The 1936 Olympics: A Necessary Reflection and the Value of a Single Human Being

Thomas CoglianoCorrespondent IJuly 23, 2012

Olympic Torch Relay in Berlin at the Opening Ceremonies.  Source: Stanford University
Olympic Torch Relay in Berlin at the Opening Ceremonies. Source: Stanford University

Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

- Judge Haywood (played by Spencer Tracy) in  “Judgment at Nuremberg”

The Olympic Games provide the world a respite, a respite from the daily squalor of a habitually untamed planet.  Tensions frequently exist within the world among its many nations, but the Games provide a reprieve from all that.  It is a far better thing for international competition to play out on an athletic field than on a battlefield.  The spirit of the Games is truly peace. 

In the history of the quadrennial spectacle, the world has witnessed a multitude of glorious feats on the athletic grind.  There was and still is no shortage of those stellar moments.  But, there were other moments that deserve very serious reflection, not only in the name of history, but in some cases, in the name of humanity.  In the name of both history and humanity, it is imperative to remember the “Nazi Olympics” of 1936.

The 11th Summer Olympic Games, held in August 1936 in Berlin, Germany, provided the entire world a lesson on the danger of politicizing sports.  Those Games became a political vehicle for the Nazi Party and Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler. 

The Berlin Olympic Games were held almost one year to the day that the Nazis had passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped every Jew in Germany of their legal rights and citizenship status.  International reaction was very strong in many countries, including the United States, to boycott the Games in response to the Nuremberg Laws. 

Indeed, Hitler himself had tried unsuccessfully to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Jewish athletes from competing in the Games. 

Although Hitler failed to get the IOC to prohibit Jewish athletes from competing, he did prohibit “non-Aryan” Germans from competing in the Games.  His intention was to showcase to the German people the "superiority of the Aryan German" athlete over the rest of the world. 

But, cognizant of the international outcry over the Nuremberg Laws, Hitler ordered the removal of any anti-Semitic newsletter, graffiti, and chanting slogan from the streets of Berlin just a few weeks before the Opening Ceremonies. 

This was done to create a false impression for the world press and the world’s top athletes that the talk of racial segregation and religious persecution in Germany was nothing more than exaggeration and gossip. 

Once the Games ended in mid-August and the athletes returned to their native countries, the anti-Semitic propaganda went right back up in Berlin and all over Germany. 

The dupe performed by the Nazi propaganda machine helped create a positive impression in the international press while the persecution of Jews got substantially worse in the next few years following the Games. 

The propaganda machine in Nazi Germany did not just apply to the international press.  It also applied to the German people.  German film director Leni Riefenstahl directed a documentary film of the Games that was released two years later in 1938 entitled Olympia

The documentary stood out as a revolutionary work of film for the new techniques deployed by the young, ambitious director.  Utilizing close-ups of the top athletes competing in the events and building camera rails in the stands to follow the action, Olympia gave filmmaking in every country a huge boost. 

But, it also gave the Nazi propaganda machine a huge boost as well.  Most famously captured in the film was staged footage of the Olympic Torch Relay.  Prior to the 1936 Olympic Games, there had not been an Olympic Torch Relay (a sad reality that is sometimes forgotten today as to who was responsible for starting that tradition). 

Although that tradition continued with future Olympic competition, another tradition of the Games ended after 1936: the “Olympic Salute.” Modern Olympic athletes often saluted the sponsors of each of the Games and the Olympic Flag with a gesture reminiscent of the “Roman Salute” in ancient history. 

The salute required the extension of the arm in the direction of the flag with a downward palm and connected fingers in an open hand.  However, in the 1920s, the “Roman Salute” was also adopted by Benito Mussolini and his Italian Fascist Party as a political gesture.  Later, it was copied from the Italians by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. 

Thus, by 1936, the gesture used by Olympic athletes for traditional ceremony was often being confused as a Nazi gesture.  Indeed, when Team Canada paraded for the Opening Ceremonies on Aug. 1, 1936, they saluted with the traditional Olympic Salute greeting…only to be strongly criticized by members of the Jewish community for offering what appeared to be a Nazi salute. 

In fairness, the Canadians were actually providing the Olympic Salute, but due to its eerie similarity to the Nazi Salute, it caused the confusion it did prompting the attacks.  After the 1936 Olympic Games, that “Olympic Salute” never appeared again…for extremely obvious reasons!

Germany’s goal at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games was to dominate the medal table and carry the most gold medals as a sweeping statement to the rest of the world of its rising power status.  Indeed, in many events at the Games, Germany did dominate. 

            Rowing = Seven events: Germany earned medals in every single one, claiming the Gold Medal in five of them

            Gymnastics = Nine events: Germany won an astounding 13 medals, claiming the Gold Medal in six of them

            Boxing = Eight weight classes: Germany topped the event by winning a total of five medals, claiming the Gold Medal in two of them (including the heavyweight class with Herbert Runge)

But there were a couple of events where Germany disappointed Hitler.  The big blow to Hitler came in Athletics/Track and Field.  In that event, Germany did not dominate.  Instead, Germany finished a distant second in total medals received to a very successful American team. 

The most famous American athlete of these Games and perhaps of all time was Jesse Owens, a 28-year old African-American sprinter from Alabama.  He stunned all of Germany when he claimed the Gold Medal in the 100 meter and 200 meter races. 

In fact, in the 200 meter race, Owens set a world record and finished 0.4 seconds ahead of silver medal winner Mack Robinson, older brother of future baseball star Jackie Robinson!

Owens’ third and final individual event was the Long Jump.  German athlete Carl “Luz” Long was heavily favored to take the event in a walk.  And Owens was having difficulty landing an official jump. 

In the opening round of the event, Owens fouled twice when one of the German linesmen ruled that the American crossed the line prior to jumping.  Both foul calls were questionable and had the appearance of favoritism. 

The German athlete Long was equally as troubled by the foul calls as Owens so he approached the young American with a plan: he would drop his towel a few inches before the jumping line while Owens will make his jump where the towel had landed thus making it obvious that no foul call could be made. 

This was an important moment because had Owens fouled a third time, he would have been disqualified from medal contention in the Long Jump.  So, Long dropped the towel spotting Owens a few more inches to cover and Owens made the jump successfully with no foul call thus qualifying him for the medal round. 

In the Medal Round, Jesse Owens crushed Carl Long with an Olympic Record leap of 8.06 meters (a record never reached again by any Olympic athlete until 1968).  Owens took his third Gold Medal in the Games.

After the Long Jump event, it appeared that Jesse Owens was done.  But shocking news reached him when the American athletics coach announced that Jesse Owens and fellow African-American sprinter Ralph Metcalfe were going to compete in the 4x100 relay taking the place of Jewish-Americans Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. 

To this very day, the decision to sit out Stoller and Glickman remains controversial.  Was it because Owens and Metcalfe were considered better sprinters than Stoller and Glickman?  Or, was it because, as many believe, that the American Olympic Committee (AOC, later the USOC, under its controversial head, Avery Brundage) gave in to German pressure not to use their Jewish athletes in the competition? 

Nonetheless, the additions of Owens and Metcalfe did not disrupt the relay team for the Americans dominated the event finishing ahead of the second-place Italians and third-place Germans.  Jesse Owens had won a fourth Gold Medal in the Games!

One fun fact to insert into this piece: The 1936 Olympic Games was the first Olympic Games which featured basketball as an official event!  But the Germans were not aware as to how to build a proper facility for the unique sport since it was seldom played in Europe.  

So, the Germans built an outdoor facility for basketball, which featured a grass court!  Yes, you read that correctly!  In the Gold Medal Match, Team USA played Team Canada and there was a torrential downpour. 

With less than 1,000 spectators braving the rain to watch and with the court becoming caked with mud that made it impossible to dribble, the players had to make do by passing the ball and shooting from range without attempting any drives to the basket.  Any player that tried found the ball got stuck in the mud and would not bounce back to him. 

Nonetheless, Team USA took the first Olympic Gold Medal in basketball by defeating Team Canada with the score of 19-8 (Yes, you read that score correctly).

The 1936 Olympic Games represented one of the first moments in history where sports became fused with politics.  This collision produced devastating consequences.  It emboldened the Nazi Party because Germany did indeed top the medal table in the Games, taking more gold medals than any other nation. 

Also, the rest of the world, particularly the international press covering the Games, fell for the propaganda trickery of the Nazis when all anti-Semitic literature was removed from the public sphere in Berlin for the duration of the Games.  This created a false atmosphere of harmony in a nest of killers and beasts. 

In just a few years' time, the whole world would see with their own eyes how wrong they were in their assessment of Hitler’s Germany.   Jews were being systematically slaughtered by the Nazis starting with Krystallnacht in 1938, initiating the genocidal Holocaust. 

One year later, German troops invaded Poland beginning the Second World War.   Humanity for the next six years was on the brink of total destruction! 

The Olympic Games do provide a lot of positive memories.  But there are other moments that deserve constant pondering and reflection.  We all do humanity a great service by remembering the “Nazi Olympics,” not just because of history but also because of a calling to ensure that the cry “Never Again!” truly lives up to the words.


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