providence on July 4th, 1946, she had “25 cents in her purse” and believed that the Olympic Committee would “take care” of her expenses. However, due to the economy of the Great Depression, there were no funds for the women’s team, so she and others turned to their communities for aid. When Kathlyn turned to Seneca for help, her city rose to the occasion. “The folks in Oconee County - that’s the county where Seneca is - raised it right away,” she told a newspaper journalist in an interview from July 1936. “Before long a check came from Harry Hughes - he’s a senator - and I didn’t have to worry any more.”
Before traveling to Berlin, the farthest she had ever traveled was to Asheville, N.C. and she had “never been on a big boat.” “I thought that was a long ways from home,” she said. “ But Berlin - gee, I looked on the map and it’s a thousand times farther away than Asheville.” Before the Olympics began, she was able to dine with American High-Jump Champion Jean Shiley, who won a gold medal at the games in 1932. She also roomed with two other gold medalists while in Berlin. Ultimately, Kathlyn ranked 9th out of seventeen women and was the youngest member overall of the United States Olympic team.
We can not say for certain at this time if Lilian Lunney knew Kathlyn Kelley personally from their shared residency in Seneca and Oconee County, but it is heartwarming to imagine Lilian cheering from the stands as young Kathlyn represented their country and their community with the whole world watching.