Top Five Factoids about the 1936 Summer Olympics

by on 10/07/12 at 11:11 am

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The Olympics are almost here! They’re in London! Yay! So let’s look back at some previous Olympics. For example, traditionally, the summer Olympics haven’t gone well in Germany. Besides the terrorist attacks in 1972, the 1936 Olympics were a vast propaganda machine for Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Some of this has been covered elsewhere. Most have heard about Jesse Owens’ triumph at the games, and how a black man defeating Aryan ubermenschen angered Hitler. And you probably have heard of Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Olympia, which was a brilliant piece of propaganda about the games, and which has influenced film-making and the way sports have been filmed ever since. But here are some things you may not know about those games.



5. The Nazi party opposed hosting the 1936 Olympics (the location had been decided upon before the Nazis came to power) because they didn’t want Jews and Blacks to compete with Aryans, and they didn’t want the French there at all, not because they were inferior, but because the Nazis were still aggrieved by the Treaty of Versailles. The official Nazi party organ proclaimed it was a “disgrace and a degradation of the Olympic idea” to allow blacks to compete. But the Nazi’s own Olympic committee convinced them of what a great propaganda opportunity it would be . . .  and they were right.


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4. The Nazis eventually agreed to allow Jews and Blacks to compete, but not on the German team because they’d “contaminate” the team. Ultimately, despite there being many top Jewish athletes in Germany, they agreed to allow just one member onto the team, and she at least had one non-Jewish parent: Helene Mayer, the world champion in fencing, who had been kicked off the national team several years earlier for having Jewish blood. She won a silver medal, and here she is at the medal stand. Yes, that’s her giving the Nazi salute. Whenever you wake up at 3AM and can’t get back to sleep because you’re obsessing about something you did, just think of Helene Mayer, and how no matter what you did, you’re not the Jewish Olympian who gave Hitler the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympics.


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3. Jewish and left-wing groups in the US (plus officials at the US Embassy in Berlin) wanted the US to boycott the 1936 Olympics as a protest against the Nazi regime. Members of the American Olympic committee visited Germany to learn if what they’d heard about treatment of Jews was true. Nazi officials took the Americans around and permitted them to meet Jewish athletes who, in front of the Nazi officials and SS officers, hastened to assure the Americans that they were not being mistreated (when Nazi officials weren’t there, the Jewish athletes had plenty of negative things to report). Avery Brundage, head of the US Olympic committee, and later head of the International Olympic committee, bonded with the Nazis, greatly admired them, and found he even had common ground with them as he told them how his sports club in Chicago wouldn’t admit Jews either, and repeated their rhetoric that there was a Jewish/Communist conspiracy to get the US to boycott the Games. He didn’t have anything to remark about prejudice against blacks in Germany, but if he had any such thoughts, no doubt he would have bonded with the Nazis about how professional athletic organizations in the US wouldn’t allow blacks to compete, either, and that while Jesse Owens got to eat and sleep anywhere he wanted in Germany, he was still restricted from eating, drinking, or sleeping in most places in the U.S. South.


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2. It’s now an Olympic tradition to light an Olympic flame in Athens, then move it by relay from Athens to the Olympic location. But this was an innovation of the ’36 Olympics. To me, the physical transportation of the flame has a quality that is reminiscent of the way that the Nazis appropriated accomplishments of other cultures as by falsely claiming that they were, actually, Aryan in nature.


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1. One of the members of the US track and field team was Louis Zamperini. His biography, Unbroken, is a best-seller and an incredible book. Read it.


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Extra: Two days after the Olympics ended, the head of the Olympic Village committed suicide when he learned he had Jewish ancestry and had therefore lost his career in the military and would now be subjected to terrible prejudices.'


Bethany is a senior staff writer for E-Verse Radio, known for her trademark top five lists. She currently resides in Los Angeles.

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One Response to “Top Five Factoids about the 1936 Summer Olympics”

  1. Ernie

    Jul 10th, 2012

    James Brookes: The three medal winners of 1936 women’s individual foil were all Jewish. The gold medallist, Ilona Elek, was a Hungarian who would go on to win gold at the 1948 London games at the age of 41. Silevre medallist Helen Mayer may have given the Nazi salute for fear of reprisals against her family. The bronze medallist, Ellen Preis, was Austrian and spent the duration of the war in hiding. Perhaps my favourite sport factoid…


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