Was there an unsolved poisoning case at the 1932 Olympics?

The last time we ran into American swimmer Eleanor Holm, she was being unceremoniously booted off the 1936 Olympic squad for either being catatonically drunk or refusing to sleep with the president of the American Olympic Committee, noted asshole Avery Brundage. It depends on who you ask. At the time, Holm was a reasonably big deal. Having won gold in women’s 100m backstroke four years earlier in Los Angeles, she was favored to repeat in Berlin. That, obviously, didn’t happen, but she did parlay her sporting success into a career as a minor celebrity, which included a starring role in the 1938 film Tarzan’s Revenge. Good for her.

The wildest thing about Holm, however, wasn’t the controversy in Berlin, her several (allegedly) riotous affairs or even the movie appearances. That title belongs firmly to her 1932 gold medal, which was won in the midst of an unsolved poisoning controversy. Let’s dig in.

Going into the ‘32 Olympics, the 100m backstroke looked like a fight between Holm, then a rising star, and the defending champion, Dutch swimmer Zus Braun. That’s not how things worked out. Here’s what the AP wire had to say about Holm’s victory:

Petite Eleanor Holm, of the New York Women’s Swimming Association, gave America its third women’s championship by winning the 100-meter backstroke finals from Bonnie Mealing, of Australia, by a foot. Her time of 1.19.4 was considerably slower than the 1.18.3 which she set in preliminaries for a new Olympic record.

First of all, the current women’s 100m backstroke record, set by Reagan Smith in 2019, is now well under a minute. So that’s funny. Second, and for our purposes far more importantly, there’s no Zus Braun in sight. This is because Braun, despite qualifying for the final, didn’t participate. What with being in hospital and all.

Braun didn’t emerge again for three weeks, and wasn’t fit enough to travel back home to the Netherlands until mid-October. At one point, she was running a 107° fever, and doctors were seriously worried that she wouldn’t make it. What happened to her? Here’s one version of the story, from the Victoria Daily Times:

In the 100-metre backstroke [Braun] won her first heat in the first round. Then came the tragedy which has probably ended her career. She was badly bitten by an insect. Blood poisoning set in followed by a bad fever.

Aaaaand here is Braun’s version of the story, which she told the Dutch press when she got back home:

It was impossible to swim on the afternoon of the final of the 100 metres backstroke. They gave me very hot and very cold baths, but that did not help. I got a heavy fever, 42 degrees [Celsius]. A Dutch doctor came to see me and said that I had to go to the hospital immediately. There, four doctors examined my leg. I heard one of them say: ‘But this is not an infection’. Then they realized that I could understand English and walked away to discuss the case somewhere else. Suddenly, I remembered the stab in the swimming stadium and the two American men. It must have happened there.

Emphasis is mine there, obviously, because THE STAB?! THE TWO AMERICANS?! Clearly we need more information here.

According to Braun, whose presser was translated by Ruud Paauw in the 2001 Journal of Olympic History, on Aug. 9 she was watching the 400m men’s freestyle final from a section of stands reserved for foreign Olympic participants when she noticed two “young Americans” who seemed both out of place and to be monitoring her closely. As the race ended, she stood up and felt a stab in her left leg. The two Americans ahead of her vanished from the scene.

Over the course of the next day her leg started seizing up, and by the 12th — the date of the backstroke final — Braun was in hospital. The official diagnosis, as we’ve already mentioned, was blood poisoning. Sepsis is of course possible from an insect bite, and 1932 was a little before the widespread use of antibiotics, so, sure, believable, I guess. But still, not that believable.

What about the two men? What about the stab? There was another weird incident before the Brauns left Los Angeles too: “Mother noticed that there was a young man who often stood about our apartment, but when she tried to speak to him he ran away.”

Crimes, of course, need a motive, and in Braun’s version, it’s money. Apparently — and I’ve tried fruitlessly to verify this in various archives — there was significant money wagered on the 100m women’s backstroke that year, and by removing Holm’s closest competitor, some people stood to make a lot of money.

Is this mostly conjecture? Yes. But is it significantly less plausible that an Olympic swimmer was poisoned to eliminate her from the finals than an Olympics swimmer missing the finals through an infected insect bite? Not … really?

Frankly, the story is wild no matter how you look at it: either a criminal conspiracy catapulted Eleanor Holm to minor stardom and set her on a path towards both Tarzan’s Revenge and a run-in with Avery Brundage or an ‘insect bite’ did (with my biology hat on, I’d guess a spider or maaaaybe a mis-diagnosed staph infection).

Braun, meanwhile, never swam again. And, because there are no time-travelling PIs on the scene, we’ll never really know why.

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