As part of the national uprising against police violence and for black lives, monuments to white supremacy are coming down all over. Some activists have taken matters into their own hands, yanking down statues of slaveholders and colonizers. At other times, institutions have decided that the time is right to face their own history and remove problematic memorials.
Recently, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco announced that it would remove its own bust of Avery Brundage—whose massive collection is displayed in the museum—from its prominent location and place it in storage to collect dust. Brundage was the ironfisted president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972.
In Olympic circles, Brundage is infamous for his racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Time and again, he took positions that placed him on the wrong side of history. The removal of Brundage’s bust is long overdue. His toxic concoction of -isms and his perma-frown belong in the dustbin of history.
We received comment from Dr. Jay Xu, director and CEO at the Asian Art Museum. He said that the museum had planned to remove the bust in the spring, but then the pandemic hit. Even though we are still immersed in that public health nightmare, museum officials believed that the recent protests for black lives showed it was time to act. “Examining the record, asking hard questions, and rewriting the story are what a museum does,” Dr. Xu told us. “It’s why we all feel motivated by this moment.”
Brundage clung to the belief that politics and the Olympics should never mix, famously proclaiming, “We actively combat the introduction of politics into the Olympic movement and are adamant against the use of the Olympic Games as a tool or as a weapon by any organization.” His legacy remains in IOC policy. Earlier this year, the committee explicitly prohibited “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.”
In the late 1960s, Brundage was known as “Slavery Avery” for his anti-black racism. When athletes and their allies formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967, they listed a series of demands, among them the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title and the exclusion from US athletic events of all-white sports squads from South Africa and Rhodesia. They also singled out “Slavery Avery,” calling for the “removal of the anti-Semitic and anti-black personality Avery Brundage from his post as Chairman of the International Olympic Committee.”
Brundage did not take kindly to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic act of political dissent on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, when they thrust their black-gloved fists into the Mexico City sky to promote black freedom and human rights. Brundage played a key role in getting the athletes booted from the Olympic Village. Weeks later, in response to people who wrote him letters chastising Carlos and Smith, Brundage offered a range of castigations from “The boys were sent home, but they should not have been there in the first place” to “As a matter of fact, people of that kind should not have been on the Olympic team at all. This was not a schoolboy prank, as some seem to think…. it left international repercussions very harmful to our country.”
When it came to women and sports, Brundage was a reactionary. Another nickname, “Avery Umbrage,” captured his feelings about the participation of women athletes at the Olympics. In 1957, setting the tone as president of the International Olympic Committee, Brundage wrote in a letter to fellow members of the IOC, “Many still believe that events for women should be eliminated from the Games, but this group is now a minority. There is still, however, a well grounded protest against events which are not truly feminine, like putting a shot, or those too strenuous for most of the opposite sex, such as distance runs.” At the time, around 20 percent of Olympic athletes were women.
Brundage was also anti-Semitic. In the early 1930s, as momentum built to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of Hitler’s increasingly alarming attacks on Jewish people, Brundage came to the Germans’ defense. As head of the American Olympic Committee, Brundage traveled to Germany to investigate anti-Jewish discrimination for himself and concluded that everything was fine and dandy. He told The New York Times,
The fact that no Jews have been named so far to compete for Germany doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been discriminated against on that score. In forty years of Olympic history, I doubt if the number of Jewish athletes competing from all nations totaled 1 per cent of all those in the games.
(This number, pulled from the dark recesses of Brundage’s mind, wasn’t close to being accurate.)
In private, Brundage stripped away the varnish. In one letter to IOC power broker Sigfrid Edström, he complained, “The New York newspapers which are largely controlled by Jews, devote a very considerable percentage of their news columns to the situation in Germany. The articles are 99% anti-Nazi.” He reasoned,
As a result, probably 90% of the populace is anti-Nazi. The Jews have been clever enough to realize the publicity value of sport and are making every effort to involve the American Olympic Committee. Boycotts have been started by the Jews which have aroused the citizens of German extraction to reprisals. Jews with communistic and socialistic antecedents have been particularly active, and the result is that the same sort of class hatred which exists in Germany and which every sane man deplores, is being aroused in the United States.
After Hitler’s Olympics, Brundage poured on the praise, revealing his alarmingly retrograde politics. “We can learn much from Germany,” he wrote. “We, too, if we wish to preserve our institutions, must stamp out communism. We, too, must take steps to arrest the decline of patriotism.” In his personal notes, he even concluded, “An intelligent, beneficent dictatorship is the most efficient form of government. Observe what happened in Germany for six or seven years in the 1930’s.”
San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is doing the right thing. To be sure, the museum has become far less dependent on Brundage’s original collection, making his largesse far less essential to the museum’s mission. Dr. Xu says, “In more recent years, especially in the context of our 50th anniversary in 2016, our research yielded new insights into Brundage’s views, as well as the perspective that Brundage was in fact only part of the museum’s origin story: The people of San Francisco played a much larger role in raising the funds necessary to bring his collection ‘home’ than is typically known.”
Avery Brundage consistently threaded together some of the most virulent strains of right-wing hate. The removal of his bust from the San Francisco Asian Art Museum is a righteous decision. There is much to learn from Brundage. He should be studied. His “contributions” to Olympic history need to be understood. But he has long forfeited a place of honor and respect.