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Politics in the Olympics: learning from Nazi Germany

Since 1936, host nations have been using the Olympics to toot their own horn. M. Eschle

The 1936 Olympics, hosted by Nazi Germany, took a sporting event designed to promote goodwill among nations, and turned it into a global propaganda platform. Host nations haven’t looked back since.

At the time, the modern Olympic movement was in its infancy. The Games were still far from being the global attraction they are today. But the legacy of these games can still be seen in the choreography and orchestration of the Olympiad today.

The Olympics: a perfect fit for Nazi propaganda

Goebbels, Hitler’s Minster of Propaganda, saw an excellent opportunity to show the world the “new” Germany. He thought the Olympic Games could be an ideal platform to promote Aryan “superiority” at home and abroad. The influx of foreign money to the German economy was an added bonus.

All areas of public life in Nazi Germany were “Nazified”: subject to the Nazi ideals and policies. Sport was not excluded and it was used in the drive to strengthen and purify the “Aryan race”.

The Nazis introduced the torch relay, a propaganda-infused ritual still going strong today. London Olympics

The Olympics were a perfect fit for the Nazi agenda, not only because they promoted sports, but because of their origin. Nazi propaganda already claimed that the superior German civilisation was the rightful heir to the culture of Greece’s classical antiquity. The Berlin Olympics would simply emphasise this link further.

Nazi spin-doctors used images of German athletes to spread the Aryan racial myth as a self-evident truth. The promotional posters depicted German athletes with well-developed muscles, heroic strength, blond hair and blue eyes.

The Nazis inaugurated an Olympic ritual still used today. German middle-distance runner Fritz Schilgen arrived in Berlin bearing a lit torch carried by relay from the site of the ancient Games in Olympia, symbolising Prometheus’ gift of the fire of the gods to the people.

It is worth noting that torches were a key element in Nazi choreography. Even before Hitler became Chancellor, Nazis effectively used dramatic torch-lit parades and massive public rallies to attract disenfranchised young Germans.

Keeping up a perfect front

On August 1, 1936, the opening ceremony took place at a stadium filled with over 100,000 people. Musical fanfares directed by Richard Strauss heralded Hitler’s arrival. With just a few words, Hitler proclaimed the Games of Berlin opened.

The Olympics showed the international community only the positive side of life in Hitler’s Germany. German newspapers and other media were under strict censorship, with instructions to say nothing that could offend the guests. Colourful posters gave glowing reports on athletes from all nations.

The German opening ceremony set the standard for opening extravaganzas for decades to come.

During the day, the athletes competed in thrilling events in new and well-designed facilities. In the evenings they were entertained at lavish parties hosted by welcoming Nazi leaders.

At the eleventh Olympiad, Germany emerged victorious. German athletes captured most of the medals, and German hospitality and organisation won the praise of the visitors.

Only a few reporters, such as William Shirer, regarded the Berlin glitter as “hiding a racist, militaristic regime”. In his diary, Shirer wrote: “[I am] afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the Games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.”

African-American propaganda at the Nazi Olympics

One entirely different group also saw the Nazi Olympics as a platform to promote their own ideology. The African-American community sent 19 participants — three times more than took part in the 1932 Los Angeles Games.

In the 1930s, African-Americans suffered significant discrimination in most areas of American life. Laws specially designed by whites kept blacks powerless and segregated. They were kept away from many jobs, and even from entering public places such as restaurants and hotels.

African-Americans saw the Berlin Olympics as a chance to show they certainly weren’t racially inferior. Hoffmann/German Federal Archives

In sports, the opportunities for African-Americans were also limited, at both college and professional levels. Participating in an international event, with the prospect of achieving a victory over the Aryans, was a chance to promote a new sense of “black pride” at home.

The four gold medals Jesse Owens won achieved their hopes. Their victorious participation shook the racial stereotypes both with the Nazis and the segregationists in the USA.

The legacy of the Nazi Olympics

The Nazi vision of supremacy transformed the Olympics into arena where nations can show their superiority over others. This vision is still alive today. The megalomania associated with the 2008 Beijing Games is a testament to this. In fact, the Chinese commissioned Albert Speer Jr. (son of Hitler’s architect - Albert Speer) to design the master plan for the Beijing Games, just like his father did in Berlin 1936.

Yet, by many accounts, it seems that the Beijing Olympics might have been the last mega-Olympics in history. That’s not because the vision of global dominance is unappealing to politicians around the world, but because there are few nations that have the financial power, the human resources, and the political ambition to match what China did in 2008.

Even if Olympics are no longer the nationalistic showpieces they once were, nations will continue to use them as a propaganda platform. Only the topics have changed: for London, 2012 is their chance to boast the most sustainable Olympics ever.

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