By Pam LeBlanc, Austin American-Statesman (TNS)
AUSTIN, Texas–In 1936, sports, politics and propaganda collided in Berlin in one of the most controversial Olympic Games ever.
The Berlin Games gave us Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field, but they gave us much more–not all of it as triumphant.
“The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” a temporary exhibit at the University of Texas’ H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, explores the history and impact of the 1936 Games. It documents the treatment of Jews, blacks and Gypsies leading up to the competition, shows how Hitler and the Nazis used it as propaganda, and how other countries responded.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., created the multimedia exhibit, which opened nearly 20 years ago in conjunction with the Atlanta Olympics. The Stark Center, tucked in the north end zone of the Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, teamed with the Texas Program in Sports and Media to bring it to Austin.
“We felt it was important to have it here,” said Terry Todd, co-founder and director of the Stark Center, which includes a research library and museum and is one of about 20 designated Olympic Studies Centers around the world. “People get wrapped up in sports, but sometimes don’t realize how political it is. I think it’s important that we remember what happens in the world of sport has a broader cultural impact.”
The exhibit, Todd says, reminds people what can happen when sport is subverted for political reasons, and why race and religion should never be a reason to exclude someone from sport.
A series of lectures by sports historians and a showing of the German film “Berlin 1936” are planned in conjunction with the exhibit; dates have not yet been set.
“We’ve always liked to look at issues of anti-Semitism within a broader context, and there’s nothing more universal than sports and the Olympics,” said Robert Abzug, director of Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at UT, which is helping to organize the lectures.
The Olympics were awarded to Berlin two years before Adolf Hitler took power. At first, he was ambivalent about hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. Advisers convinced him he could use the Games as a propaganda tool, and, ultimately, he planned to make Germany the permanent home of the Olympic Games.
“He realized this would be a way to show the world what his vision of the world would be,” Todd said.
Some U.S. leaders urged a boycott of the 1936 Olympics, but the effort failed. Fifty countries participated, and Germany presented a peaceful, tolerant image to tourists. The Games were bigger and grander than ever, and, for the first time, televised. Officials temporarily removed anti-Jewish signs, and visitors didn’t know that non-Aryans were being rounded up and sent to internment camps or that a concentration camp was being built just outside Berlin.
Fitness was part of Hitler’s plan to strengthen the Aryan race. Jews and Gypsies were banned from sports facilities and competition leading up to the Games. The exhibit includes photographs of German soldiers diving into a pool wearing field equipment at a pre-game show at the Olympic trials and huge stadiums of youth exercising together.
“Everybody thinks of sports as a positive side to life. (The exhibit) really shows what happened politically, and how sports can be used as a propaganda tool to deceive and demonize races and religions,” said Gregg Philipson, a commissioner with the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission who also has a personal collection of Holocaust items. “This shows the other side of what can happen.”
Among the most touching components of the display are photos of Jewish athletes who were later killed in Holocaust.
Germany won the most medals overall at the Berlin Olympics, but athletes from around the world blasted gaping holes in the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy.
Blacks won 14 medals at the Games. Twelve Jewish athletes, including two Americans, also won medals. Two more _ U.S. track athletes Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman–might have added to the tally, but they were benched at the last minute and replaced by Jesse Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, and Ralph Metcalfe. That reconfigured an American 4-by-100 relay team went on to set a world record of 39.8 seconds, which stood for 20 years.
Many people believe that Hitler specifically refused to shake Owens’ hand because he was black. But according to the exhibit, Hitler had decided ahead of time not to shake the hands of any of the athletes–not just Owens.
There’s a UT connection to the exhibit, too: Adolph Kiefer, who won a gold medal in backstroke at the Berlin Olympics, moved to Austin shortly after to swim for the Longhorns. He stayed a few years, but later transferred to the University of Illinois.
IF YOU GO
“The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936” is on display through Jan. 29 at the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, 2100 San Jacinto St. Admission is free. For more information, go to http://starkcenter.org/naziolympics”starkcenter.org/naziolympics.
Photo by Joe Haupt via Flickr