Why Were the 1936 Olympics Controversial?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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The 1936 Olympics were controversial at the time because they became highly politicized as a result of the fact that they were hosted in Nazi Germany. The roles of the various actors in the 1936 Olympics have been extensively examined ever since, with some people feeling that participating nations missed an opportunity to stem the rising tide of Nazism in Germany. Some members of the Jewish community in particular wish that nations such as the United States had chosen to boycott the 1936 Olympics, to express their distaste for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

The beginnings of the 1936 Olympics were not particularly controversial. Berlin was awarded the opportunity to host the Olympics in 1931, three years before Hitler took power in Germany. It was hoped that the Olympics would symbolize Germany's return to society after the struggles of the First World War, and many people welcomed an opportunity to showcase the best athletes in the world at the Summer Games in Berlin.


When Hitler took power in Germany, he was initially opposed to hosting the Olympics, because he disliked the internationalist spirit associated with the Olympic Games. However, advisers in his cabinet pointed out that the 1936 Olympics could represent a major propaganda opportunity, allowing Germany to put her best foot forward to the world, and showcasing the skills of the German people. As a result, Hitler came to support the Olympics, dedicating substantial funds to the endeavor and sponsoring the first Olympic Torch Relay.

When competitors and guests arrived in Berlin in 1936, they encountered a heavily sanitized Germany. Jews, gypsies, and other undesirables were quietly removed from Berlin, along with discriminatory signs and other hints of the extent of the Nazi regime. The German government only allowed Aryan athletes to compete for Germany, excluding many talented Jewish athletes, and it put on quite a show for its foreign guests, hiring the famous filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to document the events. The glamor of the Olympics was designed to conceal what was lurking beneath in an already very troubled country.

49 nations competed in the 1936 Olympics, despite calls for a boycott of the Olympics in some participating countries. Opponents of the Olympics argued that by sending athletes to the event, nations would condone the activities of the Nazi regime, and that a powerful message could be sent by refusing to attend. However, many people subscribed to the idea that the Olympics was an apolitical event, and that boycotting would run contrary to the internationalist spirit of the Olympics, and their views ultimately won out.

You may hear the 1936 Olympics referred to as the Nazi Olympics, in a reference to the fact that the proceedings were heavily dominated by the presence of the Nazi regime. Much to the frustration of the Nazi government, several black athletes, including Jesse Owens, excelled at the Olympics, belying the Nazi belief in racial superiority, and Jewish athletes from several nations also did very well in competition. Many of these athletes later wrote about greatly enjoying the experience, and receiving very friendly and favorable treatment from their hosts, which is quite an irony when one considers the fact that German Jews would shortly find themselves “hosted” in brutal prison camps.


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Post 6

The 1936 summer Olympics were distinctive for other reasons too. This was the first time the games were shown on the television, bringing them into the lives and minds of a much bigger audience than before.

It was also the first time the torch was lit in Olympia and carried to the venue by relay.

Post 5

I am researching the story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics right now. In my mind the man is a hero, for doing a great job and for his attitude.

There's a lot written about how Hitler wanted to promote Aryan superiority at the games, and I don't doubt it. But to be fair there's a whole other back story that tends to get overlooked.

If you'd like to know more about it I suggest you look around for reports on how Owens was treated there, compared to his home country, the USA. He even had to ride the freight elevator to his own welcome home reception because of racial segregation laws!

Post 4

@dudla - Yes, it's pretty hard for me to believe that so many countries actually went and took part in the 1936 Olympic games. Hindsight of course is a wonderful thing!

I would like to think that the modern day media would be all over this kind of thing, especially as politics are no longer taboo in sporting circles!

Post 1

In 1936, human rights performance of nations was not monitored like it is today. Also, US power internationally wasn't as strong as it is today. Otherwise, the opponents of the 1936 Olympics might have succeeded and the Olympics that year might have never taken place.

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