Wednesday, April 9, 2008
A story of an Olympic boycott that almost worked
By Jeremy Schaap ESPN
Seventy-two years ago this summer, Hitler's Germany played host to the Games of the Eleventh Olympiad in Berlin.
The games are now best remembered for the brilliance of Jesse Owens -- who won four gold medals -- and the success of the Nazis' propaganda machine. For the first time in the history of the modern Olympics, the Games were held hostage by the political goals of the host nation.
What's largely forgotten is the fact that a powerful American movement to boycott the Nazi Olympics nearly succeeded. The final vote of the AAU's delegates was 58.25 to 55.75 in favor of participation. If three more delegates had voted to boycott the Games, the Nazis would have presided at a meaningless event.
In "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics," ESPN's Jeremy Schaap tells the story of Owens and of the efforts to keep America out of the 1936 Olympics.
Here's an abridged excerpt:
"The Judge and the Millionaire" -- New York, 1935
ODDLY ENOUGH, the most vigorous and effective proponent of an American boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Germany was not a Jew. Instead he was a devout Irish-American Catholic known all his life for his stubborn opposition to racial and religious discrimination. Born on Manhattan's East Side in 1878, Jeremiah Titus Mahoney worked his way through New York University -- where he played football, baseball, and lacrosse and high-jumped -- and then NYU's School of Law. In 1923 Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed him to the state Supreme Court, where he served for six years before returning to private practice.
By 1935, Mahoney had ascended to the presidency of the Amateur Athletic Union, making him responsible for the selection of America's Olympic team. After long reflection, he came to the conclusion that American participation in Hitler's Olympics would serve only to legitimate a wholly evil regime, a regime that was discriminating against its own Jewish citizens as it chose its Olympic teams.
"There is no room for discrimination on grounds of race, color, or creed in the Olympics," Mahoney said. "The A.A.U. voted in 1933 to accept an invitation to compete at Berlin in 1936, provided Germany pledged that there would be no discrimination against Jewish athletes. If that pledge is not kept, I personally do not see why we should compete."
Despite the assurances of American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage to the contrary, anyone could see that the Third Reich had no real intention of allowing Jewish athletes to compete fully on its Olympic teams. Almost since the day the Nazis had come to power, it had been clear that they planned to discriminate against Jewish athletes, despite their assurances to the contrary. Those assurances had first been offered in Vienna in June 1933, at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee. The committee had convened in part to decide whether Germany would still be allowed to host the 1936 Olympics. If the Germans refused to promise to treat Jewish athletes fairly, the committee would move the games. Initially the Germans offered merely to abide by all the laws regulating the Olympic games. "The German Olympic Committee had arrived with this promise from their government in their pockets," John MacCormac reported for The New York Times from Vienna. But when several American members of the IOC demanded a specific assurance that Jews would not be excluded from the German Olympic team, the German legation had to cable superiors in Berlin for instructions. Finally the Germans agreed to the broader guidelines.
"What has happened is another proof of the spirit of fellowship that sport engenders," said His Excellency Dr. Theodor Lewald, the chairman of the German Olympic committee. MacCormac was duly impressed. "This development represents a complete backing down by the Hitler government," he wrote. "The straightforward character of the promise obtained from the German Government came as all the greater surprise, and the opinion was expressed that a real blow had been struck in the cause of racial freedom, at least in the realm of sport."
Of course, no such blow had been struck. The Nazis, typically, simply made a promise they had no intention of keeping. Still, the IOC went to the trouble of entrusting the task of enforcing the agreed-upon regulations to Lewald and the other members of the German Olympic committee: the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt, Carl Diem, Dr. Heinrich Sahm, and Hans von Tschammer und Osten. The Viennese reporters covering the story were skeptical. They thought, quite rightly, that "nothing but formal and empty assurances on the question of Jewish participation in the Olympics could be expected from the committee, which, it was remarked, consisted of 'diplomats rather than sportsmen.'" The Austrian press already knew how much stock to put in Nazi promises.
Just a few days after the convention in Vienna, at a Nazi party meeting in Berlin, Hans Von Tschammer und Osten, the German minister of sport, made it clear that the Austrians were right. He told his fellow Nazis, on the record, that the pledges made in Vienna would not hinder the national agenda. "We shall see to it that both in our national life and in our relations and competitions with foreign nations only such Germans shall be allowed to represent the nation as those against whom no objection can be raised," he said. Everyone in the room knew which people were to be objected to.
Von Tschammer und Osten said virtually the same thing at another meeting, in Cologne. He wanted his fellow Nazis to know exactly where he and the German Olympic officials stood, despite Lewald's public statements. To clarify the German position for its readers, the Associated Press asked him to answer several questions. Responding to a question about a German decision to deny Jewish sports clubs "all special facilities," Von Tschammer und Osten wrote:
"It is hardly fair to expect that state support be given to purely Jewish organizations, which, being composed almost exclusively of Zionists, are even today in sharp political conflict with the government. Just as Nationalist sports organizations during the past years continued to enlist and engage in activities without any material assistance by relying purely upon themselves, so, too, no other treatment can now justly be meted out to Jewish organizations. That certainly won't create any difficulty for them, for in their circles substantial private means are available."
For three years the Germans engaged in similar rhetorical games with the international press and diplomatic corps. No, they said, we would never discriminate against the Jews. They have every right to take part in our Olympic trials. But of course, like everyone else, Jewish athletes must be sponsored by local clubs. And of course we cannot compel the local clubs to have them as members. These clubs have rights, too. And they must also abide by our laws. Which bar Jews from non-Jewish clubs. What about Jewish clubs? They are all either Zionist or Communist fronts. You cannot possibly expect them to be allowed to send athletes to our trials. And so on.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.