UW men's crew finish at the 1936 Olympics
UW men's crew finish at the 1936 Olympics (Courtesy off the University of Washington)

After watch­ing and admir­ing George Clooney’s movie, “The Boys in the Boat,” I came home and put on “Olympia,” Leni Riefen­stahl’s bril­liant, con­tro­ver­sial doc­u­men­tary on the 1936 Nazi-host­ed Olympics in Berlin. The doc­u­men­tary reveal­ing­ly cap­tures the row­ing tri­umph of a team from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington.

We first see a team from Ger­many win­ning in the four-man shell com­pe­ti­tion. The young Ger­mans freeze in a Heil Hitler salute. Then, as the eight-man race gets under­way, Riefen­stahl’s cam­eras focus on the duel between Ger­many and Italy. The Eng­lish lan­guage com­men­ta­tor then shouts: “And here comes America.”

The UW team surges to win by a nose. The cam­eras record a scene of unre­strained joy as the wreath is passed between team members.

The Olympics had been designed as a show­piece for the Third Reich. The Olympic torch was car­ried, for the first time, from Athens to the site of the games. Ath­letes were greet­ed by a new Olympic hymn com­posed by Richard Straus. The Nazi regime’s anti­se­mit­ic cam­paigns were, for a time, put on hold. The vir­u­lent news­pa­per Der Sturmer dis­ap­peared from kiosks in Berlin.

I wan­dered through Wern­er Mach’s Berlin Olympic Sta­di­um a few years ago and stood on the VIP plat­form. This was the place where Adolf Hitler had basked in the crowd’s adu­la­tion. The French ath­letes gave him the Nazi salute.

By con­trast, the Amer­i­can flag did not dip. Unit­ed States ath­letes gave the Fuhrer a sim­ple eyes-right. Below the box, Jesse Owens would set a long-jump record not equaled for thir­ty-two years. Hitler would not shake his hand.

1936 Olympic games poster
1936 Olympic games poster, pub­lished by the by Reichs­bahnzen­trale für den Deutschen Rei­sev­erkehr (Via Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Poster Collection)

In Riefen­stahl’s doc­u­men­tary, Amer­i­cans upstage their hosts.

She focus­es on Owens as he wins four gold medals, and on exer­tions of decathlon win­ner Glenn Mor­ris. (Leni claimed of hav­ing a brief dal­liance with Mor­ris.) The Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton crew and U.S. divers get fea­tured, along with a medal cer­e­mo­ny show­ing three Amer­i­can flags being raised.

As well, there is a protest. Sohn Kee-chung became the first eth­nic Kore­an to win an Olympic medal, tri­umph­ing in the marathon. He had to com­pete under the name of Kitei Son as a mem­ber of the Japan­ese del­e­ga­tion since Korea was occu­pan­cy rule of the Empire of Japan at the time.

Sohn and bronze medal­ist Nam Sung-young stood with their heads bowed at the medals cer­e­mo­ny, refus­ing to acknowl­edge the Japan­ese anthem and flag.

Sohn would get his coun­try back. He lat­er become vice chair­man of the Kore­an Sport and Olympic Com­mit­tee and was giv­en the hon­or of car­ry­ing the Olympic torch into the sta­di­um at the open­ing of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

There was a dri­ve for Amer­i­ca to boy­cott the 1936 Olympics, root­ed in Nazi per­se­cu­tion of Ger­many’s Jews. But the pres­i­dent of the U.S. Olympic Com­mit­tee, Avery Brundage, suc­cess­ful­ly pressed the case for going.

He would chair the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee for twen­ty years. He would insist that the 1972 Munich Olympics pro­ceed, even after ter­ror­ists mur­dered eleven Israeli ath­letes. Said Brundage: “The Games must go on.”

On the eve of the 1936 games, how­ev­er, the only two Jews on the U.S. track team – Mar­ty Glick­man and Sam Stoller – were exclud­ed from the Amer­i­can four hun­dred meter relay team. Glick­man would insist for years that their removal was done by Brundage to avoid embar­rass­ing Hitler. The run­ners sub­sti­tut­ed – Owens and Ralph Met­calfe – were both Black.

Avery Brundage spent decades preach­ing against the “politi­ciza­tion” of the Olympics. In 1980, how­ev­er, five years after his death, the Carter admin­is­tra­tion chose to boy­cott the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Sovi­et Union’s inva­sion of Afghanistan. Six­ty-six oth­er coun­tries chose not to par­tic­i­pate. In turn, the Sovi­ets and their pup­pet states boy­cotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Debate over host cities has nev­er ceased. Ath­letes have long argued that boy­cotts con­sti­tute a punch in the gut for those who have endured gru­el­ing prepa­ra­tion. Calls to move the Olympics arose again when, pri­or to the 2014 Win­ter Olympics in Sochi, Rus­sia enact­ed a law ban­ning dis­tri­b­u­tion of “pro­pa­gan­da of non-tra­di­tion­al sex­u­al rela­tion­ships” among minors. The response saw numer­ous a com­ing out by numer­ous LGBTQ+ ath­letes. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion respond­ed by putting past gay medal­ists on the U.S. del­e­ga­tion to the games.

Anoth­er issue, long winked at, has been the use of per­for­mance-enhanc­ing drugs, par­tic­u­lar­ly by East Ger­man and Sovi­et ath­letes before the end of the Cold War.

Final­ly, after Sochi, the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency detailed how Rus­si­a’s Olympic ath­letes engaged in state-spon­sored dop­ing. The IOC pro­ceed­ed to strip medals from Russ­ian ath­letes and sus­pend the Russ­ian Olympic Committee.

Rus­si­a’s ath­letes have since been allowed to com­pete inde­pen­dent­ly with no offi­cial del­e­ga­tion or Russ­ian flag dis­played at open­ing ceremonies.

Bei­jing host­ed the 2008 Sum­mer Olympics and 2022 Win­ter Olympics, each with open­ing and clos­ing cer­e­monies fea­tur­ing goose-step­ping sol­diers and a mar­tial dis­play of Chi­nese nation­al­ism. Dis­si­dents were detained or sent away from the city. Direc­tor Dan­ny Boyle (“Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire”) designed the open­ing cer­e­monies of the 2012 Lon­don Olympics to offer a contrast.

Sir Paul McCart­ney led a sing-long of “Hey Jude” and a stunt­man dressed as Queen Eliz­a­beth II para­chut­ed into the Olympic sta­di­um from a helicopter.

Wash­ing­ton has enjoyed an out­sized pres­ence in the Olympics orbit.

The Seat­tle Post-Intel­li­gencer list­ed the 1936 UW crew vic­to­ry as our region’s great­est 20th Cen­tu­ry sport­ing event. Short track speed skater Apo­lo Ohno, the pride of Fed­er­al Way, became the most dec­o­rat­ed Amer­i­can in Win­ter Olympics his­to­ry. Phil and Steve Mahre, broth­ers from White Pass, won gold and sil­ver medals in slalom at the 1984 Win­ter Olympics at Sarajevo.

Phil Mahre was the U.S. torch bear­er car­ry­ing the Olympic torch across the bor­der for the 2010 Van­cou­ver Win­ter Olympics.

One of our boys deliv­ered a come­up­pance to the arro­gant, auto­crat­ic Avery Brundage. Dur­ing a Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee hear­ing, Sen­a­tor War­ren Mag­nu­son, D‑Wash., called Brundage to the wit­ness stand as “Mr. Aver­age Brundy.” Aides insist­ed it was­n’t the usu­al Mag­gie bloop­er, but intentional.

Daniel James Brown’s acclaimed book, “The Boys in the Boat,” por­trays the Depres­sion-era guys who came out of Mont­lake to win gold medals on the world stage… as well as the set­ting of their tri­umph. Chill­ing­ly, the read­er learns that Jew­ish fam­i­lies liv­ing near the race venue were lat­er deport­ed and executed.

A sec­ond book, “The Nazi Olympics,” by Richard Man­dell, mem­o­rably describes open­ing cer­e­monies, ath­let­ic achieve­ments, even lav­ish par­ties thrown by Goer­ing, Goebbels and von Ribbentrop.

A cen­tral char­ac­ter in his book is Helene May­er, a half-Jew­ish fencer allowed to join the Ger­man team as a pro­pa­gan­da gesture.

Mey­er took a sil­ver medal and is pic­tured salut­ing Hitler from the podium.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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