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Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936
By David Clay Large
216 pages; $27.95
It was 1936 and my father was furious. What, Jews and blacks going to compete at the Berlin Olympics? Some Jewish and black organizations in the US also thought the idea a disgrace. But the athletes themselves wanted to compete, and to show that they could also win. I remember that my father was mollified - and delighted - when the black Jesse Owens dominated the track-and-field events, winning four gold medals.
The best book ever on what happened before, during and after the 1936 games, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 by David Clay Large, records that the legendary Owens originally opposed participation because of Nazi race discrimination. Ironically, discrimination against blacks in his own country was just as bad and at times even lethal.
Germany wanted medals so badly that it fielded its best lady fencers, who were Jewish or part Jewish. When Helene Mayer, who did not regard herself as Jewish, failed to take the fencing gold, a furious Reinhard Heydrich swore at her and called her a Jewish bitch.
Oddly enough, Theodor Lewald, president of the organizing committee of the games, was half-Jewish and even accompanied Hitler as he entered the stadium. Lewald was soon deposed, but never arrested. He survived the war.
There were other racial differences at the games. Marathon winner Kitei Son was ashamed that he had won a gold for Japan, which occupied his country, Korea. The Japanese replied by banning him from sports (at the Seoul Olympics of 1988 he carried the Olympic Torch into the stadium). The Canadian ice hockey team was enraged at being beaten by a British team that included five Canadians. The Greeks and others had axes to grind.
The Nazis had a variety of worries. They ordered more than 50 prostitutes not to proposition blacks, Asians and Jews in the Olympic Village.
Leni Riefenstahl, who was filming the games for Hitler as a Nazi triumph, had a very public affair with American hunk Glenn Morris, who won the decathlon. She later claimed that Morris kissed her breasts and all but ravished her in mid-field after leaping from the podium. Riefenstahl later took her film on an American tour, but it fell flat with the news of the Nazi pogroms during Kristallnacht. Columnist Walter Winchell described her "as pretty as a swastika."
One of the really nasty characters in this book is Avery Brundage, then the millionaire president of the American Olympic Committee. Brundage made every effort to have the US take part in the Berlin games whatever the moral cost, and made a point of telling his Nazi hosts that his club in America did not admit Jews. He was still president of the International Olympic Committee at the 1972 Munich Games and decreed that the "games must go on" after a single day of mourning for the murdered Israeli athletes. He stepped down after the games were over and died in Germany in 1975.