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Facing the Führer: Jesse Owens and the history of the modern Olympic games

Enjoying Rio 2016? This extract from Sport: A Very Short Introduction by Mike Cronin gives a history of the modern Olympic games; from its inspiration in the British Public school system, to the role it played in promoting Nazi propaganda.

The modern Olympic Games, and their governing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), came into being in 1894 and were the brainchild of Pierre de Coubertin. A Frenchman with a passionate interest in education, de Coubertin had visited England. He toured several public schools while there, including Rugby School, where he was said to have been inspired by the reformist headmaster Thomas Arnold, and the way in which school sport was used to create moral and social strength. De Coubertin also placed great store in the sporting and philosophical approach of the Ancient Greeks, and through meetings with Dr William Penny Brookes, founder of the Much Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850, had been able to understand how a multi-sport competition might work. The various events and traditions that de Coubertin had observed came together in 1889 when he finally conceived the idea of reviving the Olympic Games. After a series of meetings involving figures interested in sport from across Europe, the IOC was formed in 1894, and, with the support of the Greek government, the first revived Olympic Games scheduled for Athens two years later.

De Coubertin and the IOC’s thinking in these early years is instructive in understanding the spirit that is said to underlie the contemporary games, and also the ways in which the Olympics have deviated from their original goals. The Games, as conceived by de Coubertin, would have a philosophical underpinning, often referred to as Olympism, and much of his inspiration was drawn from his own romanticized reading of the ancient Games. He believed that the spirit of competition was central, but that the taking part was more important that the winning. He argued that the competition should be restricted to amateurs, and that the Games, building on the idea of the ancient Olympic truce, should bring about a spirit of peace between competing nations. Whatever the ethical underpinning of the Games, the first Olympics in Athens were deemed a success. Despite a relatively hasty process of organization, and a lukewarm response to the whole Olympic idea from some leading nations such as the US (which brought a team of only 14 that was mainly drawn from the athletic teams of Harvard and Yale), the Games were popular amongst Greeks and garnered a good deal of international press coverage.

In 1900 in Paris, and in 1904 at St Louis, the Games were side attractions to a World’s Fair being held simultaneously in the host city, and failed to elicit any great enthusiasm. So disjointed were the Games in St Louis, and so subservient to the World’s Fair, the sporting competitions stretched from the opening event on 1 July until the close on 23 November. Only 12 nations competed, and most with small teams. The US team, with 526 athletes, dominated the total field of 623 athletes. The 1908 Games were originally awarded to Rome, but were relocated to London after the Italians faced financial problems following the costs associated with clearing up the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Although a host city of expediency, many argue that London managed to stage the first recognizably modern Olympics featuring 22 competing nations. It was also the first Games that featured athletes marching into the stadium during the opening ceremony behind their national flags, and as a result one of the first political disputes when the US flag bearer, Ralph Rose, failed to dip the Stars and Stripes when his team passed the viewing platform where King Edward VII sat.

Berlin, Olympiade, Siegerehrung Weitsprung
Berlin, Olympiade, Siegerehrung Weitsprung by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Games were disrupted during the First World War, the 1916 Games originally scheduled for Berlin were cancelled, and the defeated War powers banned from competing in 1920 and 1924. In the inter-war years the Games grew steadily, with the Winter Olympics added in 1924, and staged at Chamonix in France. The 1936 Games were awarded to Berlin, and the ruling Nazi party transformed the Olympics from an international athletic competition into a mega-event infused with political rhetoric and spectacle provided specifically to enhance the status of the host city (and by proxy, the host nation). Conceiving the Games as an opportunity to showcase the positives of Nazi rule, the 1936 Olympics serve as a byword for a state propaganda display. Despite the intense politicization of the event by the Nazis, many of their innovations would become standard features of future Olympics Games. It was the first Games where there was a torch relay, the first to be televised, and, under the directorship of Leni Reifenstahl, the first to be filmed and produced as the documentary movie titled Olympia. They were also the first Games to be used as a political tool by other nations states with a point to make, and Spain, the Soviet Union, and Ireland all boycotted the event.

Given that the Berlin Olympics were staged to showcase the merits of Nazi ideology, it is perhaps the performance of Jesse Owens that best symbolizes the inherent contradictions of 1936. Given Nazi race policies, the party’s newspapers suggested in the run-up to the Games that Jewish and black athletes be barred from entering. Faced with a potential US boycott, entry was left open to all, but the victory of African-American Owens, in the 100 m final, in front of Hitler, proved a visible rebuke to Nazi claims for the supremacy of the Aryan race. That said, the race politics of the US at the time were equally poisonous. Despite his propaganda boosting defeat of the Germans in front of the home Nazi crowd in Berlin, Owens was never invited to the White House by President Roosevelt, and on the occasion of a reception to mark his gold medal victory, after his homecoming, he was made to use the goods elevator rather than the one in the main lobby which was reserved for whites. While grandiose in its propaganda use by the Nazis, the 1936 Olympics proved that the Games were a political football, and that competing, winning, or even boycotting could score important political and cultural points.

Featured image credit: Jesse Owens sprinter by WikiImages. Public domain via Pixabay

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