In 1936, Malta sent its largest contingent of athletes to the Summer Olympics held in Berlin. It was only the second time the country made an appearance at the prestigious games, and it came at a time when Chancellor Adolf Hitler was in charge of Nazi Germany.
A total of 11 Maltese athletes participated in the historic 1936 Olympic Games, split between two sporting disciplines – athletics and water polo.
But it might have never been.
Upon hearing that the Games would be close to its shores, the Malta Olympic Committee reached out to the German Olympic Committee as well as the International Olympic Committee to complain that Malta had not yet received an invitation.
To the surprise of many, it turned out that Malta was not on the list of participating nations because the island had failed to pay its affiliation fee.
Thus, a new MOC committee was formed to avoid previous mistakes, and a fundraiser kicked off to raise the amount of LM700. All this was done before the MOC could receive a reply from the IOC on the state of the country’s membership.
Thankfully, the Maltese government chipped in to support its local athletes and a sum of LM300 was donated on its behalf. The MOC managed to raise a further LM300 through various activities and, after eagerly waiting for the IOC’s approval, Malta received an official invitation to the 1936 Summer Olympics.
The task now turned towards conditioning athletes to be in peak performance for the highly-anticipated Games.
A particular emphasis was placed on the water polo team and in the acquisition of one Filippo ‘Pippo’ Schembri – a renowned British water polo player with Maltese nationality who played in Tunisia for Sirenes – Tritons of Tunis.
MOC Member J. Attard was sent to Tunisia and tasked with convincing Schembri to train and play for Malta. One week later, to the delight of local water polo players, Malta had recruited Schembri to the squad.
Given the political climate at the time, and the infallible mentality of the Nazi regime, it comes as no surprise that the Germans wanted to put on one of the best Games ever. They pampered to athletes’ needs and took the Maltese by surprise when asked what diet they preferred.
The contingent left the shores of Malta on 24th July, 1936 onboard the Mohamed Eli el Kebir consisting of the coaching staff, committee members and athletes.
Giorgio was Chef de Mission, J. Attard was Swimming Section Leader, G. Craig was Assistant Leader, E. Scicluna was Leader for Athletics, W. F. M. Cook was Masseur and Trainer for Athletics and J. Sammut was Malta’s Doctor.
The contingent also included A. Cassar Torregiani, A. J. Bencini and P. E. Pace for Athletics and J. Demicoli, J. Frendo Azzopardi, A. Lanzon, F. Wismayer, F. Schembri, A. Podesta, W. Podesta, S. Scott, J. Chetcuti, C. Parlato and J. F. Albanese for Water Polo.
Though it was Malta’s second appearance at the Olympic Games, the country marched behind the Union Jack.
And though the country didn’t win any medals, one of the athletes, Austin Cassar-Torregiani, who also happened to be president of the MOC at the time, faced off against none other than the legendary Jesse Owens in the 100-metres.
The story goes that, as Cassar-Torregiani was digging into the foothold, Owens approached him and said: “Hello buddy, we’re running in the same heat”.
According to reports, Cassar-Torregiani felt like he had his death sentence handed to him. Thankfully, it wasn’t that dramatic, with the Maltese sprinter ending in fourth place, but not enough to make the finals.
On the other hand, Owens went on to win four gold medals.
The Maltese water polo team didn’t fare as well, unfortunately.
In its first matchup, the water polo team lost 8-1 against Germany, who ended up winning silver. Demoralised and down, Malta went up against Great Britain and lost 8-2. They then faced Hungary and lost 12-0 and Yugoslavia, against whom they lost 7-0.
The 1936 Olympic Games was Malta’s most notable showing at the Olympics. The island had one athlete perform in 1948, with the 1940 and 1994 Games cancelled because of World War II, but did not participate again until Rome 1960.
In just a few months, Maltese athletes will once again appear at the Olympic Games. It has yet to be revealed who has qualified but the determination to participate is as strong as it was in 1936.
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