Politics and Olympics

If people believe that the Olympic Games and its symbols cannot be turned into a propaganda machine for the world’s great tyrannies, consider the lesson of 1936.

American Esther Myers Wenzel, reporting for the Douglas Tribune, wrote that the August 1, 1936,  “opening ceremony at the (Olympic ) games (in Berlin) was one I shall never forget ...

“By 4 o’clock every seat in the huge stadium was taken, and at first strains of the German anthem, Hitler arrived, escorted by his aides ... As he entered the people rose and cheered wildly ...

“It would take pages to describe all of the following events, but I must tell you that the most thrilling moment was when the Olympic runner stood poised at the head of the long flight of steps leading into the stadium from the east. Just at that instant the great Olympic bell began to toll, the 52 flags were raised around the top of the stadium, and a military salute fired from cannon! The crowd was hushed as the runner came gracefully around the south side of the stadium and to the steps on the west which led to the big urn. He lighted the torch and then ran out of the stadium. It was certainly an impressive sight.”

Wenzel, a school teacher from Douglas, Kansas, would not have known that every aspect of the ceremony and the games had been orchestrated with the intent of glorifying Hitler and his Nazi tyranny. It was politics written larger than life and orchestrated to impress.

Although the Olympic Games had been awarded to Germany in 1931 before the Nazis came to power on January 30, 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels seized the opportunity as a gift from the gods and made the Berlin Games a showpiece for German might. In a regime that glorified Nordic superiority, it was Goebbels who presented to a world stage the myth of the gods of Valhalla blessing the nation for returning to the past and rising from the ashes of armageddon. 

To turn a more benevolent face to their guests, the Nazis had removed all the symbols that stained the image of the “new Germany” they wanted to present to the world. The signs of “Jews Not Welcome” that were normally seen about Germany had been taken down from hotels, restaurants and other public venues. The storm troopers who had made it their mission to assault and belittle Jews were given the order to restrain themselves. The virulently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, published by the notorious Julius Streicher, was removed from newsstands. This was the newspaper the party used to propagate its warped racial views to Germans using the message, “Tell a lie often enough it will be accepted as truth.” Among the lies told by Hitler was that the Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

To the later embarrassment of Canada, the nation’s athletes when parading in front of Hitler gave what at first glance appeared to be a Nazi salute to the cheers of the crowd. “It wasn’t actually the Nazi salute,” wrote Winnipeg Free Press reporter P.J. “Pat” Muqueen. “The outstretched right hands of the Canadians pointed skyward rather than forward. It was merely a salute toward Hitler.”

The salute made by the Canadian athletes was actually the Olympic salute which during the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam had been used by all the nations. Even though the Olympic salute was used, it was a grave error because of its similarity to the Nazi salute. As a result, the Canadians were highly criticized in the world press outside of Germany. They should have followed the Americans who merely placed their hats flat against their bodies. 

Even before the Olympic Games, the United States was questioning whether it was advisable to participate in a nation ruled by thugs. It was also a debate held in other nations, including Canada, Australia, France and Britain, though in the end the idea of a boycott was dropped, but star  Jewish athletes from Austria, France, the U.S. and Canada decided to sit out the Games.

International Olympic Organization  president Avery Brundage announced to the world that “politics must not be brought into the Olympics.”

But it was a hollow argument, since the Nazis had already manipulated the Games for political purposes.

While the Olympic ceremony to light the urn using a torch had been introduced in Amsterdam, the drama of a torch relay from the ancient stadium at Olympia in Greece was a Nazi invention.

The Krupps Armament Co., whose shells and artillery were used against Allied troops during the Second World War, manufactured more than 3,000 torches for the relay from Greece. The Zeiss optical company produced the parabolic mirror used by the “high priestess,” the leader of 15 Greek maidens in classical dress, to light the wand used to ignite a brazier. The priestess and her cohort filed from the ancient stadium with the brazier to ignite the fire altar from which a Greek youth lit the first torch. The flame then travelled through Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia before reaching Germany. What these countries all had in common was they were either invaded and conquered or were overthrown by Nazi German treachery. 

Since the 1936 Olympics, this procedure to light the Olympic torch has been in continual use. It is the same tradition now in use to bring the Olympic flame from Greece to Beijing.

As in 1936, the people of the world are again protesting human rights abuses, although this time the culprit is China, not Nazi Germany. But China continues to use the same pattern as Nazi Germany. The typical response of any totalitarian regime is to blame those who are being suppressed. It’s the return of the big lie and another attempt by a one-party dictatorship to show a benevolent face to the world during the Olympics. Perhaps the biggest lie is that the Olympics are not used for political purposes.

In 1936, Balder von Schirach, the leader of the Hitler Youth, claimed that Hitler said after the 100-metre victory by star American athlete Jessie Owens: “The Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting Negroes win their medals for them. I shall not shake hands with this Negro ... do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro.”

What will the Chinese leaders say this year? Will it be reminiscent of Olympics past?