On 1 August 1936 the Games of the 11th Olympiad commenced in Berlin, amidst a climate of heightening political and racial persecution in Germany. German sporting associations and facilities had been excluding Jewish, Roma and Sinti athletes in accordance with an ‘Aryans only’ policy since 1933. By banning anyone not of ‘Aryan race’ from sporting competition Hitler ensured that only those Germans deemed racially acceptable were eligible to represent Germany at the Olympics. Despite these discriminatory policies, the Nazis promoted an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany to the world for the duration of the August 1936 Olympics.
Strict anti-racist directives were issued to the German media and anti-Jewish propaganda was removed in Berlin, to be replaced with nationalistic imagery. Regardless of this benign facade, international pressure on the Nazis to stop Jewish persecution continued to mount and in a token gesture the German Olympic Committee allowed just one athlete of Jewish descent to compete, blonde-haired Helene Mayer. Although Mayer endured some criticism for competing in the ‘Nazi Olympics’ her silver medal and those of countless other ‘non-Aryan’ competitors including four-time gold medallist and black American Jesse Owens served to undermine Nazi theories of racial supremacy.
In the lead-up to the Games, observers in the United States and other western democracies questioned the morality of supporting an Olympic Games hosted by the Nazis and the possibility of staging boycotts was hotly debated around the globe. In New York on 15 November 1935 the Committee on Fair Play in Sports declared,
‘Sport is prostituted when sport loses its independent and democratic character and becomes a political institution… Nazi Germany is endeavouring to use the Eleventh Olympiad to serve the necessities and interests of the Nazi Regime rather than the Olympic ideals.’
However, once the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States narrowly voted in favour of participation in the Games, other countries also decided to proceed. It has been argued that by failing to boycott the Games, the world missed an opportunity to send a clear message of opposition to Nazi tyranny, which may have affected the policies that culminated in World War Two and the Holocaust. While we will never know if this is the case we can reflect upon the 1936 Olympics and recognise the importance of upholding and enacting Olympic values of respect, fair play and equality not just in relation to the London Olympics of 2012 but also whenever we see discrimination taking place.