Tuesday, August 16, 2016
The other night I watched a documentary on PBS on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. On May 24, 1930 on Lake Brombachsee, the International Olympic Committee were shown a spectacle of 2,000 row boats and ferries where they and their friends were taken for jaunts on the water. No one was bribed with money, but this would be the first time judges would be influenced personally and wined and dined for their vote with special favors. Nowadays its a standard practice. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he showed the IOC his grand plans of a giant stadium to be built to last after the Olympics. The 1932 Olympics held in L.A. were a modest affair and not the bigger plans the Americans had planned, as the Depression was on and there was little money to pay for them and few showed up for them. The IOC saw this as a vast improvement. There was some concern over the Nazi papers demanding that blacks not participate, and there was also the problem of there being no Jews on the German team.
But when the president Henri de Baillet-Latour talked to Hitler he insisted this to not be true. The Germans sent out the statement "As a principle German Jews shall not be excluded from German Teams at the Games of the XIth Olympics."
It was enough for the IOC, even though everyone knew they were deliberately keeping them off of the teams and eventually they would be persuaded by a Charles Sherry to allow a "token" Jew. This is how Helena Myer ended up on the fencing team, though the German people were never told that this tall blonde woman was a Jew as that would go against what they were preaching. At this time the Nuremberg Laws were going on depriving German Jews of their rights. Also in preparation for the Olympics, another tradition that continues today in the Beijing and Rio Games, the streets were cleaned up of undesirables. In this case they were the Romas and they were sent to the gas chamber.
America had been considering boycotting the Olympics. The main person against this was the American in charge of the Olympics, Adrian Bundage, who was hoping to get a position on the board of the IOC and one day be its president. The American delegate on the IOC had been against holding the games in Berlin. People had stormed German ships and ripped the Nazi flag and thrown it overboard at American docks in protest to America's participation. Bundage went on a "fact finding" mission to Berlin where he expected to find nothing and he of course did not. It was a very close call, but on December 7, 1935, the Americans decided to go to Berlin. If they had boycotted it is believed by Professor David Clay Large that the Brits, the French and the Canadians would have boycotted as well and Hitler's party would have been ruined after giving Germany such a black eye. Three Jewish Austrian swimmers, Judith Deutch, Lucie Goldman, and Ruth Langer did boycott the Olympics in protest and were stripped of their medals and banned from swimming for life. Forty-nine countries did decided to go instead. More than any other year before.
The Berlin Olympics is also the first Olympics to have a torch bearer. The had runners come from Athens with a lit torch symbolizing Germany's link to the Ancient Greeks. At the beginning of the ceremony in dramatic fashion the runner ran through the stadium and up a long flight of stairs to light the large torch there and run off, just as it has been done in every Olympics since. For those who have seen footage from these Olympics and it appears that most of the countries are giving the Nazi salute, the Olympic salute is the right arm raised up to shoulder length and can be confused with it. Although there were a few counties that did give the Nazi salute.
Hitler gambled that the superiority of the German race would shine through and they would be victorious in these games. It didn't hurt that these athletes were professional soldiers who dedicated all their time to training and were hardly amateurs and that the IOC knew all this but turned a blind eye. Early on the U.S. were heavy winners in track and field as you all may recall the famous Jesse Owens. We began to lose ground in rowing and gymnastics but made a notable win in nine-man crew against all odds, which left us both tied at 19 gold medals each. That only left the equestrian games which the Germans swept. The gold final medal count was 33 Germany 24 U.S. (Total Medal Count 89 Germany 56 U.S.). This was a first for Germany. Bundage applauded Hitler's regime and thought the U.S. could learn a lot from the National Socialists and it's Olympic spirit.
After the Olympics, the IOC dropped the American member who hadn't wanted to hold it in Berlin and brought Bundage on board. Bundage was also rewarded with the job of building the Germany Embassy in Washington D.C. Hitler at this time begins to build up his army. In 1938 he annexed Austria and invaded the Sudetenland. 400 Jews were murdered during the November pogrom, synagogues burned while 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. When the Japanese, who had been chosen for the 1940 Olympics [it really makes you wonder just how out of touch the IOC was] bows out because they are at war with the Chinese, the IOC, and I am not making this up, ask Hitler to host the 1940 Olympic games in June of 1939. This was after he had already threatened publicly to exterminate the Jews. It became a moot point because, on September 1, 1939, he invaded Poland and Germany was no longer an option for the Olympics.
You can drive yourself crazy playing the what-if game. The Nazis read every letter coming to and from the athletes. Jesse Owens was mailed a letter that he never got that encouraged him to decline any medal he won as a protest to what was going on. Would he have if he had gotten that letter? Well, he's not alive for me to ask him that question. If we had boycotted the Olympics and there had been a domino effect of boycotts from other countries could that have caused a break in Germany's political system perhaps stopping World War II from happening? Life turns on a dime, but nothing is ever so simple and sometimes things are inevitable. I once heard someone say that World War II began the day after World War I ended due to the atrocious Peace Treaty terms that had Germany pay back such an ungodly sum of money they only just finished paying it back a few years ago. For better or worse the Berlin Games of 1936 have given us the games we so enjoy today that seem to get more and more extravagant every two years. I will leave you with this quotation.
"If the '36 Olympics games had happened in another country they might not be the same thing. What the Nazis showed us was that this event could be showcased and nationalized and politicized in a way that's always taken place since. There is no doubt that Berlin is at the root of the Modern Olympics." (Guy Walters)