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Happy Saturday. This week on the show, we talked about anthropologist and anatomy professor W. Montague Cobb and one of the things that came up with his work debunking racist interpretations of Jesse Owens performance at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Previous hosts, Sarah and Delina, talked about this back on August 1st of 2012 that actually came out during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. So we are sharing that episode again today. One thing we did want to note before we get into this episode, if we were recording this today, we would update some of the language in it, particularly when referencing the Romney who were persecuted under the Nazis and excluded from the games.
So enjoy. Welcome to stuff you missed in History Class, A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Sarah Daudi, and I'm doubling Chakraborty and Ablana and I are continuing on with our Olympic theories.
And when I first started thinking, all right, we're going to cover some sports Olympics history for this 2012 Olympic Games, I've been thinking about a podcast on African-American track star Jesse Owens, who, of course, won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Games and very famously proved that Hitler's ideas of Aryan superiority were just plain wrong. But Owens story is so personally compelling. It's the main thing that most folks, I think have taken away from the 1936 games.
It's what it's what you think of if you're thinking of the Berlin Olympics. And if you look up a clip of Owens flying past his competitors or standing proudly for the national anthem, it seems really easy to believe that the 36 games must have just been a complete failure for the Nazis and a huge embarrassment for Hitler.
Yeah, but once you start reading more about the Berlin games, which are sometimes called the Nazi Olympics, you realize that that's not really the case. What's often overlooked is how successful the games were in terms of Nazi propaganda. For example, they bolstered German pride. They threw off the suspicions of the international community, at least temporarily, and in a more long lasting way and a way less tied up with the war to come, they shaped the modern Olympic Games.
Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated writer and NPR commentator, calls them, quote, the most fascinating and historically influential game.
And Frank Deford knows of sports, too. So that's a pretty high statement. So today we're going to be looking at both Jesse Owens story and the story of the 1936 games as a whole, the boycotts, the propaganda, the smoke and mirrors, the athletes, whether they were African-American or German, Jewish. And one thing just just consider before we even get into this is why was the United States there? Why was Great Britain or France there? And it's something that we're going to be discussing throughout the podcast.
So first, let's start out with the initial irony of the story, which was the International Olympic Game Committee awarded Berlin the Games in 1931 as a sign of acceptance.
It was a welcome back in a way, to the international community. Right.
The second irony here, Hitler, who became chancellor two years after this decision, wasn't really interested in the Olympics at all at first.
And today, because Hitler's reputation is so tied up to pageantry and these mass public displays think Leni Riefenstahl, her films, it seems that Hitler wouldn't have immediately seen the games as an opportunity for a grand public show. But according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he initially just didn't see the appeal of the Olympic vision. And that makes sense to after all, it's about internationalism. It's about fair competition. It's something that's meant to promote peace between nations.
You can you can see how Hitler wouldn't be into that.
But Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, ultimately convinced him that the games would make great propaganda and prepared German youth for war. As Goebbels himself said in 33, German sport has only one task to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.
That doesn't make you want to like, break out the ball and play a game. You know, it takes some of the fun out of it, I think. But right from the start, the Nazis controlled the Games. The German Olympic Committee was supervised by the Reich Sports Office and a new stadium was built in Berlin. Colorful posters drew comparisons between ancient Greece and modern Germany and featured Aryan ideal athletes.
It was a very political thing right from the start. But to make that Aryan ideal that they were glorifying on the posters a reality for the Berlin Olympics, Jewish athletes, of course, had to be excluded from competition and Hitler's anti-Semitic policies, which started as soon as he assumed power also extended to sports right from the start. And one very high level example of this was the high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who found herself kicked out of her athletic club in 1933.
She was a star athlete, participated in lots of different sports and had been linked to this athletic club for years. Immediately kicked out, she started training with a club under the Jewish Association of War Veterans with a lot of other Jewish athletes as well as gypsy athletes. But in many cases, these alternate groups for Jewish athletes to practice and compete in just didn't have as good equipment, didn't have as good facilities. They were subpar.
And ultimately, Burgmann was strung along until just before the games when she was ultimately thrown off the team, the international sports.
Community caught on to that discrimination, though, and talks started focusing on relocating the games, perhaps the president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, even said that, quote, The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed or race.
So that takes a pretty strong stance on this. This is not about your politics. It's about an international sporting event. But unfortunately, Brundage had a bit too much sway in this matter because in 1934, with a position like that out there, he was invited to Berlin to investigate the situation for himself and in a tightly managed visit that, you know, only seeing exactly what people wanted him to see. He inspected facilities, met with athletes and came home convinced that Jewish athletes weren't being discriminated against after all that that things were going to be fine in Germany and that Berlin should certainly go ahead with the games.
Yeah, but not everyone was so convinced. Many American newspapers, for example, called for a boycott. Much of the Jewish community was in favor of skipping the games, as were many U.S. Catholic leaders. One of the most prominent was Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, who was president of the Amateur Athletic Union. And he argued that Germany was violating key Olympic rules and that attending the games would basically endorse the Reich, something that became more and more evident when the Nuremberg laws were announced in 1935, stripping Jews of citizenship.
So it wasn't it was clearly not just about athletes.
It was a statement about the whole regime, about the whole country at this point.
But by December 1935, after a campaign from Brundage suggesting as far as the boycott being part of a Jewish communist conspiracy quote, that's that's how far he took this. The Amateur Athletic Union finally voted down a boycott. And I find it interesting that people up until the very end saw it both ways. Brundage, for instance, believe that the boycott was politicizing the games and the games were not something meant to be political. Those in favor of the boycott, though, really saw the games themselves as political, and that was the problem.
So, for example, a month before the Amateur Athletic Union vote, the Committee on Fair Play in Sport said, quote, Sport is prostituted when sport loses its independent and democratic character and becomes a political institution. Nazi Germany is endeavoring to use the 11th Olympiad to serve the necessities and interests of the Nazi regime rather than the Olympic ideals. So strong feelings both weigh very strong feelings.
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The American Athletic Union's vote kind of set the tone internationally as well, though there had been boycott interest in France and Great Britain and Sweden, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia, nothing had panned out.
A few alternative games were planned, one on Long Island, one in Barcelona. But these had to be canceled because of the or the one in Barcelona at least had to be canceled because of the Spanish Civil War.
But individual athletes could, of course, still boycott the games if they chose to. So several Jewish American athletes did so, including much of the Long Island University basketball team, considered one of the best teams in the country at the time, plus sprinters from Tulane and Harvard. There is we already mentioned the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum site. They have a lot of interviews with athletes, American athletes and German athletes. And one is with sprinter Milton Green, who was the captain of the Harvard team.
And he decided to boycott after his rabbi called him, called him in to tell him all about what was happening to Jews in Germany. And he felt like this was the right thing to do. And he talked about how surprised he was that his decision to boycott, he thought it would be a big deal. He was one of the best runners in the country. It didn't really resonate with anybody. Nobody really was even aware that he had chosen to boycott.
And he talked also about how every Olympics that he had watched since then, he would picture himself competing in his familiar events, missing that chance, not really feeling bad or regretful about what he had done, but just sort of wondering what could have been to it seemed, well, missing that chance and then on top of it, feeling like nobody was really paying attention.
I'm sure it was twice as heartbreaking. But the African-American community, however, had a very different take on this boycott.
They saw it as hypocritical, since for many blacks in the U.S., the idea of separate and unequal sporting opportunities was pretty much old news.
There was a quote in the Philadelphia Tribune right before the Amateur Athletic Union vote that went, quote, The Amateur Athletic Union shouts against the cruelties of the other nations and the brutalities in foreign climates, but conveniently forgets the things that sit on its own doorstep.
And plus, there was sort of an indication of what was going to happen if black athletes were allowed to go.
Black victories would show people just how wrong that Aryan ideal was. 18 black Olympians ended up competing on the U.S. team and 10 medals. So it was worth it for them to not boycott.
And something to that sort of ties into that Jesse Owens victory was expected or some of his victories were expected. You know, he was the fastest runner in the country and a lot of these other athletes were clear shoe ins for these competitions. So, yeah, the black community knew if these guys were allowed to compete, they they had a very high chance of winning. Ultimately, though, you know, despite these these attempts to boycott, despite these individual boycotts, 49 nations chose to attend the games.
But we need to talk a little bit about what the games were like, why were they the not the Olympics? And one thing to get out there is, by all accounts, they were incredibly impressive in every way. The athletes competing were dazzled. And that was that was part of the point. Impress the athletes. They'll go home with a positive experience in the games.
So just some examples of what made these games so impressive. The 49 countries that attended that was more countries than it ever participated before. The opening ceremonies also featured for the first time the lone runner carrying a torch that was lit in Olympia and the games were televised for the first time. You could visit these viewing stations throughout Berlin to watch Zeppelin's race newsreels around Europe for updated coverage. Leni Riefenstahl film the games for the movie Olympia, which was released in 1938.
And the German people were actually very welcoming. Marty Glickman, a Jewish American athlete who chose not to boycott, called it all a carnival, though.
So, of course, a lot of the success or the perceived success from the games was from what was concealed rather than what was promoted. So swastikas were decking all of the arenas and monuments, but a lot of the anti-Semitic signs had come down around Berlin, at least on the heavily trafficked streets. 800 gypsies had been moved to a camp on the outskirts of town and just 18 miles north of Berlin. The Saxon housing concentration camp was actually under construction during the games.
I think I find this part maybe the most extraordinary aspect of this, that it was so close by.
Within months, two of the closing ceremonies that concentration camp was open began accepting Jehovah's Witnesses and political opponents. So they were carrying on just not so overtly and. In gerbils was acutely aware of what needed to be hidden or avoided here in the Pink Triangle episode, we talked about how Himmler was instructed to, quote, clean up the town before visitors arrived. But under no circumstances, arrest gave foreigners under paragraph 175.
So they hid that part of their policy during that time because they knew how people would view it. The same idea extended to the press. The Reich press chamber controlled all coverage and forbade stories focused on race or religion. So a quote from July 1936, The racial point of view should not be used in any way in reporting sports results. Above all, Negroes should not be insensitively reported. Negroes are American citizens and must be treated with respect as Americans.
So don't publish anything that's going to get get the the whole country into trouble. That dictate, though, specifically regarding African-Americans, proved impossible for the German press to maintain, though after the stunning success of the black members of the U.S. track team, the pro Nazi paper called the attack just couldn't resist calling the black members of the team, quote, auxiliaries. But to the rest of the world and including the German public, we got to got to say that the talent of the track team was really captivating and owns especially was a star people were interested in in reading about them, even if pro Nazi papers were calling them auxillary.
So we've got to talk about the old story a little bit just because he is the main figure of this games and his his background makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. He was born in 1913. He was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves born in Danville, Alabama. He moved to Cleveland when he was nine years old. Interestingly, his name was not his given name was not Jesse. It was a nickname he told the teacher his initials were to AJC and in his Alabama accent, she mistook it for Jesse and it stuck.
He got to be careful of those accents when you're from the South, we know that.
But he started racing at thirteen, and by his sophomore year of college at Ohio State, Jesse broke five world records and equaled a sixth in 45 minutes at his first Big Ten championship with an injured back, he had been horsing around or wrestling with some of his fraternity brothers and couldn't even get dressed by himself.
But he was able to break five world records.
According to his New York Times obituary, the Big Ten commissioner, Doug Wilson, said, quote, He is a floating wonder, just like he had wings.
So and we alluded to this earlier. Clearly, Jesse Owens was a favorite in the Berlin games with that record he had said at the Big Ten competition just a year before. And he really did deliver. He won the gold in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the 400 meter relay and the broad jump, which is now called the long jump. And those last two events are especially notable, the 400 meter relay, because Owens and his fellow black American teammate, Ralph Metcalf, were not supposed to compete in it at all.
There were two American Jewish athletes, Marty Glickman, who he quoted earlier, and Sam Stoller. They were pulled out at the last minute by Avery Brundage. And it's possible that Owens and Metcalf were substituted because they were the team's fastest sprinters. But it's also possible that Glickman and Stoller were pulled out because they were Jewish and Brundidge may not have wanted to offend Hitler with a Jewish victory.
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On March 5th, Disney invites you to travel to the fantasy world of Commander and Rya and the Last Dragon. When an evil force threatens the land dividing its people, it's up to Lone Warrior Riot to track down the last dragon and restore peace. From the studio that brought you Malana and Frozen comes the next epic adventure featuring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran and Aquafina, directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez, Estrada Syariah and The Last Dragon the way you want in theaters or order it on Disney plus with premiere access March 5th.
The other event, the broad jump, is really notable because Owens was coached on and encouraged by his top German competitor, loots long footage of long rushing to congratulate and hug Owens, really contrast with the more familiar scenes of Hitler, watching Owens victories disapprovingly and long. And Owens stayed friends until his death in action at the allied invasion of Sicily.
Owens later said, quote, It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn't be a plaiting on the 24 carat friendship that I felt for so long. At that moment, Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.
And I would urge you guys, if you're going to look up one video clip from the Olympics, that's the one to to see if you sort of want a more stirring, heartwarming sort of Olympic moment for the American press.
Loved the long Owens friendship as much as as we do still. But they also devoted a lot of coverage to the fact that Hitler didn't shake his hand. It was considered a huge snub at the time, even though it's kind of more of a myth than truth.
In reality, Hitler had already been taken to task by the IOC, the very first day of competition for leaving after all of the German competitors had been eliminated in the final round.
For that day, he had only shook the hands of a few athletes.
All of them were either German or Finnish in the IOC basically said, please don't do that, either shake everybody's hands or shake no one's hands. He decided to shake nobody's hand publicly, and Owens himself later said kind of not directly challenging this myth that had been built up about the handshake. But he said, quote, It was all right with me. I didn't go to Berlin to shake hands with him anyway. All I know is that I'm here now.
And Hitler isn't the bigger issue for Owens. They're really in a lot of the African-American athletes. Wasn't that Hitler didn't acknowledge them. That was just a temporary issue. It was that they weren't acknowledged back home. None of the black medalists were invited to the White House or congratulated by President Roosevelt, according to Smithsonian magazine. And a lot of the less famous ones just kind of had to end up slipping into obscurity. Owens ended up doing stunt races.
He would raise horses, he would race cars. Eventually, though, he did become a premier and a motivational speaker, somebody who was able to make a living from his his Olympic record. I really liked one thing he said about jogging, though. He was asked as an older man whether he still enjoyed jogging. And he said, quote, I don't jog because I can't run flat footed. It just shows you how fast somebody would be if you can only run on your toes.
Despite own story, though, and the victories of the other black U.S. medalists and the competition of Jewish athletes from the U.S. and Europe, Hitler clearly saw the Olympics as a victory. The closing ceremony featured Beethoven, Searchlight's and blondes dressed in white to represent competing nations. German athletes won the most medals of anyone, and the organization of the event was praised highly.
Yeah, they actually won the most medals by far to almost double that of the U.S., which was number two. And it did work in the PR sense to The New York Times even said that the Games put Germany, quote, back in the fold of nations. And Hitler thought that things had gone so well and that everybody approved of the game so highly. He fully expected that after the 1940 games, which were already slated to take place in Tokyo, the Olympics would take place in Berlin forever.
There wouldn't be any other cities that hosted the Olympics.
Just Berlin, year after year after year, reminded me a little bit of our early discussion of the modern Olympics and in Paris and Athens and debates about where the Olympics should happen. But that's a that's a bold opinion and a lot of confidence.
There are some people, though, saw how hoodwinked the world had been during this time and how a major opportunity to censure the Nazi regime before the war was basically lost. Others fear the end of the charade. U.S. Ambassador to Germany William Dodd wrote that Jews were expecting the end of the games with fear and trembling. Just two days after the games ended, the head of the Olympic Village, who was of Jewish descent, was dismissed from military service and killed himself.
Yes, so people were afraid what the back to business kind of regime would be like now that the world had gone home, what was regular life going to be like, one example of this kind of return to normal being intolerable for people as Gretel Bergmann, the high jumper who we mentioned earlier, who was used as an example of how. Germans were including Jews on their teams and then was ultimately booted off the team at the last minute, she emigrated to the United States just a year after the games.
Ultimately, only two Jewish athletes competed for Germany.
One was Rudy Ball. He competed in ice hockey in the Winter Games back when the country would host both both the winter and the Summer Games. The other was Helene Meyer, who was a half Jewish blond. You know, she was considered to look very Aryan. She competed in fencing. She actually had already fled Germany before the games, but came back to compete, saluted Hitler, ultimately left again.
I think you can look at a lot of these athletes stories.
And again, the Holocaust Memorial Museum has a really sad page talking about a lot of Olympians from as early as the first the 1896 games and their fate during the Holocaust. But a bigger picture thing to think about, too, is that this was the last Olympics for a very long time. The of course, the 1940 Tokyo Games didn't happen. The 1944 games didn't happen. So it's not on the same scale, of course, as people losing their lives.
But one thing I can't help thinking about is that your professional athletic window is pretty narrow.
And if you weren't able to compete in this games, whether because you protested it, you boycotted it or you weren't allowed to, it very likely would have been your very last chance because you weren't going to get another one for 12 years, bringing it back to athletics a little bit.
Again, like you said, with a quote from Owens on preparing to run the 100 meter.
He said, It's a nervous, terrible feeling you feel as you stand there, as if your legs can't carry the weight of your body, your stomach isn't there and your mouth is dry and your hands are wet with perspiration.
And you begin to think in terms of all those years that you've worked, in my particular case, the 100 meters, as you look down the field, one hundred and nine yards, two feet away, and recognizing that after eight years of hard work, this is the point that I had reached and that all was going to be over in ten seconds. Those are the great moments in the lives of individuals.
So I thought that was a good way to wrap this up, because it is an individual story as much as it is a story of 49 countries coming from around the world to compete in Berlin.
Yeah, and you can't really separate those stories. You can't tell one story without telling the story of these very unique games and what he had to go through.
So we really have time. Yeah. So which is why we did that. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode is out of the archive, if you heard an email address or a Facebook you or something similar over the course of the show, that could be obsolete. Now, our current email address is History podcast and I heart radio dotcom. Our old HowStuffWorks email address no longer works. And you can find us all over social media at MTT in history.
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