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Sprinter Marty Glickman Left Anti-Semitism in the Dust

‘I don’t remember walking as a young person,” Marty Glickman once said. “I always ran.”

“Glickman,” the sometimes inspiring, always fawning, HBO documentary about the life and times of the Olympian track star and legendary radio broadcaster, starts off fast, as well. The film takes on Glickman’s long life, quickly reaching the most notorious moment in his athletic career, when, during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the record-breaking sprinter and a fellow Jewish teammate — the only Jewish Americans at the Games — were taken out of competition by their coaches in a seemingly anti-Semitic decision meant to placate their Nazi hosts.

Glickman started off in high school as a state-champion sprinter dubbed the “Flatbush Flash” by a local paper. He joined the Olympic team at 18, alongside world-class athletes like Jesse Owens, and worked two jobs at the University of Syracuse while starring as a running back for its varsity football team. In the documentary’s most dramatic sequence, Glickman, who died in 2001, explains how the American coaches excluded him and his fellow Jewish runner, Sam Stoller, from running the 400-meter relay in the Berlin Olympics because, the coaches claimed, they wanted to put more competitive runners in the race. Glickman saw the move as pure anti-Semitism, and the coaches’ questionable decision looked even less convincing when, after the games, Glickman and Stoller ran the relay with the team in a London competition: Not only did they beat the American time at the Olympics, but they also set a new world record.

After college, Glickman realized that, since he was slim and shorter than 6 feet, he had little chance of joining the football pros, so he opted to try his luck as a sports announcer, hopeful that he was less likely to be broadsided by a 300-pound defensive tackle while chatting on the air than while running on the field.

Glickman’s early announcer career suffered serious setbacks — his first personal radio program was canceled — but he honed his voice as a radioman with the Marines during World War II and burst onto the scene soon after. He started giving baseball recaps at the radio station WHN, but his repertoire ballooned, and in quick succession he became the voice of a who’s who of New York sports teams: the newly formed Knickerbockers (for whose games he coined such familiar terms as “the key,” “the midcourt stripe” and “Swish!”), the Giants and the Jets, all the while recording news reels, horse racing matches and weekly high school football games. Arriving just in time for the post-World War II sports explosion but before TV became the medium of choice, Glickman was perfectly placed to become the iconic voice of an era.

Even in a field with a large Jewish presence, Glickman faced anti-Semitism, as when he was pushed out of covering national NBA events by the then-commissioner, Maurice Podoloff, who was afraid that it would hurt basketball’s reputation to have too many Jews associated with the young sport. Glickman persisted in announcing for the Knicks, however, and is remembered as one of basketball’s most notable voices, immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” as “that mad Marty Glickman…. Absolutely the greatest announcer I ever heard.”

James Freedman, the writer and director of “Glickman,” produced Glickman’s late-night radio program while in high school, and before this film he wrote primarily for television. Freedman is at pains to play up the sportscaster’s heroic side with glowing interviews about his work coaching public school teams and about his mentorship of a generation of sportscasters. All that saccharine could use a little pathos, and the few moments when we see Glickman’s weaknesses — as when he expresses deep remorse for failing to stand up for a black teammate forbidden to play in a football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line — are among the film’s strongest.

Though Glickman may have been an world class sprinter, “Glickman” is executed in a strictly pedestrian style. The narration coasts over familiar archival footage and dozens of smiling photographs, piling events on one another in a smooth chronology so unvarying that if one were at the edge of one’s seat, it would most likely be as a result of nodding off between the 13th minute and the hour mark.

This is too bad, because Glickman’s story is a remarkable and instructive tale of incredible perseverance and constant reinvention.

Doni Bloomfield is a Forward summer fellow and will be finishing his Bachelor of Arts in history at the University of Chicago next year.

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