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The Man Behind Hitler | Article

The 1936 Olympics

Courtesy: The Library of Congress

In an attempt to signal Germany's return to the world community after defeat in World War I, the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Germany in 1931, before Adolf Hitler rose to power. Hitler was uninterested in hosting the Olympics until Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels convinced him that they could advance the Nazi cause and showcase the German "master race." The International Olympic Committee commissioned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to document the games; the resulting film Olympia (1938), though less of a propaganda film than her previous Triumph of the Will (1935), was consistent with Nazism's glorification of physical strength and Nordic beauty.

Jewish Athletes Controversy
With construction of an impressive 325-acre sports complex underway, an international controversy erupted over the Nazis' exclusion of Jewish athletes from Germany's Olympic team. The international community condemned the ban as a violation of the Olympic code of equality and fair play, and called for a boycott. United States Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage initially supported the boycott, but changed his mind after a Nazi-led inspection of the new facilities. He stated publicly that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly. On September 26, 1934, Brundage announced that the American Olympic Committee officially accepted the invitation to participate in the Berlin Olympics.

American Team Turmoil
Jeremiah Mahoney, the outspoken leader of the Amateur Athletic Union, protested. He believed that American participation in the Berlin Games meant "giving American moral and financial support to the Nazi regime, which is opposed to all that Americans hold dearest." In the end Mahoney was overruled by the athletes, who narrowly voted to participate. Later, a second Olympic controversy arose when Jewish American athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were benched and replaced by African American athletes Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe in the 400-meter relay. The move was seen as a capitulation to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Jesse Owens Triumphs
 The U.S. Olympic team consisted of 312 athletes, including 19 African Americans and five Jews. The Nazis had reluctantly agreed to let foreign Jews participate, but some American Jewish athletes, including track star Milton Green, chose to sit out in protest. In the end, over 5,000 athletes from 49 countries participated. In the streets of Berlin, Olympic flags hung alongside swastikas. For the German press, used to expressing their prejudices freely, the international presence was cause for restraint, but one leading Nazi newspaper demeaned black athletes by referring to them as "auxiliaries." But disgust could not prevent American runner Jesse Owens from becoming the star of the games. Owens won four gold medals in all, setting world records in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the long jump, and the 400-meter relay. After the second day of competition, Goebbels wrote in his diary, "We Germans won a gold medal, the Americans three, of which two were Negroes. That is a disgrace. White people should be ashamed of themselves."

On the Path to Power
When the games were over, Germany declared itself the winner with 89 German medals to 56 for the Americans. The Nazi regime returned with renewed vigor to their policies of expansionism and racist politics.

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