1936 Olympics: Why controversial?

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The 1936 Olympics hosted in Nazi Germany were controversial due to the political climate. Some argue that participating nations missed an opportunity to combat Nazism. Hitler initially opposed hosting the Olympics but saw it as a propaganda opportunity. Discrimination against Jews and other undesirables was hidden during the event. Despite calls for a boycott, 49 nations participated. The Olympics were dominated by the Nazi regime, but several black and Jewish athletes performed well.

The 1936 Olympics were controversial at the time because they became highly politicized due to them being hosted in Nazi Germany. The roles of the various players in the 1936 Olympics have come under extensive scrutiny since then, with some people feeling that the participating nations missed an opportunity to stem the rising tide of Nazism in Germany. Some members of the Jewish community especially wish that nations like the United States would have chosen to boycott the 1936 Olympics, to express their disgust for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

The beginnings of the 1936 Olympics were not particularly controversial. Berlin received the opportunity to host the Olympics in 1931, three years before Hitler took power in Germany. The Olympics were hoped to symbolize Germany’s return to society after the struggles of World War I, and many people welcomed the opportunity to showcase the world’s best athletes at the Berlin Summer Games.

When Hitler took power in Germany, he was initially against hosting the Olympics, as he disliked the internationalist spirit associated with the Olympic Games. However, his cabinet advisers stressed that the 1936 Olympics could present an important propaganda opportunity, enabling Germany to give its best to the world and showcasing the skills of the German people. As a result, Hitler came to support the Olympics, devoting substantial funds to the enterprise and sponsoring the first Olympic torch relay.

When the contestants and guests arrived in Berlin in 1936, they encountered a heavily sanitized Germany. Jews, gypsies and other undesirables were quietly removed from Berlin, along with discriminatory signs and other indications of the extent of the Nazi regime. The German government only allowed Aryan athletes to compete for Germany, excluding many talented Jewish athletes, and gave its foreign guests a show, hiring famed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to document the events. The allure of the Olympics was designed to hide what was lurking underneath in an already very troubled country.

49 nations competed in the 1936 Olympics, despite calls for a boycott of the Olympics in some participating countries. Opponents of the Olympics argued that by sending athletes to the event, nations would be condoning the activities of the Nazi regime, and that a powerful message could be sent by refusing to participate. However, many people subscribed to the idea that the Olympics were an apolitical event and that a boycott would go against the internationalist spirit of the Olympics, and eventually their views won out.

You may hear the 1936 Olympics referred to as the Nazi Olympics, in reference to the fact that the proceedings were heavily dominated by the presence of the Nazi regime. Much to the Nazi government’s frustration, several black athletes, including Jesse Owens, excelled in the Olympics, belying the Nazi belief in racial superiority, and Jewish athletes of several nations also performed very well in competition. Many of these athletes later wrote that they thoroughly enjoyed the experience and received very friendly and favorable treatment from their hosts, which is quite ironic considering the fact that German Jews would soon find themselves “housed” in brutal prison camps.

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