Essay: Politics in the Olympics

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  • Politics in the Olympics
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These are the words of the Committee on Fair Play in Sports, and could not more accurately describe the negative impacts of the politicization of sports. Prior to 1936, the Olympics remained separate from political institutions, and was a place where many countries could unite and be involved in friendly competition, however with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and growing tension across the western world, the 1936 Olympics became the turning point for the politicization of sport. Past Olympics had never been so affected by propaganda, antisemitism, boycott calls, and racial discrimination, and never have been to this day.

In 1931 the International Olympic Committee awarded hosting rights for the 1936 Olympics to Germany, which was then under the Weimar Republic. After Germany had previously been banned from the 1920 and 1924 Olympics due to their responsibility for World War I, the move was seen as “an opportunity to welcome Germany back into the international community…” In 1933 the Nazi party came to power after the President of the German Reich Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler to the role of Chancellor. Hitler soon took on emergency dictatorial powers, transforming the once democratic Germany to a fascist, authoritarian state. When Hitler came to power, he inherited something he didn’t really want, the Olympics, yet his Minister for Propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels soon convinced him of the event’s propagandistic value, and the opportunity to showcase a ‘new’ and ‘improved’ Germany, and managed to persuade Hitler to host both the Summer and Winter games.

The 1936 Olympics were the first games to utilize mass propaganda. Hitler was initially hesitant about hosting the games,and negatively referred to them as, “infamous festivals dominated by Jews.” However, his propaganda minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels was more enthused about the hosting opportunity and convinced Hitler of their propagandistic value, the ability to reintroduce Germany as a global super power, and the chance to showcase Aryan supremacy. He also hoped that visitors would return home without suspicion or fear of the Nazi regime. In the lead up, Germany heavily promoted the games with posters and magazines spreads drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Ancient Greece. This depiction was symbolic of how the Nazis believed the ‘Aryan’ race was inherently superior, and descended from the Greek gods. The classical antiquity of the Aryan race was further promoted with the inaugural Olympic torch relay, which was run from Olympia to Berlin. Chillingly, all the countries that were run through would be invaded or overtaken by Germany. The final runner in the relay was not an Olympic athlete, but rather Fritz Schilgen, a blonde, tall and blue-eyed man. Author Larry Writer commented, “He looked like the ideal Aryan man, but he was there…, as a bit of publicity and for show.” Additionally, in preparation for the 3 million visitors that would come to Berlin, nearly every building or public place was bedecked with Swastikas or Olympic banners, which replaced the usual anti-Semitic posters that covered Berlin. All media was also censored, preventing tourists from knowing the atrocities Jews, gypsies and the disabled faced. Australian wrestler who competed at the games quoted, “There were these great banners everywhere; it sort of was a grand Deutsche sort of an affair. Looking back, it was a marvelous propaganda show,” Throughout the games, whenever a German athlete won a medal they would do the Heil Hitler salute, and media coverage the next day would celebrate the victor’s Aryan qualities. There was a controversial moment in the opening ceremony when the French athletes did the Olympic salute, which was mistaken as a fascist salute. The Olympic salute had been introduced in 1924 without controversy, however the context of the games led to the salute being abandoned due to its negative connotations. Ultimately, Germany’s efforts paid off, as visitors left with positive reviews of the ‘New’ Germany. The German propaganda machine was still active after the games, with the release of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia in 1938, which served to further celebrate the event, and highlight Aryan superiority. Though Hitler gave Riefenstahl artistic reign over the ground-breaking project, it still focused on Aryan victories, and many called the filmmaker Hitler’s pawn. Political messages were concealed in the 1936 Olympics through the use of propaganda.

The games had dark anti-Semitic connotations. In 1933 the Nazi party banned all Jews from sporting clubs. This meant world-class Jewish athletes, such as professional light heavyweight boxer Erich Seelig, were expelled from their associations. Many of these high level athletes emigrated, or tried to go to separate Jewish facilities, yet these lacked the funding, and were incomparable to German services. This prejudiced action lead to global outcry particularly in America. There was further outcry in 1934 when Jewish athletes were excluded from the German Olympic team. The head of the German Olympic Committee, Dr. Theodor Lewald, was also found to have Jewish heritage and was immediately replaced by SA member, Hans von Tschammer und Osten. With growing calls for the United States to boycott the games, head of the American Olympic Committee Avery Brundage visited Berlin to negotiate with Hitler. Brundage was impressed with his treatment, and Hitler’s compromise to allow Jewish athletes from other nations to compete, and accepted the invitation to attend the games. However, others were not so easily swayed, and were still outraged by Germany’s Aryan-only policy for team selection, stating that it broke the Olympic codes of fair play and equality. After mounting international pressure, the German Olympic Committee let one token Jewish athlete, Helene Mayer, compete in the fencing, however, Mayer also fit the Aryan ‘look’. Prior to international visitors arrival in Summer 1936, the usual omnipresent, anti-Semitic signs declaring, “Jews not welcome,” were all removed, contributing to the façade that Germany was now a ‘peaceful, tolerant’ nation. The anti-Semitic publication Der Stürmer was also temporarily removed from shelves, and SS members, Germany’s main paramilitary organisation, were prohibited from violent actions against Jews. Still, many were still unimpressed with Germany’s policies and chose to boycott in protest. Canadian Jewish boxers Sammy Luftspring and Norman Yack, spoke out about their decision to abandon the games stating, “We would have been very (loath) to hurt the feelings of our fellow Jews, by going to a land that would exterminate them if it could.” Additionally, the American team was fraught with controversy when on the day of the men’s 4x100m relay American Jewish sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were pulled from the team and replaced with all American counterparts. It is rumoured that Brundage did this in an effort to appease Hitler, however this claim is contested. Two days after the closing of the games, the head of the Olympic village, Captain Wolfgang Fuerstner committed suicide after he discovered he had Jewish heritage. Once the games were over, Nazis began persecuting Jews again, at a faster rate. The 1936 Olympics concealed Germany’s sinister anti-Semitic views.

The 1936 Olympics were the first games to be mired with boycott calls. Prior to 1936 most western countries attended the Olympics without question, however this changed in the lead up to the Berlin games. In 1933, after Jews were expelled from German sporting groups the United States and other western democracies proposed that the games be moved from Germany, with Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee announcing, “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.” However, after vis
iting Berlin in 1934 Brundage claimed Jews were being treated justly and that the games would go on. By the end of 1934, there were two sides in the US, Brundage who was pro-Olympics, and the pro-boycott movement which consisted of the Amateur Athletic Union, led by Jeremiah Mahoney. Brundage fought for the US team to be allowed to participate in the Olympics, arguing, “The Olympics … belong to the athletes and not to … politicians.” On the other side, Mahoney spearheaded boycott efforts, claiming that by sending a US team they would be supporting Hitler’s Reich and breaking Olympic rules which forbade discrimination based on race and religion. Many followed the United States, with boycott movements forming in Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Holland. Spain organised a replacement ‘People’s Olympiad’ which was to be held in Barcelona in the 1936’s Summer, however it was cancelled two days prior with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Back in the US tensions were rising, and in December 1935 a vote was held in the Amateur Athletic Union, as to whether the United States should compete. The vote ended narrowly in favour of sending a team to the Olympics. After America’s move other boycott movements quickly dissipated. However, this was the first time a boycott scandal had been associated with the Olympics and it soon became common for countries to boycott, such as the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War.

The games highlighted the racial prejudice that was prevalent in many western nations. There is no better example of racial prejudice against an athlete than American sprinter Jesse Owens. Born to a sharecropper and grandson of a former slave, Owens rose to athletic prominence in 1935 where he qualified for the Olympics. Despite winning four gold medals Owens faced discrimination both in Germany and America. In Germany, media outlets called him ‘negro Owens’, and the other 18 African American competitors ‘black auxiliaries.’ Though the media treated Owens badly, there are varied accounts about how Hitler reacted to Owens successes. There is a myth that Hitler snubbed Owens, however after Hitler missed congratulating the high jump medalists, the president of the IOC said he could either congratulate every winner or none at all, so Hitler chose the latter. This in turn led to false claims that Hitler purposefully snubbed Owens, whom later said, “the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany,” and claimed that Hitler had waved at him from his box. Owens was likely treated better in Germany than America however, as in the south, a majority of media outlets didn’t acknowledge his victories. He was also allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates, which in America was unheard of due to segregation. Additionally, when American victors returned home, it was customary for the president to greet them and congratulate them, however Franklin D. Roosevelt completely snubbed the American. After this Owens once again defended Hitler stating, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” It wasn’t until 1976 that he was acknowledged by President Gerald Ford. Owens’ athletic career ended soon after the Olympics, as after a dispute with the Amateur Athletic Union, he was stripped of his amateur status ending his career. A less prominent case of racial discrimination occurred a few weeks before the games’ commencement when the German Ministry of the Interior ordered all Gypsies to be round up and kept in the Berlin-Marzahn Concentration Camp in and attempt to ‘clean up’ the city. The racial prejudice that occurred in conjunction to the 1936 Olympics was some of the worst in sporting history.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin, or the ‘Nazi Games’ are very clearly the turning point for the politicization of sport. Prior to 1936 sport was a friendly activity that remained separate from politics, however with the rise of the fascist Nazi regime, the Olympics became a politically tense environment, and the games were surrounded by Nazi propaganda that camouflaged a dangerous authoritarian regime, anti-Semitism that remained hidden under Germany’s peaceful façade, boycott calls which lead to national and international tension, and racial prejudice that impacted even the most successful Olympians. The evidence clearly shows that the 1936 Olympics were the turning point for the politicization of sport.

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