Avery Brundage was a successful builder of Chicago skycrapers, one of the foremost collectors of Asian art in the world, and a philanthropist who left an art collection to San Francisco and a scholarship fund at the University of Illinois. But he was best known worldwide for his advocacy for amateur sports and sometimes for controversial decisions affecting the Olympic Games. He was so controversial at times that some of his most severe critics would argue that Brundage would be an apt candidate for a Hall of Shame for some of his actions. Other historians would acknowledge his flaws but would not be as harsh in their judgments. There is no doubt that he was one of the most famous Illinoisans on the global stage in the middle part of the Twentieth Century.
He was born in Detroit on Sept. 28, 1887 and moved to Chicago as a child. He graduated from Chicago English High School in 1905 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at in 1909.
Brundage was a star in track and field for the University of Illinois and three years after graduation, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in the decathalon at the Fifth Games of the Modern Era at Stockholm in 1912. In 1915, he founded The Avery Brundage Company, a leading builder of commercial buildings and skyscrapers in the Chicago area. Three times Brundage was named U.S. all-around amateur champion in 1914, 1916, and 1918. He became a director of The Chicago Trust Company in 1926 and married Elizabeth Dunlap of Chicago in 1927.
Brundage had retired from amatueur athletic competition in the early 1920s but began a volunteer career as a sports organizer in 1928 when he became President of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and also President of the United States Olympic Association and Committee (later called U.S. Olympic Committee or USOC) in 1929. He became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1936. Controversy arose when a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Herbert Hoover, and the son of German immigrants, Ernest Lee Jahnke, pushed for the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin due to the anti-Jewish crimes of the Nazis that were already apparent even in 1936. Brundage opposed the boycott and the U.S. Olympic Committee narrowly voted to attend as did most nations. Brundage then as later would take the position that politics had no business interfering with Olympic competition. Ironically, two Jewish athletes slated to run in the 400 meter relay were replaced at the last minute by two African-American athletes, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Metcalfe was elected to Congress from Illinois in 1970 and served until his death in 1978. According to The Chicago Daily Tribune of Aug. 2, 1936, Brundage pushed in a close vote for Tokyo to be the site of the 1940 Olympic Games that were never held due to World War II.
Brundage was active in Chicago buisness and was Vice President of the Chicago Association of Commerce in 1937 and became president of the Roanoke Hotel Corporation from 1939 to 1945. He also remained as president of The Avery Brundage Company until 1947. Like Charles Lindbergh, Brundage made pro-German statements just before, but not after, America's entry into World War II. He invented the idea of the Pan American Games but the first one could not be held in 1942 due to the war. He revived the idea in 1951 and the games were held. In 1952, Avery Brundage became President of the International Olympic Committee and served in that post for the next 20 years until he retired after the Games in Munich in 1972. Brundage as the IOC president made the controversial decision to complete the 1972 competition even after the murder of ten Israeli athletes and one coach by Palestinian terrorists of the Black September Movement affiliated with Yasser Arafat and Fatah. The drama started with a hostage-taking of the athletes in the Olympic Village on Sept. 5. While Brundage was severely criticized for ordering that the games continue and most countries finished the competition, a memorial rally of 80,000 people was also held in the Olympic Stadium during a day when the games were suspended in memory of the athletes. Defenders of Brundage argued that the best way to honor the slain Israeli athletes was to continue with the games and not let the terrorists succeed in canceling all competition. It put all the athletes whose events had not yet been held in a bad dilemma but most agreed with the latter view and wanted to compete.
After the death of his first wife in 1971, Avery Brundage married Mariann Princess Reuss in 1973 and died in Germany in 1975 at the age of 87. Brundage is buried in Rosehill Cemetery on the northside of Chicago.