RadioBDC Logo
Noise Pollution | Portugal. The Man Listen Live

Jo Warren Madden, 96, sprinter at 1936 Olympics in Berlin

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / November 22, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

A swift rise through the ranks of the nation’s fastest sprinters, followed by a fund-raising campaign in Somerville to cover her expenses, brought Jo Warren Madden to Berlin for the 1936 Summer Olympics.

On the cusp of World War II, the atmosphere at what became known as the Nazi Games was as unforgettable as the competition.

“We were almost alarmed at how military everything was,’’ Mrs. Madden told the Globe in 1984. “No matter where you went, everyone was marching. Everything was goose-stepped. There were swastikas everywhere. Yet the people were very friendly. The reception was very good no matter where we went.’’

Mrs. Madden, an alternate on the US women’s 400-meter relay team that won the gold medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics, died in her sleep Saturday in Aberjona Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Winchester. She was 96 and had lived most of her life in Somerville and Stoneham.

When Adolf Hitler and the German military started World War II by invading Poland in September 1939, Mrs. Madden was surprised, even though she had witnessed the politics that dominated the Summer Games three years earlier.

“Of course, I was, what, 21 and carefree, and it was hard to believe that this was the same country that had really put out the welcome mat,’’ she told Bill Littlefield in September 2008 for NPR’s sports show “Only a Game,’’ which is produced at WBUR-FM in Boston.

Running talent, hard work, and the generosity of Somerville residents during the Great Depression helped Mrs. Madden climb the rungs from aspiring Olympian to witnessing history.

The 1936 Summer Games were famous, among other things, for Hitler snubbing Jesse Owens, a black US sprinter who won four gold medals. Owens, with whom Mrs. Madden became lifelong friends, dashed Hitler’s hopes of Aryan supremacy at the Olympics.

“The ’36 Games were very politically motivated, but I don’t think we were aware of it,’’ Mrs. Madden told the Globe in 1984. “We’d read about those things, but we weren’t exposed to world affairs like today. When Jesse won an event, everyone knew he would be ignored. There was tension, but we weren’t as aware as perhaps we should have been.’’

Josephine Warren grew up in Somerville, the fourth of five daughters. Her father had hoped for a boy among the girls.

“She was kind of a tomboy,’’ said Mrs. Madden’s daughter, Carol Gill of Woburn. “She was kind of the boy my grandfather never had; she said that.’’

Mrs. Madden graduated from Somerville High School in 1932. The Globe reported in 1936 that she was an honor student in high school, lettering several times in basketball and swimming. Her daughter said she was awarded the prize for female scholar-athlete her senior year.

After high school, Mrs. Madden began running track for the Boston Swimming Association. She won the New England junior 50-meter competition and was among the top finishers nationally in the 100 meters.

“At that time in history, if you were a woman and you were interested in sports, you were looked on as very peculiar,’’ her daughter said. “That’s something she overcame. She just had this burning desire to compete in track, and she did it.’’

At the Olympic tryouts in Providence in 1936, she won her heat in the 100 meters and ran fast enough in the finals to go to Berlin.

The Olympic team, however, was running a deficit, according to reports by the Globe and the Associated Press, so communities across the country began raising money to send women to the Summer Games.

As the first Somerville woman to gain an Olympic berth, Mrs. Madden drew support from the city’s mayor and a former mayor, who led efforts to raise $500 for her trip.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,’’ Mrs. Madden told the Globe in 1936. “I was terribly disappointed when I thought I wouldn’t be able to go, I had worked so hard. I’m so excited I don’t know what to do.’’

By the time Mrs. Madden boarded the ship that took the Olympic athletes to Germany, she was already dating Joseph Madden, who had moved with his family to the house next door to her family in Somerville.

They married in 1939, though three years earlier he was not thrilled that she had spent a few weeks surrounded by many of the world’s best male athletes. His daughter said he tried without success to make the Olympic boxing team as a featherweight so he could accompany Josephine to Berlin.

Years later, Mrs. Madden liked to tell people that during the trip across the ocean to the Olympics, the female runners would arrange to train on the deck at the same time the male weightlifters were working out.

“My mother always said, ‘I went to the Olympics with all these men, but I came back to your father,’ ’’ her daughter said.

Mrs. Madden competed for a few years after the Olympics, until she started having children. She lived in Somerville until her husband retired and the couple relocated to Stoneham.

A few years ago, she moved to an assisted living center in Woburn and switched to the Winchester nursing home in September.

Always active in organizations for former Olympic athletes, she was inducted into the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association Athlete Hall of Fame in 2007.

Three of her granddaughters became successful track and field athletes, winning state championships or setting school records in high school and college.

“My mother always encouraged her children and grandchildren in whatever activity they were involved in, whether it was academics, or sports, or activities like Girl Scouts,’’ her son, Joe Jr., wrote in an e-mail. “But I do think she took particular satisfaction in watching her granddaughters compete and succeed in track and field, since she was one of the pioneering women athletes who helped to open up the sport for the girls and women of today.’’

In addition to her daughter and son, Mrs. Madden leaves two other daughters, Jean Marcy of Reading and Janet Ryan of Sparks, Nev.; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren

A funeral Mass will be said at 9 a.m. today in St. Patrick Church in Stoneham. Burial will be in Lindenwood Cemetery in Stoneham.

Three years ago, Mrs. Madden joined former Olympians at the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History at Regis College in Weston to help launch an exhibit of stamps featuring the Olympics.

At one point, Bob Cleary, who was on the US hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., lamented the financial differences between athletes then and now.

“I mean, I got $5 a month for laundry,’’ Cleary said in an exchange captured for NPR’s sports show. “I mean, that was it.’’

“You’re lucky you got $5,’’ Mrs. Madden interjected, prompting laughter from the audience. “We all did our own laundry.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at