Robert Rodenkirchen was a world record holder in the 200m (1936) and a 1986 NYAC Hall of Fame Inductee.
Robert Rodenkirchen was born on July 7th, 1916 in Cologne, Germany. At the age of nine Rodenkirchen and his family left post war Germany and moved to the United States.
Rodenkirchen made a name for himself on the track and field team at Dickinson High School in Jersey City, NJ. He was recognized as one of the best sprinters in the country and, not surprisingly, joined the NYAC after he graduated from high school.
Rodenkirchen represented the NYAC at the 1936 Olympic trials in Cambridge, Mass, in the 200m. The 19 year old shocked the country when he won the race with a time of 21.0, breaking the previous world record by two tenths of a second. Rodenkirchen was elated. He had broken a world record and simultaneously punched his ticket to the Olympic Games – or so he thought. Shortly thereafter, the American Olympic Association discovered that Rodenkirchen had never properly applied for his citizenship. He was not an American citizen, and, therefore, couldn’t compete on the Olympic team.
The following week at the AAU Championship in Princeton, NJ, Rodenkirchen was preparing for his race when he heard a knock on his door. Standing in the doorway was a German emissary. He handed Rodenkirchen a letter and said, “This is from Adolf Hitler.”
In the letter, Hitler personally requested that Rodenkirchen join the German Olympic team. Rodenkirchen was a German citizen by birth, and well within his rights to compete for Germany. Hitler and his cohorts desperately wanted the world record holder to compete on their behalf.
For Rodenkirchen, the offer must have been extremely tempting. Here was his chance to compete for Olympic glory; all he had to do was say yes.
According to Rodenkirchen’s son, 19-year-old Robert told the man “If I can't run for the United States, I won't run for anyone.” Despite much cajoling and pleading, Rodenkirchen refused. “I won't run for Germany,” Rodenkirchen said. In newspaper accounts, Rodenkirchen was referred to as “the man who told Hitler, ‘No.’”
Robert Rodenkirchen passed away on August 3rd, 1990 at the age of 74.