by iampunha | 8/09/2008 08:00:00 AM
On August 9, 1936, Jesse Owens won the last of his four gold medal at the Olympics.

Hitler declined to congratulate him.

That's the story you're told.

The stories you aren't told paint a far more strife-filled picture, and one well worth looking at in the infancy of another already-controversy-filled Games.

For Amedeu Avogadro, born on Aug. 9, 1776, and Helen Lyndon Goff, better known as P.L. Travers, born on Aug. 9, 1899, who have shaped our world such that we do not and cannot imagine it without them.

First off, his name wasn't Jesse. When you come from poor stock in Alabama and you move to Ohio, you tend to keep your accent, which is how J.C. got misheard as Jesse.

Amusingly, two of this country's* greatest Olympic athletes are Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens. The one wasn't born Jim, and the other might have been called Jim.

But as I've done before, I want to focus not on what specifically happened on this Day in History but what came of events related to it.

In 1936, the Nazi party had a pretty firm grip on Germany. Any old fool, and many wiser people, could see this.

International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was not just any old fool. He was a hard-headed old fool, and he wanted the Games to go on:

Soon after Hitler took power in 1933, observers in the United States and other western democracies questioned the morality of supporting Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime. Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: "The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race." Brundage, like many others in the Olympic movement, initially considered moving the Games from Germany. After a brief and tightly managed inspection of German sports facilities in 1934, Brundage stated publicly that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly and that the Games should go on, as planned.

The same man who said Jewish athletes were facing no issues also said

that American athletes should not become involved in the present "Jew-Nazi altercation."

(Avery Brundage was no stranger to being an absolute jackass in the face of moral crises. For more on his actions, see a link in this diary.)

As I said above, news of the Nazis was not confined to underground newspapers. Administration and public officials knew:

Both the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and George Messersmith, head of the U.S. Legation in Vienna, deplored the American Olympic Committee's decision to go to Berlin.

But the games went on, and Hitler, recognizing that he needed to give the deniers something to help make the case that Hitler wasn't really up to so much evil:

[Berlin's residents] were also instructed not to discuss anti-Semitism between June 30th and September 1st. Still, Spanish athletes had to be protected. Their non-Nordic features led them to be mistaken as Jews, and treated accordingly.


Hitler found it hard to deny his hatred of Jews. At first, he had declared that he would never remove anti-Jewish signs because he would not modify "a question of highest importance within Germany." Later, after he conceded that anti-Semitic posters would be removed for the Olympics, the Bavarian police gave the order that "anti-Jewish boards and slogans which have criminal tendencies, are to be removed by all means at our disposal." "Juden unerwuenscht" (Jews not wanted) signs were torn down from shops, hotels and beer gardens.

And elite German Jewish athletes couldn't be interviewed for their feelings on Germany's pubescent evil, as they'd been banned from the games:

No Jew living in Germany had been allowed to participate in the Olympics. Gretel Bergmann, a 20-year old high jumper from Stuttgart, was, among others, excluded because she was not a member of the German Track and Field Association, the official sports club. Jews were banned from membership! After world-wide protests [the Nazis promised] that Gretel would take part in the pre-Olympic qualifying meets. She jumped the record high of 5'4" centimeters, higher than her closest rival. Nevertheless, two weeks before the opening of the Olympic games she received notice that she would not be considered for the German team because of her "mediocre achievements." She was offered two standing-room-only tickets. Ironically, a Hungarian Jew won the event with a leap exactly the height that Bergmann had cleared in the tryouts.

As I noted in a previous diary, and as historians professional and amateur have noted for decades, Hitler was focused quite intently on image and propaganda. From his understanding of the social importance of dialect and speech to his relative disappearance from the Games after the first day — he might have had to congratulate a non-German — his crafting of Germany's improved image, certainly enhanced by the image of the 1936 Olympics as Berlin's world stage for dominance, was calculated pretty thoroughly.

(I hope the reader will not be too entirely disgusted by my writing that a dictator was effective; it's rather obvious given how long he was in power, how many people he killed and how thoroughly his people loved him and reviled dissenters.)

I say all of this not because I really like knocking a dead man but because ... well, because of what might have been.

In two cases.

1) What might have been from 1939–1945 had we accepted that Germany was up to no good, had Avery Brundage not been so gung-ho about declaring trivial any Jewish problem (thus requiring a final solution)? Had the concentration camps north of the Olympic village been discovered?

Half an hour from the future Olympic site, in the northern suburbs of Berlin, a concentration camp, [Orianenburg], held Communists, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons and Jews.

Even as Berlin was preparing this show of hospitality, the exhibit notes, the Nazis were building the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, [just] north of the city.


2) Gee, do you think jailing dissenters and cracking down on protesters is in any way relevant to 2008?

*He wasn't eligible for American citizenship until 1924. Thus, when he competed in the Olympics for the U.S. in 1912, he did so as not technically an American.




Blogger Pete Jones on 8/12/2008 12:14 AM:

Comparing 1936 Nazi Germany and 2008 China is a bit of a stretch.. but I'll allow you some of the similarities in draconian tendencies and repression of democratic movements. A very good post- in that it shows how the games truly do have consequences.

I've been thinking quite a bit during these Olympic Games about their worldwide and historical impact. My mind keeps coming to the '68 Black Power salute, '72 Jewish hostages, '96 bombing, '80 miracle on ice, (Jesse Owens' run), etc. The Games shed a worldwide light on activities that transcend sport in positive and negative ways. Domestically, having the games immediately precede a Presidential election provides an interesting contrast. Do you know if anyone has done an academic history of the Modern Olympics?