Essay: Politics in the Olympics

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  • Subject area(s): Politics essays
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  • Published on: December 7, 2018
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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.

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