Wednesday, March 28, 2018

V 8 N. 24 "His Own Man The Biography of Otto Peltzer" by Tim Johnston and Donald Macgregor, a book review

His Own Man, the Biography of Otto Peltzer, Champion Athlete, Nazi Victim, Indian Hero
                                        by  Tim Johnston and Donald Macgregor
                                               Publisher:  Pitch Publishing
                                                     Worthing, Sussex, UK
                                                                256 Pages

Peltzer?  Otto Peltzer?  You may be asking this question as did I when the existence of this remarkable book was brought to my attention.  Very few of us can recognize names of famous athletes whose histories extend more than sixty or seventy years into the past.  In Otto Peltzer's case his internationally competitive period goes back over 90 years to the mid 1920s.  Name a few athletes in any sport ninety years ago who are truly remembered today by the man on the street.  Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Eric Liddell, Babe Ruth, Charley Paddock, Paavo Nurmi? How bout Jackson Pollack or Abel Kiviat? Who was president or prime minster in the 1920s?  Go on, name some more without consulting a reference book.  That gives Seb Coe, Usain Bolt, and Wayde van Niekerk until the year 2100 to be remembered without consulting a Smartphone.

Tim Johnston and Donald Macgregor have chosen a man well worth remembering.  Otto Peltzer was a world record holder in long sprints and middle distances of 500 meters, 800 meters, 880 yards, 1000 meters, and 1500 meters.  Incidentally only one of those records was set on his home turf, Germany.  He was an innovator and student of training methods, physiologist, psychologist, and nutritionist.  He knew gamesmanship before a big race.   He loved to delay a start by being late to the line and then throwing in a false start for good measure to unnerve the competition

Peltzer's fall from grace in his homeland came due to his outspokeness and his homosexuality and the change in political environment in the 1930s.  He was condemned to spending the last four  years of World War II in a Nazi concentration camp, Mauthausen, one of the toughest, and he carried forty pound rocks out of a quarry for most of those years.  He suffered numerous beatings, was fed starvation rations, and endured constant humilitations at the hands of the Kapos.  Like Louis Zamperini, he was forced to run against the new, still healthy inmates being brought into the camp, even against relay teams, and he managed to beat most of them, which led to more beatings.  And yet by luck and will power he survived.  Three months after his liberation at the age of 45, he recovered and was  able to run a 5000 meters in 17 minutes 52 seconds.  Ask any 30 years old newcomer to running today if they could even consider running that fast.

So who was this man Otto Peltzer?  What drove him?  Who were his influences?  Who were his detractors?  Who persecuted him?   Who enabled him to find redemption in the later years of his life?   There are still mysteries surrounding Peltzer.   He was a prolific writer and lecturer on sport and training and health.  Yet many of his papers disappeared during the war.  Tim Johnston and Donald Macgegor have done remarkable work reviving Peltzer's life, so that we may read and learn about those times and how they affected one of the world's best athletes.  He was a favorite of the German public. Yet Peltzer had failures on the track as well as huge triumphs.  One of those areas where he failed was the Olympics.  Johnston and Macgregor have produced some fascinating information about the 1932 Los Angeles Games and how they were perceived by the German officialdom.  Carl Diem the head of the German Olympic team was no fan of Peltzer.  Indeed he hounded Peltzer through most of Peltzer's life.  Peltzer was not afraid to speak truth to power, and it got him in a lot of trouble with authority in the shape of politicians.  He was fortunate to have family money behind him which enabled him to train in times when there was little or no compensation to athletes, and they were constantly on the verge of being judged to be professional and thus banned from amateur competition.  It happened to Paavo Nurmi, Jules Ladoumegue, Gunder Haag and others.
Peltzer and Paavo Nurmi
This training session is described in the book.

If you are a student of history as well as sport you will be doubly rewarded by taking up this book.  If you are by chance a Germanophile, you will be even more rewarded.  The research that went into this work  must have been exhausting.  I was constantly struck by the depth to which Johnston and Macgregor  have dug during the writing of this book.  As mentioned before, Peltzer left six books behind him, but they did not begin to uncover all aspects of his life.  I had heard of Eric Liddell, the Scots missionary to China, who was one of the heroes of the film Chariots of Fire having still run a few races in China after his 1924 victory and world record in the 400 meters in Paris.   But I didn't know that he had run against Peltzer in Tianjin, China when Peltzer was on a Far East tour.  Liddell was able to beat Peltzer  at 400 meters,    49.1 to 49.3.   Sounds slow, but consider, the race was run on a less than well conditioned track, in November in 25 degree F weather.  The track was too frozen to allow spikes, so they ran in flats.  Four hundred meters, 25 degrees, November, flats, are you kidding?  They doubled back that day in the 800, and Peltzer took that race in 2:02.3 to Liddell's 2:03.1.   It is also noted that Liddell had continued to train in China after his 1924 victory and in the next Olympic year, in China had produced better times that what were made in the Amsterdam Olympics.  He had a 21.8 200 and a 47.8 400, but by then was all but forgotten by his countrymen.  Peltzer continued on with his tour and ran in Australia and New Zealand before heading home with stopovers in Maylaya, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India where he became fascinated with that country and its potential.

After the war was over, Peltzer found that he was still not very welcome in the new Bundesrepublik and headed out to India to find a place to coach.  During 11 years he trained some of India's best athletes and is still remembered there for his work.

With health failing, friends still in Germany brought him home to spend his final years.  All his family had died in the war. and property had been confiscated by the new regime in the East.    In India he had lived in a wooden shack near a training ground.  But he fimally had a home in Malente in Northern Germany.   He died on his way back to that  home after coaching some of his atheltes at a nearby track meet in August, 1970.  His stopwatch was still around his neck when he was found.  Ironically I was in Malente in September of 1970 never having heard of the man.   I wish now that I had.

If Louis Zamperini's story had not recently been made into a film, Otto Peltzer's life might well have been the subject of a film.  If only a young Jeremy Irons were available for the making of it.

Though I have covered a few details of Peltzer's life  in this review, I have not begun to scratch the surface of this fascinating book.  I highly recommend it and promise that you will truly enjoy the time spent reading it.  Furthermore there is a wonderful collection of photos of Peltzer, his competitors and his enemies including a picture of Heinrich Himmler working out. 

If the names of Tim Johnston and Donald Macgregor ring some rusty bell in your memory, you realize that they write of what they know.   Johnston finished 8th in the marathon at Mexico City in 1968 in 2hr 28 min. 4.4 sec.    He was just behind Derek Clayton, but ahead of Gaston Roelants, Kenny Moore, George Young, Naftali Temu, and Ron Daws.     Donald Macgregor competed in the next Olympic marathon in 1972 finishing 7th in 2 hrs. 16 min. 34.4 sec. one place behind Ron Hill and ahead of Jack Foster, Jack Bacheler, and Derek Clayton.

George Brose

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