Berlin, 1936: At the Olympics, Achievements of the Brave in a Year of Cowardice
By Shirley Povich
This is about the Olympic Games of 60 years ago, the XIth Olympiad that was famous for its infamy.
It is about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that Adolf Hitler turned into a sickening pageant of Nazi propaganda, supported by submissive U.S. Olympic officials and craven American track and field coaches who, like Nazi cousins, kicked their only two Jewish athletes off the 4x100-meter relay team. And it is about Hitler's snub of America's victorious black Olympians in their triumphs.
If Jesse Owens brought new glory to American Olympic history when he raced to his until-then unmatched four gold medals, the highest U.S. Olympic officials violated every concept of decency and humanitarian concerns by kowtowing to the Nazis, who already had the killing of 6 million Jews in mind, as well as an invasion of Poland and a world war.
This is also about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which has seized this moment to lay it all out by offering "The Nazi Olympics, Berlin, 1936," starting July 19. The date coincides with the start of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the exhibit will finish with a cross-country tour to reacquaint Americans with the Nazis' treachery and Hitler's snub of the blacks who won all those medals for the United States.
In the face of a growing demand for an American boycott of the Berlin Games, Hitler had promised there would be no anti-Semitic demonstrations, and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, ordered all anti-Jew signs removed from Berlin streets. But the swastikas flew everywhere and the stiff-armed "Heil Hitler" salute was a constant presence.
And there was no restriction on the special Olympic edition of "Der Sturmer," which displayed a cartoon reviling the Jews and saying "Jews are our misfortune."
Also, it did not take long for Goebbels to abandon his temporary rectitude after Owens and his black teammates won all those golds and wiped out the Germans in the track and field events. In his newspaper, "Der Angriff," Goebbels ranted: "If America didn't have her black auxiliaries, where would she be in the Olympic Games . . . The world would have described the Yankees as a great disappointment."
The Nazis' eagerness to prove their master race theories was supported by Hitler's gloating over Max Schmeling's knockout of Joe Louis six weeks before the Games started. Schmeling became a Hitler hero.
It was the autocrat Avery Brundage, who as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee cast a blind eye at all the Nazi thuggery and was unshakable in his determination to accept the invitation to Berlin.
The evidence against the Nazis was already immense. In his excellent book, "The Nazi Olympics," Richard D. Mandell noted that Julius Streicher, a Hitler favorite and editor of "Der Sturmer," wrote: "We waste no words here. . . . Jews are Jews. And there is no place for them in German sports. . . . Germany is the Fatherland of Germans, not Jews." Also, Brundage had to be aware of the reprehensible anti-Semitic climate in Germany when William Shirer, the CBS correspondent, wrote that he saw a sign in Ludwigshafen that read: "Drive carefully! Sharp curve! Jews 75 miles an hour!"
As author Mandell also recalled, Brundage was dazzled by the German pomp when he was invited to Berlin two years before the Olympics, and the Nazis assured him that 23 Jewish athletes would be invited to their Olympic training center.
Brundage said the Germans were pursuing "the spirit of the Olympics," but not a single German Jew was invited to train for the Games. Women's fencer Helene Mayer was allowed to compete for Germany, but according to "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics" by David Wallechinsky: "The Nazis rationalized their leniency toward her by stating that though she was Jewish, she had two `Aryan' grandparents."
Brundage would later figure in the unpopular decision to boot champion U.S. backstroker Eleanor Holm off the team for her act of sipping champagne with some U.S. sportswriters aboard the S.S. Manhattan en route to the Games. He denied all appeals. Brundage himself had been on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team as a pentathlete who finished sixth, with his best performance occurring in the discus. After the Eleanor Holm incident, it was written of him "Avery Brundage had a discus where his heart belongs."
In America the pro-German slant among U.S. Olympic officials, in addition to Brundage, was intolerable. Brig. Gen. Charles E. Sherrill told the New York Times, "We should not interfere with German policies" and later added the highly debatable statement that "there never was a prominent Jewish athlete in history."
Frederick Rubien, secretary of the U.S. Olympic Committee, chimed in with "the Germans are not discriminating against Jews. The Jews were eliminated because they are not good enough athletes."
Brundage was immovable in his decision that the U.S. team should go to Berlin. He demanded the resignation of all officials who were "anti-Olympic." Jeremiah Mahoney, head of the Amateur Athletic Union, had already resigned in protest of Brundage's determined go-to-Berlin stance. Also, prominent Catholic, Protestant and Jewish individuals and groups in the United States were loudly clamoring for a boycott of the Berlin Games, as were trade unions and civic organizations.
It would raise the question, later, why President Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken no action in the 1936 Olympic situation. Hitler's Nuremberg Laws deprived Germany's Jews of citizenship, forbade intermarriage and decreed that no German girls work as servants for Jews. Yet, no comment from Roosevelt about a 1936 Olympic boycott. Forty-four years later, President Jimmy Carter did get the United States to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter's action still angers many U.S. Olympians.
Germany claimed to have won the 1936 Olympics, and in a manner of speaking it did. It won the most medals, succeeding in such sports as fencing, canoeing, yachting and weightlifting. But in the most featured sports of track and field and swimming, the Americans dominated.
But there was a dark spot on the Americans' winning record. On the morning of the 4x100-meter relay, track coach Lawson Robertson, suddenly removed half the members of the U.S. team, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. They had won places on the team in the trials, but there was a coincidence: They were Jews, the only Jews on the U.S. team. Robertson's was a cowardly act, either to curry favor with the Nazis, or whatever.
He substituted Owens and Foy Draper for Stoller and Glickman, saying he needed more speed because the Germans had made late substitutions, and despite the fact that Stoller's trials were as good as Draper's. It turned out to be a lame and hollow excuse, with the U.S. team soundly beating the Germans, who finished third.
The feats of Owens became enduring Olympic history. As the first competitor to win four golds, he took the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the long jump, and was on the 4x100-meter relay team. And his black teammates -- Ralph Metcalfe, Cornelius Johnson and John Woodruff helped the U.S. dominate the track and field events.
Why then did Hitler find it convenient to leave the regal reviewing stand after the distinctly non-Aryan Owens was being led back in the direction of Hitler's box by non-German officials after his 100-meter triumph?
Throughout the Games, Hitler was heartily receiving German and Finnish and Italian winners and saluting some of the white Americans who happened to win. But there is no record that he ever took recognition of the six championship triumphs by black Americans. (Wallechinsky writes that there is "a famous myth" that Hitler refused to meet Owens following the 100 meters, after Hitler had "personally congratulated three earlier gold medal winners. Actually, if such a snub did occur, the recipient was not Jesse Owens, but Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton, black Americans who finished one-two in the high jump the previous day.")
Many Americans won in the Games that Brundage refused to boycott, but the enduring question is: What price glory?