The Xth Olympiad hosted by Los Angeles from July 31 through August 14, 1932, overflowed with drama and intrigue in everything from finances to competition. None was as striking as the Brazilian team’s adventure in making it to California, using coffee as its payment. Although all countries suffered financial setbacks due to the Great Depression, none dreamed up as creative a scheme to fund their trip.
It was a miracle the Games even made it to Los Angeles, as many of Europe’s reigning sports elites viewed the city as a sleazy frontier outpost. Real estate man Billy Garland spent 12 years lobbying and winning the rights to the 1932 Olympics for Los Angeles, unsure of how to garner public support or financing for the Games in the city. Once the stock market bottomed out in 1929, global financial doldrums led to the possibility of few teams participating or sending fans while ticket sales plummeted.
An AP photo in the Aug. 12, 1932, Las Vegas Daily Optic.
In November 1931, newspaper reports stated that the Brazilian Sports Federation hoped to combine forces with Chile and Argentina to share costs on sending their teams to Los Angeles. Almost half as many athletes competed in 1932 as did in the 1928 Summer Games, and countries trimmed their rosters on the eve of the competition. The Norwegian community in Los Angeles mostly financed the Norwegian national team’s trip, and actor Jean Hersholt funded a large part of the Danish team’s expenses.
Brazil floundered as it considered how to bankroll their team’s travels. One of the largest countries in land area saw its main cash crop coffee drop precipitously in price. Many growers destroyed their coffee crops rather than sell at a huge loss, while others hoarded beans in warehouses hoping for prices to rise. With the nation’s coffers spare, the country considered not sending a team.
An unknown official dreamed up a scheme to pay for the trip, sending the team and guests on a freighter loaded with 50,000 pounds of coffee to sell at ports along the way. The revenue would finance travel to and from the United States and pay for expenses while at the Games. Edwin V. Morgan, United States ambassador to Brazil, wired the Brazilians’ plans to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce on May 30. The Los Angeles Times reported that Olympic officials, steamship men, coffee importers, the Brazilian Consulate, and government officials huddled to consider what to do. While Californians paid $1.3 million to $2.5 million for Brazilian crops, mainly coffee, the company purchased little in return. Los Angeles’ Chamber of Commerce suggested that Brazilian businesses purchase merchandise here for the return trip to offset costs of Americans buying their coffee.
The New York Daily News, Aug. 9, 1932.
The Brazilian Sports Federation on behalf of the government chartered the merchant marine ship Itaquice, which departed Brazil June 24 to transport the team, the 50-member National Brazilian Marine Band, and guests to Los Angeles. Team members included 12 male swimmers and one female swimmer, Maria Lenk, 15 rowers, 26 track and field athletes, and the eight-member water polo team.
Captain Charles Joel Nelli headed the team, the second pole vaulter for the country who worked as sports editor for the São Paulo Gazeta back home. Arthur Asevedo, who served as a reporter for the Journal dos Sports, served as coach. Dr. Jorge Pereira, a top Brazilian surgeon, also accompanied the team, though married just days before. At the last minute, he was sent along with his wife on the trip, spending much of the travel time tending to seasick passengers. During stops at ports along the way, athletes played exhibition matches with local teams while others attempted to sell coffee. When the ship arrived at the Panama Canal, the Brazilians found themselves unable to pay the toll until the Banco do Brasil arrived with funds a few days later.
Almost 38,000 bags of coffee remained aboard when the Itaquice docked at Berth 59, Outer Harbor, on July 22, half of which would be unloaded there in Los Angeles. Officers had prepared no manifest nor passenger declarations before the ship’s arrival. Adding to the difficulties, rebels attacked São Paulo on July 10 and initiated revolution as the group steamed to the Games. Once arrived, the group found themselves unable to pay the full one-dollar a head tax to the United States Immigration Service due to the plummeting value in the Brazilian currency. Only 24 athletes, the ones with the most chance of winning medals, disembarked that day, while the rest headed with the ship to San Francisco in hopes of selling the rest of their cargo. On July 30, Swayne & Holt, custom house officials, filed action against the ship for $1,600 in wharf fees they were still due.
Upon arrival in San Francisco a few days later, only an additional 31 athletes adorned in bright red were allowed to disembark after payment of fees, with 15 stuck on board. Many of the athletes and crew found themselves stuck without money, after additional funds failed to appear. 10,000 meter runner Adalberto Cardoso hitchhiked to Los Angeles by riding all night in a truck, arriving just 10 minutes before the start of his race. Exhausted from his travels and running barefoot, Cardoso finished last, though the crowds gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation in recognition of his Olympic spirit of courage and determination to compete. Perhaps because of their dramatic journey, the Brazilian team failed to win any medals during the Xth Olympiad, gaining a high of fourth place in a rowing event.
Brazil’s water polo team brought notoriety to the delegation after their loss to Germany on August 8. Throughout the match, Hungarian referee Béla Komjádi issued several questionable calls against the team to their vehement objections. Crowds booed the judge and what they considered his discrimination against Brazil. Arguments ensued in Hungarian and Portuguese. When Germany won 7-3 at the conclusion of the game, the Brazilians stormed the judge on his little podium, throwing punches as spectators joined the melee. Police and Olympic attendants rushed to the scene to break up the brawl. Dr. Leo Donath, the Hungarian president of the International Swimming Federation, disqualified the Brazilian team from further competition
Financial difficulties prevented the Itaquice from returning to Los Angeles until August 6, leaving many Brazlilian athletes to wonder if or when they would return home. On August 19, the Iraquice finally departed for Brazil after the country forwarded money to cover expenses and deliquencies. While the cruise home went smoothly, travel inside Brazil remained threatening.
The continuing revolution halted rail transportation between Rio de Janiero and São Paulo. Thirty two athletes including Maria Lenk found themselves marooned again. Offered safe housing in Rio, they declined the offer after finding free passage on a freighter to São Sebastião, where the group then traveled by small boat to a place where they accessed the rugged passes of the Serra do Mar. The hardy band spent a day and a half traversing the mountains before finding a truck driver who drove them to Cacapava where they could catch the train to São Paulo. Though delayed by fighting in the area, the train eventually reached São Paulo and safety. While winning no medals, the group demonstrated grace under pressure, performing courageously and admirably in the dangerous passages to and from Brazil.