If the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games are any guide, China’s communist regime faces a rocky seven years as it prepares to host the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Presided over by Adolf Hitler and dominated by black American sprinter Jesse Owens, the 1936 Games have been cited continually by opponents of China’s winning bid in recent weeks as a cautionary tale against giving the world’s premier sports spectacle to a totalitarian regime.
The Beijing selection has already begun to parallel the 1936 Games in its ability to generate controversy. What remains to be seen is how that controversy will play out whether it will die down over time or divide potential participants in a way that undermines the intended spirit of the Games. In Germany, both outcomes seem to have occurred.
Hitler came to power in 1933 two years after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 1936 Summer and Winter Games to Germany. The Nazi leader, deeply distrustful of the Olympics’ international ideal and dismissing it as a “mental aberration,” had to be convinced of the value of hosting the event by Josef Goebbels, his propaganda minister.
Henri Baillet-Latour, the Belgian count who chaired the IOC at the time, had pushed Germany’s candidacy as a way to mark its return to the international community following World War I. But Hitler’s establishment of a one-party dictatorship, the regime’s racist and anti-Semitic character, and suppression of political dissent sparked an intense international debate over whether to allow Berlin to host the 1936 Games.
While wary of the Olympics, the Nazi regime had always placed a high premium on sports, in part to prepare ordinary Germans for the rigors of military life.
A 1997 U.S. Holocaust Museum exhibit on the Berlin Games, which can be viewed online at www.ushmm.org/olympics, quotes Goebbels in April 1933: “German sport has only one task to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.”
Almost as soon as Hitler consolidated power at home, debates broke out in several Western countries over whether to boycott the Games.
The arguments were particularly fierce in the United States, although the Roosevelt administration like the Bush administration during the debate on China’s bid refused to take sides.
The New York Times; New York’s Catholic governor, Al Smith; and the American Athletic Union were among those who urged a boycott. The liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal wrote in November 1935 that U.S. participation would “set the seal of approval upon the radically anti-Christian Nazi doctrine of youth.”
Many U.S. Jewish groups urged a boycott, but some organizations, including B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee, did not, fearing it might spark an anti-Semitic backlash at home and in Germany.
An “alternative Olympics” was even organized in Barcelona but was canceled at the last minute because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
And Ernest Lee Jahncke, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, in 1936 became the only member of the IOC ever to be expelled after he continued to lobby against the Nazis’ hosting of the Games.
Protesting to Count Baillet-Latour, Jahncke wrote that American and other Western athletes could not participate in the Games “without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”
But U.S. black publications largely supported participation in the Berlin Games, saying pro-boycott forces should address discrimination at home instead and arguing that medals won by black athletes like Owens would challenge Nazi racist views.
(The Holocaust Museum site says black publications first spread the story that an enraged Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand after his triumph. In fact, the Nazi leader decided on the first day of the Games not to congratulate any of the winning athletes.)
The leading voice for U.S. participation was ultimately the man who replaced Jahncke on the IOC, longtime American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage. After his initial doubts about the Nazis were eased by a closely controlled tour of the Games’ site in 1934, Brundage argued: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.”
Brundage’s views carried the day. While individual Jewish-American athletes refused to attend, similar national boycott movements in Europe also collapsed after the United States voted to go in December 1935.
In all, 49 teams would travel to Berlin for the Summer Games, with the 312-athlete U.S. team second in size only to the host German contingent.
The Games were the first to be covered by radio and the first to feature the now famous lighting of the Olympic torch with a flame carried by runners from Greece.
Anxious to put on a good face for the world, the Nazi government practiced an odd form of censorship silencing not its critics but its own supporters.
Anti-Jewish signs were taken down, laws against homosexuals were waived for foreign guests, and Goebbels’ censors put out strict orders that “the racial point of view should not be used in any way in reporting sporting results.”
However, Jewish athletes still had to endure vicious heckling from many of the Germans in attendance.
The internment of Berlin’s Gypsies before the Games began and the construction of a new concentration camp just outside Berlin in Sachsenhausen went unmentioned by the international press corps.
While many German-Jewish athletes, including a world-class women’s high-jumper, were denied a chance to compete, Hitler bowed slightly to international sensitivities by allowing two half-Jewish German athletes, including fencer Helene Mayer, to compete for Germany.
Mayer was one of only 13 Jewish athletes to win medals at the Summer Games, but most analysts still rated the well-run Games a public relations triumph for Germany, which won the most medals.
Despite the pre-event controversy, the Olympic Games 1936 in Berlin were considered a great success — not only for the domestic but also for the foreign policy of the Nazis.
The New York Times said the Games had put Germany “back in the fold of nations.”
Even journalist William Shirer, deeply hostile to Hitler, conceded in his diary that “the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda.”
“The Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen,” Shirer wrote.
Richard D. Mandell, a historian of the Olympic Games, said Hitler’s prestige was boosted immeasurably by the Games, “which veiled Nazism from the beginning until the end.”
A convert to the Olympics spectacle, Hitler talked of making Germany the permanent home of the Games.
When Switzerland’s effort to host the 1940 Winter Games collapsed in disarray, the IOC even voted to invite Germany to host a second straight Winter Games in Garmisch until events — Hitler’s invasion of Poland — forced suspension of the Olympics until 1948.