NYC Celebrates Olympic Athletes

For almost a century, with receptions, special medals, gala dinners, and for some, the ultimate accolade—a ticker-tape parade—New York City has recognized American athletic achievement in the Olympic Games. The Municipal Archives and Library collections, notably the mayoral series and photographs, provide rich documentation of this happy tradition.

The oldest item in the collections is a seating list for the October 2, 1920, "Dinner Tendered to the Victorious American Olympic Team.” Mayor John F. Hylan’s Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests filled 96 tables at the Waldorf Astoria with athletes returning from the Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium, along with their families and friends, and City dignitaries.

The first ticker-tape parade for Olympic athletes took place on August 6, 1924. The U.S. had swept all five titles in tennis and 13 out of 16 swimming events at the Paris games. American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller won three gold medals. He subsequently went to Hollywood where he starred in a dozen movies as “Tarzan the Ape Man.” Another member of the 1924 American team, rower Benjamin Spock, later achieved greater renown as a pediatrician and book author.

For the 1924 Olympic athletes, the Mayor’s Committee once again hosted a gala dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. The menu, along with extensive correspondence to and from guests invited to the parade and dinner can be found in the Mayor’s Reception Committee collection.

Heavy rain on August 28, 1928, cancelled the ticker-tape parade planned for American athletes returning from the summer games in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Contemporary newspaper accounts noted that almost every team member purchased wooden shoes as a souvenir. Although they missed their parade, the City did treat them to a luncheon at the Hotel McAlpin. The Mayor’s Reception Committee file includes the S. S. President Roosevelt Passenger List specially prepared for the American Olympic Team.

Olympic World Champions at City Hall, February 19, 1932. Photo by Eugene de Salignac. Dept of Bridges/Plant & Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On February 19, 1932, Mayor Walker (in dark overcoat, front row center) posed on the steps of City Hall with Olympic athletes returning from the winter games at Lake Placid, New York. Walker singled-out New Yorkers Irving Jaffee, winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 meter skating races, Jay O’Brien, brake on the four-man bobsled, and sled driver Billy Fiske. Walker took particular pride in the fact that Jaffee had been educated in New York City public schools. The eight women in the photo made up almost half of the twenty-one women who competed in the 1932 Winter Olympics.

The Archives collection does not include photographs of Jesse Owens or any of the other athletes dating from 1936, but on September 1, 1964, Mayor Robert Wagner was photographed with the former Olympian Owens (at left) in front of City Hall during ceremonies to help launch a cross-country relay race to raise money for the U.S. Olympic team. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

On September 3, 1936, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia honored the U. S. Olympic team with a ticker-tape parade on their return from the summer games in Berlin. African-American Jessie Owens upset Adolph Hitler’s theories of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals in track and field events. Mayor LaGuardia presented medals to the American team at a ceremony on Randall’s Island after the parade. Alluding to the German press comment that Americans would have been nowhere without its “black auxiliary force,” Mayor LaGuardia said, “We are all Americans here and we have no auxiliaries in this country.”

After World War II, New York City continued to recognize the American Olympic teams. On July 7, 1952, the City staged a ticker-tape parade for athletes departing for the Helsinki, Finland games. The American team went on to win 75 medals in the international contest, the most of any nation. The second-place Russian team, competing for the first time since 1912, won 68 medals. The Mayor’s Reception Committee collection contains extensive documentation of the 1952 parade and related festivities.

The 1952 festivities included a gala dinner for the athletes at the Waldorf Astoria on June 28.

Former Olympic track and field medal winner Pat McDonald, and swimming champion Gertrude Ederle rode with Mayor’s Reception Committee Chairman Grover Whalen (at right) in the parade, July 7, 1952.

The American women athletes marching up Broadway. July 7, 1952. Mayor's Reception Committe, NYC Municipal Archives.

The City honored Carol Heiss, the women’s Olympic figure-skating champion with a parade on March 9, 1960. According to Sports Illustrated, the 20-year-old Queens native “delivered one of the most polished performances in Olympic figure-skating history,” when she won the gold medal at the winter games in Squaw Valley, California. Six week later she married 1956 Olympic figure-skating champion Hayes Jenkins. Before settling in Ohio to raise three children, she gave Hollywood a try, starring in the 1961 production of Snow White and the Three Stooges.

Carol Heiss arriving at City Hall, March 9, 1960. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

Although athletes returning from the summer games in Rome in 1960 did not get a ticker-tape parade, Mayor Wagner welcomed several medal winners to City Hall for special ceremonies.

Mayor Wagner greeted Muhammed Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, the light heavyweight champion at City Hall on September 9, 1960. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

On September 26, 1960, at City Hall, Mayor Wagner presented special medallions to Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics, and to broad jump champion, Ralph Boston. Official Mayoral Photograph, NYC Municipal Archives.

Lynn Burke, kissing Mayor Wagner as he presents her with a City medallion, September 1960. Official Mayoral Photographs, NYC Municipal Archives.

Flushing, Queens, resident Lynn Burke, winner of the 100 and 200-meter backstroke races, returned from the Rome games aboard a chartered Pan-American World Airways plane on September 8, 1960. The Journal-American newspaper account of her arrival quoted her father, Robert, swimming coach at the Flushing YMCA: “We are going to celebrate with a bottle of champagne without alcohol.” The article also noted Burke walked off the plane carrying an ornamental duck and dog.

During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the City scaled-back its ticker-tape celebrations. Mayor Koch revived the tradition in 1984 for a parade to honor the U.S. Olympic medal winners from the Los Angeles Games. The parade took place on August 15, and gymnast Mary Lou Retton was the crowd’s favorite from among the more than 200 athletes participating in the event.

Mayor Ed Koch with Olympic athletes, including Mary Lou Retton, right, August 15, 1984. Mayor Edward I. Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

More recent mayors have honored Olympic athletes with quieter ceremonies. On October 7, 1992, Mayor David Dinkins appeared at City Hall with Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic gold-medalist at the 1992 winter games in Albertville, France, to unveil the 1992 annual Christmas Seal. Yamaguchi had been appointed the American lung Association Christmas Seal Chairperson.

Mayor David Dinkins with Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic gold-medalist, 1992. Mayor David N. Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

This year 242 Americans are competing in the 23rd Winter Olympic Games. Twenty-two athletes are from New York State, including NYC-born para-Olympic Alpine skier Staci Manella. Who knows—maybe another celebration is in order?