Olympics, Berlin (1936)

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Shortly after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, many Americans questioned the propriety of supporting the Nazi-hosted Olympic Games scheduled for Berlin in 1936. In response to reports of Jewish persecution, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the non-sectarian Anti-Nazi League held protest rallies that called for an Olympic boycott. By 1934, support for a boycott had spread abroad. It was supported by many newspapers, including The New York Times, anti-Nazi groups, and such Catholic lay leaders as Al Smith of New York and Governor James Curley of Massachusetts. The African-American press opposed a boycott, pointing to the hypocrisy of not first addressing discrimination at home. African-American journalists further argued that black athletic success at the Olympics would undermine Nazi racial views and foster a new sense of black pride at home.

Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, opposed a boycott, arguing that politics had no place in sports. He blamed the proposed boycott on a Jewish-Communist conspiracy. In 1934 Brundage investigated the German sports program, and after a series of closely controlled interviews, he reported that Jewish athletes were treated fairly and that the games should go on. Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), argued that Germany had broken Olympic rules forbidding discrimination, and he opposed participation as an endorsement of Nazism. The boycott issue came to a head on December 8, 1935, when the AAU voted by a slim margin to not boycott the Olympics. The following summer, Ernest Lee Jahncke, an American member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who had come out strongly against the Berlin games, became the only person ever expelled from the IOC. He was replaced by Brundage.

The winter games were held in February at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. The United States faired poorly, winning only one gold medal in two-man bobsledding, and bronze medals in two-man bobsledding, the 500-meter skating race, and hockey.

The summer team's voyage to Germany started off badly when Brundage dismissed Eleanor Holm Jarrett from the team for drinking. She was a 1932 Olympic swimming champion, a world record holder, a married woman, and a movie starlet.

There were nearly five thousand athletes from forty-nine countries at the Berlin Games. The 383-member American team was strong in track and field and basketball, but weak in other areas, including boxing, a traditional American strength. Jesse Owens, the star of the games, captured four gold medals. Owens won the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds (wind aided), the 200-meter dash in 20.7 seconds, and the broad jump with a jump of 26 feet 5 5/16 inches; Owens also ran on the 4x100-meter relay team. All but the 100-meter dash were world records. The first black champion of the games was high jumper Cornelius Johnson, who leaped 6 feet 8 inches. Johnson was later snubbed by Hitler, who had previously congratulated every winner. Thereafter Hitler was advised by IOC president Count Baillet-Latour not to recognize any champion. The eighteen African-American athletes in track and field, demeaned by the German press as America's "Black Auxiliary," won thirteen medals. The women's track squad was led by sprinter Helen Stephens, who set a world record in the 100-meter dash and anchored the victorious 400-meter relay. The United States won a total of twenty-four gold, twenty silver, and twelve bronze medals for 124 points, a distant second to Germany's thirty gold medals and 181 points.

The main controversy involving the United States team was the benching of Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller from the 4x100-meter relay the day before the event. They were replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, the team's two fastest men. Coach Dean Cromwell of the University of Southern California claimed that the Germans were hiding a team of superstars, so the United States needed to use their top men. Glickman, however, believed anti-Semitism was the motivation; he maintained that the coaches wanted to avoid embarrassing Germany by dropping the only Jewish-American track competitors. The other two runners, Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper, were from the University of Southern California, as was Cromwell, so favoritism may have played a factor in Cromwell's choice to keep them in the race. The team easily won the relay in a world record 39.8 seconds.

The Olympics provided a perfect arena for Nazi propaganda. The Games went off flawlessly, full of lavish pageantry and rituals, punctuated with great athletic achievements. German director Leni Riefenstahl's monumental film Olympia has preserved the pomp, circumstance, and athleticism of the Berlin Games. The spectacle gave the Nazis, as well as fascist Italy, Hungary, and Japan, a field on which to demonstrate the alleged superiority of their social, economic, and political systems. The Berlin Olympics also made a hero out of Jesse Owens, who defeated the racist Nazis on their home field, and encouraged Americans to respect the accomplishments of African Americans.



Baker, William J. Jesse Owens: An American Life. 1986.

Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. 1992.

Mandell, Richard. The Nazi Olympics. 1971.

The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936. An online exhibit sponsored by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. Available at: http//www.ushmm.org/olympics/

Steven A. Riess