Duty, Performance, and the Track and Field Athlete
When Georg Cornelius collapsed and died at the conclusion of the Olympic marathon race in the 1928 novel Der Läufer von Marathon (The Runner from Marathon), the author depicted his death as selfsacrificial heroism, with obvious parallels to the ancient Greek legend.1 Werner Scheff, a remarkably prolific writer of sports fiction, set this story twelve years in the future, at the never-held 1940 Olympic Games. As the 26.2-mile competition entered its final laps at the end of the book, seven mysterious Chinese runners, all of them endowed with seemingly superhuman endurance, vied for the lead, followed by “a lone figure of a different color—Georg Cornelius, the German.” In one final, all-consuming burst, Cornelius overtook all seven Chinese runners in the last few meters to capture the gold medal, before dropping to the ground.
All of Western civilization, Scheff exclaimed, joined the Germans in hailing this “savior of the white race.” The American team even erected a memorial to commemorate his victory, and it bore an inscription of unambiguous racial-cultural solidarity: “We have triumphed!”2 Georg Cornelius’s fate, which he willingly suffered on behalf of his nation, paralleled that of the German soldiers who had ostensibly perished for the same cause on the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme just a dozen years earlier, and it offered an implicit rebuke to the wartime malingerers who had purportedly undermined the national war effort by pursuing their own interests over that of their fatherland. Motivated by a sense of patriotic duty alone, Cornelius’s act illustrated an ideal of selfless, uncorrupted manhood that track and field claimed to instill in its athletes in the 1920s and which presented such a stark contrast to the more profit-motivated and even narcissistic examples proffered by the boxers and tennis players of the Weimar period. In men’s track and field even fatal overexertion represented a virtue, since it served the greater glory of the nation.
Meanwhile, on August 2, 1928, in the same year that Der Läufer von Marathon hit bookstores across the country, the German middle-distance