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August 1: The Nazi Olympics

July 31, 2015

170px-Jesse_Owens3Adolf Hitler opened the XIth Olympiad in Berlin on this date in 1936, arriving amid musical fanfares directed by the famous composer Richard Strauss. By then, nazification of German sport had excluded Jews from sports facilities and associations. In the U.S., Jewish athletes and organizations were divided about whether to boycott the 1936 Olympics, but once the American Amateur Athletic Union defeated a proposal to boycott, other countries followed suit, and the games had athletes from forty-nine countries, the most in modern Olympics history. The USSR stayed away — they would not return to the Olympics until 1952 — and helped sponsor the “People’s Olympiad” in Barcelona, which was cancelled by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War just as thousands of athletes had begun to arrive. Eighteen African-American athletes, sixteen men and two women, went to Berlin (only six blacks had competed for the United States in the 1932 Los Angeles Games), and won fourteen medals out of 56 won by the entire American team — including four gold medals by Jesse Owens, who, in ESPN’s words, “single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.” (To see him running the 100-meter dash, look below.) Yet Germany did win the most medals by far, with 89, and the Olympics did reinforce the Nazi mystique throughout the world. American runners Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, the only two Jews on the U.S. team, were pulled from their relay team on the day of the competition, leading to wide speculation that Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, did not want to add to Hitler’s embarrassment having Jews winning medals.

“Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.” —Jesse Owens