The War Torn Games
Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, they have been canceled three times. Once for the First World War and twice for the Second. The upcoming Tokyo Olympics nearly suffered the same fate. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged through last fall and into the winter, officials feared that postponing the Games to the summer of 2021 would not suffice. Thankfully, the global health picture has improved. The precarious arrival of this 32nd Olympiad, however, offers an occasion to revisit a little-known chapter of Olympic history. Like all good stories, ours begins in Marion.
Geoffrey Tootell ’44 arrived at Tabor in the fall of 1940. A lanky freshman from Kingston, Rhode Island, he had big dreams. World War II was a world away, and Marion provided the perfect bubble to pursue them. His father, Fred, had won the gold medal in the hammer throw at the 1924 Paris Olympics. The son had similar aspirations as a shot putter. He was also an ambitious student and hoped to attend an elite university. From his first day at Tabor, he pursued these goals with the tenacity of a tornado.
The war didn’t stay away for long. Starting in 1940, students participated in the new “Defense Training” program, which included riflery and manual of arms, Morse code and semaphore, marching battalion and boat drills, navigation and first-aid training, and a drum corps, all as part of the school's contribution to “national preparedness” for the war. An act of Congress designated Tabor as a Naval Honor School in 1941. In 1942, Headmaster Walter Lillard announced that he would be leaving Tabor after 26 transformative years to return to the Army as a lieutenant colonel. This was devastating news, but his versatile successor, James Wickenden, ensured the continuity of strong leadership.
By Tootell’s senior year, he was the big man on campus—literally and extracurricularly. At 6-foot-5, he towered over his peers and teachers. He was a starting tackle on the football team and The War Torn Games Geoffrey Tootell ’44 and the 1946 Inter-Allied Games held several leadership roles in the community: president of the Robat Club (a popular student-run organization that screened films for the student body every Saturday night), editor of The Log, and secretary of the senior class. A member of the Cum Laude Society, his academic record was equally impressive. “In studies,” the yearbook staff wrote on Tootell’s senior page, “he is surpassed by no one.” Despite his busy schedule, he still had time for playful mischief.
“He is in practically everything all year,” the Fore ‘n’ Aft description went on, “including hot water. His talent for raising roofs and general obstreperousness has kept him on the move during the year. No housemaster can stand it for long. Cap this amazing combination of physical and mental abilities with an abundant and indestructible good humor, and you have a lad who is bound to make good.”
He may have possessed a boy’s proclivity for pranks, but when it came to achieving his goals, he exhibited the emotional and physical fortitude of a man. This was most evident in his commitment to his main sport. Wherever he went, Tootell lugged his 12-pound shot put with him. He trained year-round, even during football season, and was the star on one of the most successful track teams in Tabor’s history. On February 26, 1944, he led that team into Madison Square Garden for the national championships. They placed seventh overall, the best result of any New England school, and Tootell won the shot put title.
“The young Tabor Academy athlete,” the Boston Globe wrote in that evening’s paper, “was easily the class of his field.”
The next fall, Tootell started at Harvard. Everything was going according to plan, that is, until his plan collided with history. At the end of his freshman year, just after his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Army and deployed to Germany as part of the occupation force. The war-torn country, with its bombed-out buildings and shell-shocked population, must have made a traumatic impression on Tootell.
By early 1946, as the physical scars of the conflict started to heal, Allied leaders searched for ways to help the international community regain some sense of normalcy. Nothing, they concluded, was more unifying than sports. Their memories drifted back to World War I when, during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, opposing soldiers laid down their arms to exchange holiday greetings and play soccer between their trenches. At the end of the Great War, an athletic competition modeled on the lost Olympics was held in Paris in June 1919. It was billed as the Inter-Allied Games. This, the World War II commanders agreed, was what they needed to replicate.
The second Inter-Allied Games, dubbed by the press as “the Allied Forces Olympics,” commenced on September 7, 1946. Competitors were invited from the armies of 12 Allied nations. Over 85,000 spectators––military personnel and German citizens–– filled Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, one of the few structures in the city that was largely undamaged by the blistering air raids. The front of the official program featured a wreath encircling the word “peace.” Criss-crossing the wreath were white flags imprinted with doves carrying olive branches. The American newspapers covered the event with reverence. One American’s performance garnered special recognition.
“Tomorrow the Olympic torch will be lit for the first time in 10 years,” the L.A. Times reported on September 8, “and the winners of the final events will be crowned on an exact replica of an Olympic winners stand. Pfc. Geoffrey Tootell of Kingston, R.I., was the star of the United States team, qualifying for tomorrow’s finals in the 200-meter dash, shot put, and discus throw.”
Tootell came up just short of a gold medal, taking the silver in shot put. It was a heroic hurl. The November 26 issue of The Log included a photograph of him on the podium, his stoic expression betraying a hint of pride and awe. He must have felt the weight of history as he received his medal in the same stadium in which Hitler had presided over the 1936 Olympics just one decade and a radically different world before.
After his military service, Tootell returned to Harvard. He was elected captain of the track team, but his academic interests soon eclipsed his athletic ones. He received his PhD in sociology from Columbia and enjoyed a long career as a beloved professor at San Jose State. He passed away in 2017, three weeks before his 90th birthday. “Geoff once said he got interested in sociology because he loved people,” a former student-turned colleague wrote in his obituary. “He was strongly committed to social justice.”
Tootell never made it to the Olympics, but his story is part of Olympic history. In 1946, he stood at the center of the world stage and took his shot. He didn’t miss.