Spectacle, Sport and Story: Picturing the 1936 Olympics

Spectacle, Sport and Story: Picturing the 1936 Olympics


In 1936 Nazi Germany hosted two Olympic games. First
the winter games in the bavarian market town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, then the lavish summer games in Berlin. These were understandably controversial and politically charged events. In the years leading up to the XI olympiad
Jews were already being systematically persecuted under Hitler to the extent that by 1935, the first concentration camps were well established and German Jews were stripped of their citizenship. These conditions were more or less well-known
throughout the rest of the world. There was, for the first time widespread talk of boycotting the games. In the end however, 28 nations competed
in the winter Olympics, and 49 competed in the summer Olympics, the highest levels participation to that date. Both athletes and visitors alike were duly
impressed with the spectacular ceremony, the state-of-the-art facilities, and the exciting competition that ensued. Massive stadiums and an idyllic Olympic
village were built for the Berlin games. New technologies were used. These were the first games be televised. Hitler himself invited filmmaker Leni Riefensthal to document the games. The footage would later be used in the making
of Olympia: the hugely successful propaganda film still acclaimed for its technical and aesthetic innovations. No expense was spared in marketing the XI
Olympiad. In doing so, the Third Reich was also marketing an image of a new German empire. This set of 144 trading cards
are part of the Heinrich Collection at the University of the Regina Archives and
Special Collections. They belonged to Theodore Heinrich, an American
officer stationed in Germany from 1943 to 1950. He was a junior officer on the intelligence
staff of General Eisenhower and remained in Germany after the war assisting with the recovery
and restitution of looted art. The trading cards are part of a large collection
of papers, photographs and memorabilia acquired in 1989 and organized and described in 2000. The winter games, most commentators remarked, were a glowing success. Global concern about fascist politics interfering
with the convivial spirit of the games had largely been quelled. There was nary a trace of anti-semitic sentiment
at the winter Olympics. The spectacular opening ceremonies of the
summer Olympics were the first to feature the torch relay, an event conceived by Carl Diem, the chief organizer of the games. Carrying the torch from Athens to Berlin established a connection between the ancient
greeks, re-envisioned in Nazi ideology as blond blue-eyed Aryans, and the contemporary
German people. Skiing competitions were not without controversy.
Ski instructors were barred from competition because of their professional status. Some skiers from Austria and Switzerland were
so angry about this decision that they boycotted the events. Great Britain reigns supreme on the hockey
ice at the games, crushing Canadian and American hopes of
the top prize. A small consolation to the Canadians was
the fact that several members of the British team were living in Canada at the time. India’s field hockey team shone brightly
in the summer. With only one goal scored against them in
the entire games they beat out Germany for the gold. Scoring 10 out of 30 goals during the games,
Dhyan Chand was a three time Olympic champion by the age of 31. India’s winning streak would last 32 years. Two Koreans Sohn Kee-chung, running under the
name Son Kitei, and Nam Seung-yong we’re forced to compete for Japan as Korea
was then occupied by Japanese forces. Winning gold brought humiliation in a victory
celebrated by raising the Japanese flag and by playing the Japanese national anthem. The modern pentathlon tested a broad spectrum
of military skills. Germany did not place first in any of the
five disciplines but an overall score won them the gold. The German army easily swept away all six
gold medals in equestrian events. African American, James Cleveland Owens, better known as Jesse Owens, gave gold medal performances in the 100-
and 200-meter dashes, the long jump and the 4 by 100 relay. The relay team’s world record time of 39.8
seconds would last for 20 years. While 21 other cyclists collided near
the end, a cyclist from France took gold in the 100 km road race. This guy had more than luck and skill on his
side. A photo of the finish showed that he had tugged
on the jersey of another competitor in order to pull ahead in the last second. The United States won the first Olympic basketball
championship, defeating Canada .. 19 to 8?! The outdoor court was turned into a skating
rink of mud by an incessant downpour. To add to the difficulties, a high wind did
weird things with the soggy ball. In the closing half the teams were so worn out
from trucking through the mud and cold that they slowed to a walk. Competition was fierce in the pool. The Dutch
women were a force to be reckoned with. It was the Japanese and American swimmers who dominated
the men’s matches. An American coach reasoned that among the Japanese
teams attributes was the fact that .. the Japanese boys aren’t
interesting in girls. They regard their swimming as a matter of national
honor, and they work like the devil. Under the Nuremburg laws of 1935,
people of Jewish ancestry were not considered German citizens. However, perhaps to give the illusion of fairness,
two athletes of Jewish descent were invited to compete for Germany. One of these individuals
was the great fencer, Helene Mayer. Mayer won silver for her country, but she would never regain her German citizenship. The games of the XI olympiad were an opportunity
for Nazi Germany to present itself on the world’s stage as a technologically advanced, culturally sophisticated, powerful, yet peaceful nation. It was also a chance to test national socialist
claims of Aryan supremacy. In the overall medal counts at the winter games, Germany came in second behind Norway and ahead
of Sweden. Although German medal counts at the summer games
were by far the highest, Nazi racial theory was challenged by Germany’s
closest competitors, the Americans. Eighteen Black athletes, including Owens were
on the American team, and they dominated the track and field events,
winning seven gold medals, three silver, and three bronze among them. These games were the last to be held for
12 years: the anticipated 1940 and 1944 games were cancelled
due to the outbreak WW II, just three short years after the celebrated spectacle of the XI olympiad.

1 Reply to “Spectacle, Sport and Story: Picturing the 1936 Olympics”

  1. I love it of course. Just one small note; the arrangement and description of Heinrich's papers were of course started long before 2000.

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