Monday, August 1, 2011

The 1936 Berlin Olympics Revisited

It was 75 years ago today that the Summer Olympics opened in Berlin.

The Nazis had seized power a few years earlier. World War II had not yet begun, but the antisemitism that controlled the thoughts and actions of Germany's leaders was already in place, and those leaders were eager to show Aryan supremacy to the world — as beneficiaries of an Olympic bid that was awarded before they came to power.

The propaganda potential for the Summer Games may never have been higher.

Even though the Nazis had not risen to power when the Olympic bid was awarded, many nations, including the United States, considered boycotting the Games rather than appear to be endorsing the Nazi regime.

But the Berlin Olympics would not be remembered for Aryan triumphs. Those Summer Games are remembered for the triumphs of a black man — Jesse Owens — which is ironic because the legally sanctioned racial discrimination in Germany was against Jews, especially European Jews. Segregation based on skin color was still the law of the land in much of the United States.

As a matter of fact, in Berlin, Owens was able to move about more freely than he could in America. He could eat in restaurants, drink in bars, travel around the city in public transportation without encountering the problems he would face in his homeland.

It was an environment that was manufactured for the occasion.

Aware that the world would be watching, Germany undertook a massive effort to "clean up" Berlin and temporarily removed all traces of its policies against Jews — until the Games were over.

Thus, what was seen was not real. But there were some lasting innovations that came to the Olympics as a result of the Berlin Games.

Foremost, I suppose, was the relay of the Olympic torch from Athens. Many people believe — mistakenly — that the torch relay dates back to the first of the modern Games near the end of the 19th century.

In fact, though, it is a tradition that began in 1936.

Much was made of the fact that Adolf Hitler did not congratulate Owens on any of his victories in the 1936 Summer Games — and Owens started winning gold medals almost immediately.

He won four of them in all — two in sprints, one in a relay and one in the long jump.

There was talk that Hitler snubbed Owens and refused to acknowledge his triumphs, allegedly because his victories in the Olympics challenged Nazi theories of racial superiority.

But, while there is no doubt the Nazis were cruel, sadistic supremacists, that tale about Hitler snubbing Owens may have been mostly propaganda.

Owens himself contradicted those reports. "When I passed the chancellor, he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him," Owens said.

Owens also said that, if anyone snubbed him, it was American President Franklin Roosevelt, not Hitler. "The president didn't even send me a telegram," he said.

It was true that Hitler didn't publicly congratulate Owens — but that was how he handled all medalists, including the ones from Germany, after Opening Day — in keeping with International Olympic Committee regulations.

There seems to be no doubt that Hitler was rooting for his Aryan athletes, hoping they would validate his theories of racial supremacy, but he maintained the kind of outward neutrality that the IOC expected from the host nation.

Supposedly, Hitler did shake Owens' hand in private, and a photograph captured the moment. Owens, it is said, carried the photo in his wallet.

Based on Owens' own testimony, as well as accounts from others, there seems to be little mystery to me surrounding Hitler's treatment of Owens. A more enduring mystery may be one that Mhari Saito is trying to unravel for NPR.

Saito writes that the German Olympic Committee gave each gold medal winner an oak sapling. The United States' athletes won 24 gold medals in the Berlin Games, and four of them belonged to Owens. Consequently, he received four oak saplings from the Germans. Saito is trying to track them down.

"One of Owens' trees towers over Rhodes High School in Cleveland, where he trained," writes Saito. "There is no plaque marking it, but track coach Tyrone Owens [a distant relative] says it has long been a source of pride."

The fates of the other three oak trees are less certain.

"Some say one died," Saito writes. "Another tree was said to be planted at the Cleveland home of Jesse Owens' mother, but it fell when the house came down in the 1960s."

What happened to the fourth tree? Owens, who died in 1980, said on camera in a 1966 documentary about his return to Berlin that one of the trees had been planted on All–American Row at Ohio State. Only one problem with that, Saito reports — there is no oak on All–American Row.

In fact, Saito writes, Ohio State has no record of Owens planting a tree on the campus. Considering the attention his participation in the Berlin Games received, you'd think there would at least be an article about such a planting in the OSU student newspaper.

Well, Owens may have been mostly right. Saito says there is an oak near OSU's library. "And arborists determined it is the same species, age and size as the famous oak in Cleveland," Saito writes.

But it is undocumented so now there is a great tree DNA hunt on that is intended to prove whether the oak near the library could be one of Owens' oaks.

Beyond all that, it is known that the 1936 Games were groundbreaking and had a lasting influence on media coverage of sports.

Television was still many years away from becoming fixtures in American homes, but the 1936 Olympics, nevertheless, were the first to be televised live. The coverage was extremely modest compared to what modern viewers associate with the Olympics, but, in 1936, more than 70 hours was provided to special viewing rooms in Berlin and Potsdam.

Hitler's favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, was chosen to document the Games. Known as a pioneer in filmmaking, Riefenstahl introduced many techniques that are standard in sports coverage today.

She was particularly known for the diving sequence in her film on the Olympic Games.

Riefenstahl, of course, is remembered for "Triumph of the Will," her documentary on the 1934 Nazi rallies in Nuremberg.

It was a groundbreaking work in what is remembered as an innovative filmmaking career. Shortly after her death in 2003, The Economist wrote that the film "sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century."

That may have been true, but she was in her early 30s. She lived past the age of 100. That doesn't say much for her accomplishments in the last seven decades of her life, does it?

Some lives are like that, I guess. Some people enjoy their greatest accomplishments early in life. Perhaps Riefenstahl was one of them.

That certainly seems to be the case with Owens. He struggled a lot after the 1936 Olympics and died of lung cancer at the age of 66.

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