"I’ve been washing my hand ever since.” - 1936 GB Olympic footballer Sir Daniel Pettit on meeting Adolf Hitler.
For Pettit, the most infamous sporting spectacle of modern times could so easily have been passed up. “Young people didn’t see the aura that you see in the Olympics that you see today,” he says. “Then, you were likely to be saying what will I be doing in August? Will I be on holiday or is there a marriage in the family?”
Daniel Pettit – he was knighted many years later for services to industry – was certainly a gentleman, but no child of privilege. One of six children born in the poor streets of Liverpool, Pettit’s family managed to send him to Quarrybank School. He proved a star pupil, playing junior football for Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs and winning a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1935 to read history and French. Pettit was a gentleman because he would not play football for money.
Richard Pettit vividly remembers his father banging his fist on a table and shouting, “You don’t play football for money.” Even into his early nineties, his working and footballing career left long behind in the distance, Daniel Pettit smiles at his son’s impersonation. “You were regarded as rather special just to be an amateur then,” he says with a smile. An amateur he stayed. Pettit would go to the 1936 Olympics even though he did pass up an international amateur cap in favour of a family wedding.
The kudos associated with being an amateur and a gentleman had seeped into the grammar school system that educated Daniel Pettit. After graduating from Cambridge, Pettit inevitably started turning out for Corinthians and – when back on Merseyside – for Northern Nomads. For Corinthians, the sun was setting on the club’s independence and the grand aims of Pa Jackson would soon begin to flounder.
Pettit went on Corinthians’ four-match winless tour of Denmark and Germany in April 1936. He was called up for England’s amateur team twice, playing the first game against Wales but missing the second to go to his brother’s wedding. Aged 79, Pettit told BBC Radio Worcester: “In 1936 it was still very much an amateur game that you took part in as a form of relaxation. Not something that preoccupied your life to the point that you became almost a fanatic about what you were doing in the sports arena instead of something relaxing and a team game with your fellows.”
There were no weddings in the Pettit family in the summer of 1936. When Tom Leek, a half-back with Moor Green and teacher at Buckhurst Hill School, dropped out of the Olympic squad, Daniel Pettit packed his boots for the experience of a lifetime.
Daniel Pettit was not the only last -minute entry for the 1936 Olympic football tournament as there was very nearly not any GB football team at all. Since Antwerp, football in Britain had become an insular affair. A 16-year harrumph meant that the only competitive international football competition for the British teams was the Home Nations championship. Scotland and Wales emulated England and tentatively embraced Europe, but since 1920 two Olympics featuring football and two Fifa World Cups passed without any British involvement at all.
When the 1936 Olympics in Berlin moved into sight, Britain was not certain to be involved in any sport, let alone football. The problem was not raising £4,000 to send a squad of athletes but the malevolent persecution of Germany’s Jewish minority that spread like a cancer into all walks of life. “Hands off sport, politicians,” roared Sir Noel Curtis-Bennett, Britain’s representative on the IOC in 1936, when a boycott was mooted. It was fine, of course, to say that in complacent Britain but not in Berlin, where the Nazis’ tentacles wove into everyday life with hideous effect.
A British boycott lobby was organised by the National Workers’ Sports Associations but few potential Olympic players were in the NWSA. As the threat of another world war edged ever closer, football’s administrators in Britain were isolated by their own boycott – not a political one, but over that same hoary old chestnut: amateurism.
As the British associations withdrew during the 1920s they were gripped by an English inspired paranoia over the rest of the world’s inability to play by their Corinthian standards. After 1920, payments for broken time became commonplace in Belgium, Italy, France, Norway and Switzerland.
The FA were suspicious of most countries outside the British Isles, who were suspected of lax standards. No one understood the principles of the British game. Or so the FA thought. When the BOA’s members assembled at London’s Dorchester Hotel for their 1934 annual dinner, no footballers or administrators from the sport were present – a pessimistic portent for anyone hoping for a return to the Olympic football tournament in Berlin.
The Home Nations were so entrenched that sending a football team to Berlin barely merited discussion until the very year of the Games. In April 1936, reports circulated that football’s return to the Olympic Games after an eight-year absence would involve no more than eight teams. The Germans were furious amateurs with standards akin to the British. This was demonstrated to sinister effect after the Germans annexed Austria in March 1938. Professionalism was soon outlawed as “unworthy of a German man”.
The problematic ideals of amateurism, however, threatened to blight the 1936 Olympic football tournament. The organisers could not afford such a paltry turnout, which would have been disastrous. Football was expected to offset much of the cost of staging the overall Games. A quickly spun PR rebuttal was fired off. The hosts bullishly insisted that 19 teams, including the likes of China, Haiti and India, would play in Berlin.
Other countries cited as confirmed entrants ranged from Lithuania to Japan. The Home Nations were absent from this wishlist along with France, where the professional game was burgeoning. Talking up the tournament, the organisers reiterated that their football tournament would adhere to the amateur rules that strictly governed Germany’s 600,000 senior players and the 900,000 juniors. No broken-time payments would be made, a claim which was made to win over the uncompromising British.
In April 1936 the Germans wrote to the FA asking for a team of not just English but British footballers to come to Berlin. But a British side would endanger the new independence that Scotland and Wales found by embracing Europe. According to their records, the FA wrote to the Scots and the Northern Irish but not the Welsh about the Germans’ missive. By June 1936 they had not received any reply. Having been absent since 1920 and with little sign of entering Fifa’s nascent World Cups, the traditionalists wanted a return to the Olympics. The FA’s power-brokers gave the other Home Nations two options: nominate players for a British team or let England represent Great Britain – yet again.
In the spring and early summer of the Olympic year, officials from the four Home Nations’ FAs met all across the land, from Shanklin in the Isle of Wight to Troon in Scotland. But they only met their fellow countrymen.
Divided by four, the English met only other Englishmen, the Scots with the Scots, and so on. The Scottish administrators in particular remained in a dudgeon. In 1909 the SFA had complained by letter to the FA over their participation in the 1908 Olympics as Great Britain. That letter went unanswered.
For the Scottish administrators, the principle of a joint team was so “great” according to SFA records that a simple sub-committee could not decide whether they would participate in a joint team. Only the main Scottish FA board could rule on the notion of Scots playing as Britain on a football field. The next meeting of the main Scots FA board was 5 August – and the Games started on 2 August. As British football’s bureaucrats shuffled from one provincial town to another, incapable of talking to anyone but themselves, the Games moved ever closer, marked only by inaction.
On 4 July, the four Home Nations’ associations finally sat down. A statement was issued two days later confirming that a team of gentlemen would go to Berlin on the proviso that the tournament was conducted within the British definition of an amateur. No other objection was lodged or definition asked of the Germans about the competition.
This is an extract from GB United? British Olympic football and the end of the amateur dream’ by Steve Menary (Pitch Publishing 2010). Steve’s book is tremendously topical, now more than ever, however it’s a thoroughly fascinating read that ticks all of the unputodownable boxes whenever you choose to read it.
To buy a hard copy or Kindle version, click here.