History is full of anomalous instances. One of the best examples of this is perhaps the time when the fascist and tyrannical regime of Nazi Germany hosted the much-revered Olympics in 1936. Germany had won the bid to host the Olympics five years before, in 1931. However, the nation that hosted the Olympics in 1936 was not the same as it was when it won the bid. In just five years of time, Germany had undergone drastic changes in its political climate. Chancellor Hitler had taken over, exerted his power and managed to create a deathly cult around his personality. Hitler propagated his ideal of the “Blue-eyed Blonde German Aryans race” and thus began a brutal extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and other minorities that didn’t fit his idea of “pure”. Hitler and his accomplices quickly realised the possible propaganda value of holding the Olympic games. They took over the pageantry, management, and organisation of the games- all done under the banner of the swastika ((The Nazis’ principal symbol – 卐). The dust of the ensuing Holocaust was swept under the carpet. The streets of Berlin were removed of any and all anti-Jewish signs. This was an opportunity for Hitler to display the strengths of the new Germany, supposedly reborn under his reign and after the humiliation faced in the Treaty of Versailles.
Let’s dive into the 1936 Berlin Olympics and understand how sports as an arena was used for propaganda and how despite Hitler’s best attempts, true sportsmanship managed to shine through.
Despite the political scenario that contextualises the event for those of us living in the future, the games themselves went off with a great degree of normality and success. The invention of the Olympic torch relay happened in Berlin in 1936. It ignited the flame from Greece and relayed it all the way to Berlin. The tradition of relaying the Olympic torch from Greece to the host country thus began here and is still carried over, albeit with the controversy over its Nazi origin.
Siegfried Eifrig carrying the Olympic Flame at the end of the relay
The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.
— Adolf Hitler, commenting on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Source)
It was, in fact, the first fully televised Olympic games.
The Soviet Union, under Stalin, did not participate in the event and so it is important to note that the world wasn’t completely blind to what was happening in Germany. Everyone was aware to some extent, of the discrimination against Jews that was ensuing in the country. This prompted a movement demanding the boycott of the Olympics. A people’s Olympics was planned to take place in Barcelona in protest of the German hosting of the Olympics. The Soviet Union had intended to attend this people’s Olympics, however, the plan fell through when Spain underwent civil war.
India under the banner of the empire, won a gold medal for field hockey, defeating Germany. The team was guided under the captainship of the legendary Major Dhyan Chand himself. It is said that Dhyan Chand played so well, the ball never left his stick so much that it led the stadium to believe it had magic. However, stories of Dhyan Chand meeting Hitler in person or of him offering Dhyan Chand a position in the German Army is an unverified urban myth, according to scholars.
Korean athlete Son Keeh-Chung won the gold medal in the marathon, but since Korea was annexed by Japan at the time, he won the medal for Japan. Son Keeh-Chung is the first ethnic Korean to grab a medal at the Olympics.
In a rather bizarre occurrence, the countries of Haiti and Liechtenstein discovered that both nations had the same flag only when they met in Berlin in the 1936 Olympics. Both of them then made alterations to their design and added insignias to avoid confusion.
The highlight of the games was, without a doubt, the African-American athlete Jesse Owens. James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens took home the crown of most medals for a single athlete, winning four gold medals for the 100m race, the 200m race, the 4*100m race and finally the long jump. But the magnitude and impact of his achievement cannot be truly grasped until you immerse yourself in the context of Owens being African-American in what was probably the most hostile situation for an individual like himself in Germany. His achievements must be congratulated for their sportive value but also must be recognised for the social barriers that they broke. There in Berlin, in the neutral, politically blind arena of sports, Jesse Owens stuck a thumb in the eyes of Hitler and his ideas of social Darwinism and race theory. Owens secured the world record for the fastest man on earth— black or white. This record would go on to last for 20 years.
German long jumper Carl Ludwig “Luz” Long, who came second to Owens in the long jump formed an extraordinary friendship with Jesse Owens. The friendship was extraordinary for those times because it involved a “Blue-eyed Blonde” Luzlong and a Black Owens. Luzlong was the first to congratulate Owens after his long jump victory. After receiving the medal, both the athletes walked arm in arm around the stadium, showcasing a brotherhood that stood above all else and broke all racial barriers.
There are these moments in history when the actors understand that moment in history. And then they just do the right thing. Luzlong did the right thing. That was a very humanizing moment, for Owens and for Germany. (Source)
There is perhaps no field that politics does not pervade but never had it been with such overt exhibition as it was in the 1936 Olympics. In many ways, the Berlin Olympics was the start of modern international sporting of the kinds we see even today. They serve as a great reminder of the almost vice-like grasp that politics has over what should otherwise be a neutral ground.