December 7, 2015
The roar of thousands of people with their arms outstretched in the Nazi salute fills the stadium as three-year German Chancellor Adolf Hitler watches the opening ceremonies approvingly.
Swastika flags and Olympic banners line the crowded streets above athletes and spectators from nearly 50 different nations, where only a few weeks before were signs reading “Deutsche kauft nicht beim Juden”: “Germans don’t buy from Jews.”
Angry German speeches filled with anti-Semitic hatred clash with American Olympic officials reassuring the country that there’s no reason not to do business with the new German regime.
The triumphant opening notes of the American national anthem accompanies the handing of the gold medal to Jesse Owens, now an Olympic hero.
No, this isn’t Berlin 1936. It’s Austin 2015, at The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 exhibit.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum created The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 to demonstrate the issues of that year’s games in light of the rise of Nazism in Germany. The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports and the Texas Program in Sports and Media arranged to bring the exhibit to the University of Texas for the fall. The program wanted to use this exhibit to demonstrate the intersection of sports and society, according to program manager Christopher Hart.
“The 1936 Summer Olympic Games happen to have many stories with great historical significance that address many of those issues of sports in society,” he said.
Reaction from visitors has been positive so far, according to Robert Abzug, a history professor and the director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies.
“I think the significance of these reactions has much to do with it vivifying the rabid racism of the Nazis and their attempts to cover it all up with pageantry, making real events that viewers either know nothing about or had simply heard about in a textbook or mentioned in a lecture,” Abzug said.
Hart said the exhibit explores “issues that otherwise don’t get talked about.” One of these little-known issues is the movement in the United States to boycott the Berlin games.
The boycott failed because the American Olympic Committee found no reason not to go, according to Germanic Studies professor John Hoberman.
However, a perspective often overlooked is the opinion of African-Americans towards the potential boycott. Many black athletes thought the boycott effort was ignoring similar problems of racism in the U.S. Looking back, it would have been hypocritical of the U.S. to boycott the Olympics, said professor Louis Harrison, an expert in sports and race.
“Those athletes came back to an America that was very segregated with Jim Crow,” Harrison said. “There was this protest against the way Hitler was treating Jews, but then the U.S. was treating African Americans in similar ways.”
Clockwise, from upper left: 1. Unaware of the current or future atrocities committed by the Nazi government, crowds of people at the Berlin games honor the Olympic host country. 2. Jesse Owens, perhaps the most famous athlete of the 1936 Olympics, won four gold medals and set an Olympic record in the long jump. 3. For a time in 1935, there was a debate about whether or not the United States should participate in an Olympic Games sponsored by the Nazi government. 4. Visitor John Grewell looks at a panel detailing the Nuremburg Laws, a set of citizenship codes passed in 1935 that took many rights away from German Jews. 5. Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe were two prominent black American athletes from the 1930s that went on to win medals at the 1936 Olympics; because of the racism still in the United States, many African-Americans did not support boycotting the Olympic Games for racial reasons.
Today, however, racism isn’t a major problem at the Olympics, according to Hoberman, but just like in 1936, racial attitudes can still play a role in sports.
“The sport culture, certainly the high-profile sport culture, can serve as a litmus test of attitudes in the broader society,” he said. “There’s no impenetrable shield between society and the sports world.”
A more recent example of how discrimination affects the sports world is when football players at the University of Missouri refused to play until racism at the university was addressed, Hoberman said.
“One of the things that I and many other people have been waiting for is the potential political power of African-American athletes to formulate and manifest itself in one useful form or another,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, that doesn’t happen.”
The protest at Missouri is unique because sports are about following directions and not “bucking the system,” Harrison said.
“I think athletes hold a huge amount of power that they are totally unaware of in most cases,” he said. “There’s a lot of movements that are started by students, and in many cases student athletes, but they don’t necessarily make the history books, so people don’t talk about them very much.”
Many issues from 1936 that are relevant today aren’t explored enough, according to Harrison.
“When I went to that exhibit, I learned a lot of things that I was totally unaware of,” he said. “It keeps that kind of information from today’s African-American athletes, because if they can look
back at these athletes and see what they achieved and what they accomplished under some really tough circumstances, it might enlighten them more.”
The exhibit reminds visitors of the past and encourages serious discussion about the role of sports in society, according to Hoberman.
“It’s going to introduce to some people that serious thinking about the sports world is actually warranted,” he said. “This is a domain of human behavior that can be thought about and learned from and can absorb, in this case, political values.”