Road To The Olympic Games

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1936: Berlin, Germany

Hitler's Third Reich planned to use the 1936 Games in Berlin as a glittering showcase of Aryan superiority, but African-American track and field star Jesse Owens had other ideas as he racked up four gold medals and made a mockery of Nazi propaganda.
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. (Allsport Hulton/Archive)

The hope was that the 1936 Berlin Olympics would be a beacon of hope in the global shadow cast by the Great Depression. But Adolf Hitler's Third Reich had other ideas, and planned to use the Games as a glittering showcase of Aryan superiority.

More than anything else, though, the Games turned out to be about Jesse Owens, the African-American son of an Alabama sharecropper whose world records and four gold medals made a mockery of Nazi ideology.

Quick Facts

Number of nations: 49

Number of athletes: 3,963 (331 women, 3,632 men)

Number of sports: 19

Number of events: 129

Number of tickets sold: 4.5 million

Music accompanying procession at opening ceremonies: Tannhauser by Richard Wagner

Number of times "Horst Wessel Lied," the Nazi war song, was played during Games: 480

Capacity of Berlin Olympic Stadium: 100,000

Olympic Stadium's later function: Home of Hertha of German soccer Bundesliga

Live television audience for Games: 150,000

Youngest medallist ever in individual event: Inga Sorensen, Denmark, 12 years (Swimming)

Youngest female gold medallist: Marjorie Gestring, U.S. 13 years (Diving)

From our perspective, awarding the Olympics to Nazi Germany looks like an unbelievably imprudent decision. But in fact, the Games were given to Germany in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party came to power. The International Olympic Committee opted to keep the Games in Berlin, promising to keep a watchful eye on events.

Boycotts narrowly averted

But there was a great deal of international unease and outrage that the Games would be in Berlin. Judge Jeremiah T. Murphy, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union in the United States, was alarmed by the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and called for a boycott — one of several such calls around the world.

An alternative People's Olympics was scheduled to take place in Barcelona, Spain, but they were cancelled when the Spanish Civil War broke out, one day before the competition was to begin.

In the end, U.S. Olympic officials voted narrowly in favour of sending their athletes to Berlin. Judge Murphy resigned his post and was replaced by future International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, who went on a pre-Games inspection tour of Berlin, and pronounced everything to be fine.

Let the propaganda, er, Games begin

Despite the sense of foreboding and rising international tensions, the Berlin Games drew more countries and athletes than any previous Olympics. But Hitler's intent was that the focus would not be on the athletes, at least not on the non-German athletes. The Games were nothing less than one of the largest propaganda campaigns ever staged.

The Third Reich spent $25 million to construct the finest facilities (a 100,000-seat Olympic stadium, a 20,000-seat state of the art swimming venue and a modern, comparatively lavish Olympic Village), make the city spotlessly clean and temporarily remove all outward signs of its anti-Semitic policies.

The German team, though, featured just one Jewish athlete. Helene Mayer, a Jewish woman living in the United States, was persuaded to return and compete for Germany because she was promised full "Aryan" classification.

German director Leni Riefenstahl gestures during the shooting of her film about the Olympic games in 1936 in Berlin. (STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Leni Riefenstahl

Notorious filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who directed Triumph of the Will, cranked up the Nazi propaganda in her documentary of the Games, Olympic Spiele. Yes, the film was more propaganda, but it also managed to celebrate the human spirit and the aesthetics of athletic bodies. In spite of itself, it's still widely considered the best chronicle of the Olympics.

At the opening ceremonies, athletes were expected to shout "Sieg Heil" as they passed Hitler, who sat in the Chancellor's box. The American team refused to salute, and the crowd of 100,000 — most of whom did salute the Fuhrer — responded angrily.

Even more heavy-handed was the presence of the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, throughout Berlin and the Olympic Village. The official reason was that they were there to provide security, though few foreigners seemed to buy that.

The sharecropper's son vs. the Third Reich

Actions can speak a lot louder than propaganda. If that's true, then no one spoke louder in Berlin than Jesse Owens, the gold medallist in the 100 metres, 200m, 4X100m relay and long jump.

Multiple gold medallists

Jesse Owens, U.S.

4 - Athletics

Robert Charpentier, France

3 - Cycling

Konrad Frey, Germany

3 - Gymnastics

Rie Mastenbroek, Netherlands

3 - Swimming

Alfred Schwarzmann, Germany

3 - Gymnastics

Giulio Gardini, Italy

2 - Fencing

George Hradetzky, Austria

2 - Canoe-Kayak

Endre Kabos, Hungary

2 - Fencing

Guy Lapebie, France

2 - Cycling

Franco Riccardi, Italy

2 - Fencing

Helen Stephens, U.S.

2 - Athletics

The significance of Owens' feats can't be understated — three years before the Second World War, his victories soundly refuted the Nazi doctrine of the racial superiority of Aryans, or white Europeans. Owens had help, too. The 10 black members of U.S. track and field team won a total seven gold, three silver and three bronze medals.

Owens' origins were humble, but his feats didn't come as a surprise. As a 15-year-old high school student in Cleveland, Ohio, Owens was running the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds, clearing 1.85m in the high jump and flying 7.65m in the long jump. And just weeks before the Olympics opened, Owens broke the 100m world record, clocking 10.2 seconds.

His first gold medals came in the 100m and 200m, but perhaps the most symbolic victory was in the long jump. Owens was fouling his jumps when his German rival, Luz Long, pulled him aside to offer some advice. The competition went down to the wire between Long and Owens, with Owens finally breaking away for the gold with a final jump of 8.06m.

Long and Owens would become close friends — another rebuke to Hitler, who did not personally congratulate Owens. But whether Hitler angrily snubbed Owens, as is widely believed, is less clear. Some accounts suggest that Hitler had been cautioned by IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour that personally congratulating medallists on the field was a breach of Olympic decorum.

Members of the 1936 German Olympic pentathlon team: Lieutenant Gotthardt Handrick (the Olympic champion), Captain Heigl, Second Lieutenants Puttmann, Cramer, Lemp and Schreiber. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What Germany did right

Hitler did indeed have a lot of medallists to congratulate. The German team received full financial support from the government and was probably the best-prepared team in the history of the Games to that time. Germany won more medals than any other country, with 89 overall (compared to 56 for the U.S.), 33 of them gold.

German Olympic organizers had other reasons to be proud. The Games were televised for the first time, broadcast via closed circuit TV to 150,000 people at 28 special venues around Berlin.

The 1936 Games also boasted the first Olympic torch relay, a tradition that continues today. The torch, lit at the Temple of Zeus in Greece, passed through 3,000 pairs of hands across seven countries before it reached Berlin's Olympic stadium.

Individual feats

Among the other great individual accomplishments notched up in Berlin, rower Jack Beresford of Great Britain won a gold medal in the double sculls event, marking the fifth Olympics at which he earned a medal. Kristjan Palusalu of Estonia won the heavyweight division in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Canadian medallists

Francis Amyot

gold - Canoe-Kayak

Frank Saker and Harvey Charters

silver, bronze - Canoe-Kayak

John Loaring

silver - Athletics

Men's team

silver - Basketball

Phil Edwards

bronze - Athletics

Joe Schleimer

bronze - Athletics

Betty Taylor

bronze - Athletics

Women's 4X100m

bronze - Athletics

Canadian track star Phil Edwards won his fifth Olympic bronze medal, this time in the 800m. The Canadian women kept another streak alive when they finished third in the 4X100m relay, their third straight medal in that event.

Only one Canadian won a gold medal — Francis Amyot in the 1,000m canoe singles event in canoe-kayak's Olympic debut. Basketball also made its first Olympic appearance, winding up with the American team defeating Canada for the gold outdoors in the rain by a 19-8 score. Irving (Toots) Meretsky, a member of the silver medal-winning Canadian basketball team, was one of the few Jewish athletes at the Games.

Spotlight

Canadian men's basketball team

In 1936, a hard-working team from Windsor, Ont., known as the Ford V-8's cruised through the competition at home and represented Canada at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Their silver is still the only medal Canada has ever won in men's basketball.

The boys that would form Canada's most successful men's basketball team began as a bunch of friends who played hoops together on a team they called the Windsor Alumni.

As the team became more competitive they found a sponsor in the local Ford plant — hence their name. In 1936, The Ford V-8's beat Toronto to win the Eastern Canadian championship, and defeated British Columbia to capture the national title, earning them a berth in the first Olympic basketball tournament.

In the heart of the Olympic Village was an open-air, clay basketball court. Looking more like a tennis court than basketball hardwood. But the boys from Windsor fared well on the outdoor German clay courts, defeating Brazil, Latvia, Switzerland and Poland, making it all the way to the gold-medal game against the favoured U.S.

The Americans were extremely skilled and quite a bit taller. The height advantage was a big factor because the final match was played in a steady downpour. The surface was slippery, making it next to impossible to run any plays, so both sides mostly passed the ball around, trying to inch closer to the hoop.

The weather kept the score low, with the Americans eking out a 19-8 victory. The V-8's had to be content with their silver medals.

And Another Thing...

Olivier Halassy of Hungary won his third water polo medal and second straight gold. That's an accomplishment in itself, but Halassy did it after one of his legs had been amputated below the knee after he was injured in a streetcar accident.

Medal Table

 CountryGoldSilverBronzeTotal
1Germany33263089
2United States24201256
3Italy89522
4Finland76618
5Hungary101516
17Canada1359