Race vs Race: Understanding the 1936 Olympics

Along with academics, sports have always been a way to improve the quest for perfection in human beings. Sports which is associated with physical prowess is also known to develop moral values, integrity, and courage. The Greeks idealized physical fitness and discipline and therefore, the first organized sports event may have been the Olympics held in Olympia in Greece in 776 BC. However, the Olympics, in their contemporary form, were re-started at the end of the nineteenth century in Greece. Athletes from fourteen countries participated with the largest contingents being from Greece, Germany, and Great Britain.

The modern Olympics are considered the leading sports event in the world with more than two hundred nations participating. In order to maintain the highest levels of sportsman spirit, the Olympic have their own flag, motto and a special Olympic oath that is recited for the glory of sport and honor of the teams. In other words, the Olympics has tried to include all nations and promote a spirit of healthy competition.

The competition underlines national pride as one nation is pitted against the other. When the winning athlete takes the victory stand, the national anthem is played. Medals are also tallied country wise.

As a result, the Olympics underline national pride. However, governments have tried to use national and racist sentiments in sports to take forward agendas of their own which was clearly seen in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Seen from the point of view of the athletes, however, the Berlin Olympics did not provide support to narrow ideas of nationalism.

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The personal experience of American and Jewish athletes in the 1936 Berlin Olympics shows that although governments can spread racist ideas, individual athletes can rise above that through their success.

The Olympics has had its fair share of controversies and the 1936 Summer Olympics was no exception. The Games were almost boycotted by the American Olympic Society but finally the boycott was voted against. On the face of it, the 1936 Olympics was very well organized and proved to be a spectacle but in the background there was a lot more going on. Sports is often used as a platform to communicate political decisions and Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany, was doing just that. Huge amount of work was done to build new stadiums and use technology to put on a grand show. An immense program of construction was launched. A new stadium with a capacity of 100,000 spectators and a large Olympic village was built. (Hart Davis 50) Hitler had decided that this was the best way to showcase Germany to the world. In the wake of the criticism of his policies during the Boycott debates this was a way to get international praise and approval. However, in hindsight we know that this was a time of severe strife in Germany.

Sports is an aspect of human life and as a result, sporting activities like the Olympics reflect the world outside the stadium. To understand the sporting events of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, we need to understand what was going on in Germany at the time. Much of what was going on in the sports arena and Germany reflected Hitler’s theories of race. One of the aspects of this theory of race is the systematic exclusion of the Jewish people. In 1935, all Jewish people were stripped of their citizenship rights.

But even earlier, as the preparation for the Olympics began, it was seen that there were not many Jewish athletes participating. Some German Jews were invited to train for the forthcoming games, but they had disadvantages because they were not permitted to utilize the Aryan facilities. Jewish clubs had no facilities and as a result their athletes did not qualify. This shows the way the German government was promoting racism to discriminate against certain athletes. One of the worst affected was the Jewish athlete, Margaret Bergmann Lambert. Lambert and her family had moved to Britain with the onset of discriminatory policies against the Jewish people. At first, she was forced by the German authorities to return to Germany and train for the 1936 Olympics.

Shortly after winning the high jump event at the June meet, held at Adolf Hitler Stadium in Stuttgart, she received a letter from Nazi officials informing her that she had not qualified. “Looking back on your recent performances,” the letter stated, “you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team.” Her accomplishment was removed from the record books. In 1999, she was invited back to Germany when the stadium in Laupheim, where she used to train, was renamed in her honor. Clearly, although Governments can promote racism individuals can rise above it through their own achievements.

Another way in which the social and political life of Germany was reflected in the Olympics was the excessive emphasis on the perfect body. Nazi Germany was a place where theories of race were clearly connected with physical strength and brawn outranked brains. One of the common practices was to train school students for physical rigor. In schools in Nazi Germany, students were chosen to participate in youth programs where muscle building and combat games were encouraged. The discipline and rigorous training began in school.

Boys would be examined in the 11th, 16th and 18th years for weight, physical defects and biological heredity. Hitler evoked that image at a 1934 Youth Day rally in Nuremberg: ‘In our eyes, the ideal German boy should be slim and trim, quick as a greyhound, tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp steel.’ He believed that the Aryan body was perfect, and Aryans will ultimately rule the world. The 1936 Olympics, too, were expected to reflect this superiority. But that is not how things turned out.

Governments can promote racism, but athletes can rise above nationalism and racism; the story of Jesse Owens proves that. Almost everyone remembers the 1936 Olympics as the Olympics of this African American athlete. He won the 100-meter final is the race which is the race that crowns the fastest man on earth. Jesse Owens in Lane 6 equaled the World record at 10.3 seconds. His speed was devastating. The ‘racially inferior’ Owens won four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay.

During the Games, he broke eleven Olympic records and defeated Lutz Lang, the German star athlete, in a very close long jump final. Lang was the first to congratulate Owens when the long jump final was over. There were ten African American members of the American athletics team in the Berlin Olympic games. Between them they won seven gold medals, three silvers and three bronze medals – more than any national team won in track and field at the Games, except America itself.(Hart Davis 176) In all his fourteen appearances Owens never seemed extended to his full capacity; only in the Long Jump event he had some tough competition. Additionally, Owens opened new sporting possibilities by breaking Olympic records 11 times. The crowd gave Owens a generous ovation.

Hitler, however, had failed to recognize the power of sports to unite nations and he was obsessed by his own racial theories. The success of the African American athletes did not make him back down from his position of racial superiority. He refused to shake hands with Owens. Instead he said that he would not be photographed shaking hands with a Negro. Hitler also criticized USA by saying that Americans should be ashamed of themselves by letting the Negros win their medals for them. Notably, President Roosevelt also did not send a congratulatory telegram to Jesse Owens. The attitudes reflected in these omissions were not the ones that survived but they certainly spoke of racial discrimination.

A quick reading of the history of the 1936 Olympics shows that Jesse Owens’ performance is the most memorable even if heads of government neglected him at the time. The phenomenal success of the athletes and the spirit of sportsmanship is what has lasted from the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Runner John Woodruff who won gold for America also spoke about racism at the 1936 Olympics. He said that there was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man because it destroyed Hitler’s master race theory whenever they started winning those gold medals. This is an important comment as it shows the level playing field created by sports despite governments and ideologies trying to create a divide between people. Many scholars have argued that the 1936 Olympics helped in the rise of Nazi Germany by underlining the inequality.

However, it is clear from Owens’ performance and the success of other Black and Jewish athletes that sports provided a level playing field and interrogated ideologies of racial superiority.

Remarkably in giving testimonies years later, the athletes themselves saw the Olympics arena to be one that provided equal opportunities for them. As Jesse Owens says in interviews that are included in the film Race, the athletes did not want to get bogged down by the politics. Owens, who grew up in race-divided south and in Ohio said that when he was on the field, he was free for those ten seconds. At that time, he did not remember whether he was black or white, rich or poor but only whether he was fast or slow.

This is important because it points to sports as a way of levelling out inequalities that race-torn society. In the thirties, racial inequality was everywhere including the United States. Owens had to enter his own celebratory reception at the Waldorf Astoria through the freight elevator because African Americans were not allowed to use the same door as others. The Olympic officials of the berlin Olympics were aware of that. All Black athletes from the US have said that they did not have to suffer the ignominy of sitting at the back of the bus. If Berlin in 1936 was full of racial prejudices, the Olympic committee of Germany did well to hide it. All racist posters had been removed and there were no racial incidents reported at the time. Clearly, Hitler and the Nazi party had organized a cover up and it had worked for the duration.

What was unfortunate was the ways in which other countries including America were influenced by Hitler’s policies. Jewish athletes in the American team had to face discrimination during the Games. Two American runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller have some unfortunate tales to report from that period. Both had trained for the 4×100-meter relay, but on the day before the event, they were replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, the team’s two fastest sprinters. This controversial move was defended in many ways.

The coaches claimed that Owens and Metcalfe were faster, and they would provide a better chance at the gold medal. Glickman has said that Coach Dean Cromwell and Avery Brundage were motivated by anti semitism. Perhaps American officials felt that they wanted to show support of agree with Hitler’s policies and toe the line. Perhaps they were worried about Hitler’s reactions on seeing two American Jews on the winning podium. Stoller did not believe antisemitism was involved, but the 21-year-old described the incident in his diary as the ‘most humiliating episode’ in his life. Through their memoirs, we can reconstruct what happened at the team meeting.

Owens insisted he was tired; he is said to have requested the coach to let Marty and Sam run because they deserve it. He has won his three gold medals and others deserved a chance. But the coach Cromwell pointed his finger and said that Owens had to do as he was told. In his memoirs, Marty Glickman has written about this meeting and added that in those days Black American athletes did as they were told, and Jesse was quiet after that. The Americans won the medal in the 4x100m relay. This constant weaving of politics and sporting spirit marked the Berlin Olympics and as Glickman has pointed out he and Stoller are the only athletes in the history of modern Olympics who were fit to participate but did not.

This clearly shows ways in which politics and Governments can interfere in sports and create uneven playing fields. For a short while, Hitler was able to prevail upon others to subscribe to anti-Semitic policies as the experiences of Stoller and Glickman show. American sports officials became more concerned with racial and religious distinctions than were the athletes themselves. They were clearly concerned with pleasing Hitler and his compatriots. For a short while, the Olympics did serve to increase Hitler’s confidence as many people started to fall in with his policies, but over time, people were able to see that Hitler was wrong. While building new stadiums, Hitler had planned that after 1940 all Olympic games were to be held in Germany. The fact that this did not work clearly shows that Hitler’s plans had failed.

Seen from the perspective of the athletes, too, we can argue that sports offer a level playing field. The playing field is viewed very differently by those who play on it than those who organize sports or those who run governments. As a result, several points of debates amongst officials were not important to the athletes because above all, they wanted to participate in the spirit of the Olympics which was the largest sports competition of the times and it took place only once in four years. This is especially true of the 1936 Olympics. There was talk of boycotting the Berlin Olympics because of the political situation in Germany.

The argument at the heart of the boycott movement was that discriminatory policies in Germany undermined the Olympic ideals of fair play and sportsmanship professed by Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. However, as the boycott debates played out, it was clear that the concerns of the national sporting officials and group leaders who took part in the boycott debate were drastically different than the concerns of the individual athletes. The reason athletes thought and acted differently than those who were involved in the debate was because of their experiences taking part in athletics.

A lifetime of sports participation had profoundly influenced these athletes and had given them a unique perspective on the sporting world. It has been argued that through continued participation in sports, athletes learn the important social values that affect their behavior and increases their self-esteem. At the same time, athletes can become more sensitive to the views of their peers. In the end, most of the athletes who had qualified decided to go through largely ignoring the debate. It is clear from closely listening to Owens’ interview in the film Race that to the athletes the sport was the priority. Most athletes did not agree with such political stances because they thought that the sporting track could be a level playing field.

jesse owensAbility should be the only differentiating feature between one athlete and the next, they felt. Owens’ victories certainly proved the athletes right. Hitler may have drawn some immediate success, but the long-term impact showed that the athletes were right in wanting to participate. By participating, the athletes were able to prove that the theories of racial superiority were flawed.

The Third Reich which Hitler had boasted would last for a thousand years lasted little over a decade. The Olympics are still held every four years and have stayed true to the promise of sportsmanship. It has provided a level playing field where athletes from all different parts of the world can come and stage their physical prowess. The 1936 Olympics had been used by Hitler and his associates to promote their racist theories. After all, what happened within the sports arena reflected what was happening in society and for a while, Hitler’s staging of the spectacle seemed to have been successful. But ultimately seen from the point of view of the athletes, the spirit of sports triumphed and the Olympics showed the limitations of narrow racist theories. The 1936 Berlin Olympics is, at the end of the day, the Olympics for the athletes. In 1984, the street leading up to the Olympic village in Berlin was re-named Jesse Owens Strasse.

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Primary source:

  1. Benagh, Jim. ‘The History of the Olympic Games.’ Scholastic.com. Accessed January 03, 2019. https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/history-olympic-games/.
  2. Berkow, Ira. ‘Margaret Bergmann Lambert, Jewish Athlete Excluded from Berlin Olympics, Dies at 103.’ The New York Times, July 27, 2017. Accessed January 2, 2019.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/sports/olympics/margaret-bergmann-lambert-dead-barred-from-1936-olympics.html.
  3. Cody, Nathan W. ‘The Berlin Olympics: Sports, Anti Semitism, Propaganda in Nazi Germany.’ The Cupola. Accessed January 1, 2019. https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1511&context=student_scholarship].
  4. Goldman, Randy M. ‘Oral History Interview with John Woodruff.’ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, May 15, 1996.
  5. Goldman, Randy M. ‘Oral History Interview with Marty Glickman.’ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, May 20th, 1996.
  6. Gottfried, and Oliver. ‘A Level Playing Field: Black and Jewish Athletes and the 1936 Olympics.’ Handle Proxy. January 01, 1999. Accessed December 30, 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/10066/14803.
  7. Race. Directed by Stephan Hoppkins. Performed by Stephan James. Race. Accessed December 30, 2018. http://www.focusfeatures.com/race.
  8. Rosenberg, Jennifer. ’25 Interesting Olympic Facts.’ Thoughtco. Accessed December 30, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/interesting-olympic-facts-1779640.

Secondary source:

  1. Hart-Davis, Duff. Hitler’s Games: The 1936 Olympics. Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.
  2. ‘Thinking Man’s Adolf Hitler.’ Full Text of ‘Passing’. Accessed January 04, 2019. https://archive.org/stream/TheTriumphOfReason-TheThinkingMansAdolfHitler/MicrosoftWord-TheTriumphOfReason_djvu.txt.

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Race vs Race: Understanding the 1936 Olympics. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/race-vs-race-understanding-the-1936-olympics/

Race vs Race: Understanding the 1936 Olympics
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