Hitler’s Olympics

The 1936 Olympics were grand spectacles both as sports and propaganda events, whose political ramifications are given full exposure in a striking exhibit, organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, at San Diego’s Hall of Champions.

The games were awarded to a then-democratic Germany in 1931, but after Adolf Hitler came to power two years later, he turned the Berlin Olympics into a showpiece of Nazi discipline and Aryan prowess.

As an 11-year-old sports nut, I managed to sneak into the Olympic stadium, and still ringing in my ears are the chants by German fans (whatever the official master race party line) of “Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens, U.S.A,” hailing the great black sprinter.

But the athletic competitions are only a minor part of the exhibit, which puts the “Nazi Olympics” into the context of its time, both the immediate past and the horrifying future.

In the United States, a vigorous debate raged between those advocating a boycott of the games, led by Irish Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, and those insisting on American participation. The latter faction was led by Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee, who viewed the boycott as a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”