In the Olympic Games of the modern era, host nations have always had reasons to celebrate their national pride, but none more so than Germany in 1936 and China in 2008.
By 1936, Germany had recovered from losing World War I (WWI), and had a prosperous economy. When Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party won the German general election in March of 1933, they inherited something they didn’t really want—the 1936 Olympic Games. The Games had been awarded to Berlin at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) two years earlier. The selection was seen as an opportunity to welcome Germany back into the international community after its defeat in WWI.
The Nazi party initially reacted by referring to the Olympic Games as merely “infamous festivals dominated by Jews.” Hitler and his followers had little interest in anything Olympic at that time. But that all changed in October of 1933, when Hitler decided to inspect the Olympic stadium, which was being renovated for the upcoming Games. Several high-ranking German officials, including Dr. Theodor Lewald, the head of the German Olympic Organizing Committee, accompanied him.
The stadium had been built in 1913 to host the 1916 Olympics, which were canceled because of WWI. When Hitler arrived that day, the stadium was undergoing an expansion, increasing its capacity from 80,000 to 85,000 spectators. When Hitler noticed that the workers were excavating the floor of the stadium, he asked Lewald why the workers were digging down. When Lewald answered it was to provide more seating, Hitler made a surprising statement:
“This stadium must be demolished. A new one must be built in its place, capable of seating 100,000 people. It will be the task of the nation. If Germany is to stand host to the entire world, her preparations must be complete and magnificent.”
Lewald was both surprised and pleased. Hitler had suddenly realized the propagandistic value of hosting the Games: a chance for the world to see Germany at its best, and a chance for the German people to take pride in their country’s revival. The Germans decided that they would host the largest and best-organized Summer Olympic Games staged up to that time, no matter what the cost.
They also submitted a bid to host the Winter Olympics, which were to be held in February of 1936; from a list of three possible Alpine resort cities, the Bavarian city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen was selected to host the Winter Games.
In the three years leading up to both Olympics, there was increasing, often violent hostility toward anyone who was not a supporter of the Nazi party. All minority groups, especially Jews, were openly persecuted. Yet, outside Germany at that time, Hitler was internationally considered more comical than dangerous.
As word of Nazi persecution of Jews spread throughout the world, there were calls from many countries, especially the United States, to boycott the Berlin Games. In the US House of Representatives, there was a proposal to discourage the use of public funds to finance the trip to Germany. The US Senate went one step further, debating the possibility of a total Berlin boycott. There was also an effort in Europe to organize an alternate “People’s Olympic Games” in Barcelona, but that idea was not given much support.
The president of the US Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, worried that calls to boycott the Games might become a reality, and decided to go to Germany to validate any discrimination allegations. On his return, he announced: “Jewish athletes in Germany are not being discriminated against.”
The supporters of a US boycott were outraged. The dispute over whether the United States should attend or boycott the Berlin Games garnered more attention at the national convention of the Amateur Athletic Union in 1935. The motion to attend the Games passed by a narrow 58-56 margin, and Brundage immediately announced: “The United States will go to the Olympics, no matter what.”
The next year, with the Olympics approaching, anti-Semitic signs and posters became common in German cities and along rural roadways. In the winter of 1936, six months before the Berlin Games, Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, president of the IOC, was driving his car from his home in Belgium to Garmisch-Partenkirchen to attend the winter Olympics. He was shocked to see the anti-Semitic signs along the German roads, so he gave Hitler an ultimatum: either all of the signs were to be removed immediately, or the Berlin Olympics would be canceled. The signs were taken down.
In order to influence world opinion, much of the anti-Semitic campaign was muted for the duration of the Games. One exception was the treatment of Jewish athletes, who were suddenly not allowed to belong to German sports clubs. This meant they could not receive the coaching and competition opportunities that were available to others.
Amongst the most well known Jewish athletes was high jumper Margaret ‘Gretel’ Bergmann. When she learned she had not been chosen to compete in the Olympics, she decided to leave Germany and immigrate to America. However, one notable German Jew who was invited to participate on the German Olympic team was Helene Meyer, a champion fencer who was living with her parents in California at the time. She returned to Germany for the Olympics and won a silver medal in women’s foil.
During the two weeks of the Olympics, foreign visitors had no idea that there were any problems in Germany. They considered all of the nation’s people to be happy and prosperous. More importantly, Hitler came across as one of the greatest leaders in the world. The German people wanted everyone to know that they were a peaceful people. It was the first time since the end of WWI that they did not feel ashamed to be German.
There were several “firsts” in the 1936 Olympics. These were the first Games to have a flame relayed from Olympia, Greece, to the stadium cauldron for the opening ceremonies. One-year-old oak trees were presented to each of the 130 gold medal winners, to be taken home and planted. And 20,000 homing pigeons, symbolizing doves of peace, were released during the opening ceremonies, with all of the pigeons, except one, returning to their owners. The lone dissenter took up residence in the stadium and was seen flying around daily at the Games.
It was difficult to get tickets to any of the Olympic events. To accommodate those who could not attend, television cameras were set up around the stadium. Each day’s events were telecast to 25 different theaters around Berlin, and anyone could watch at no charge. 160,000 people viewed Olympic events every day on the theaters’ screens. Even the unofficial Olympic events drew record crowds. The baseball exhibition game, which featured two unknown US amateur teams, drew more than 100,000 spectators, the largest crowd to witness a baseball game at that time, including the World Series.
The star of the Berlin Olympics was, of course, the US’s Jesse Owens, who later said that he was treated much better in Germany than in the United States. On his way to winning four gold medals, Owens became increasingly popular with the German people. Every time he appeared in the stadium, the crowd would chant, “Yessie Ovens, Yessie Ovens.”
There is a longstanding myth that Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens, but it never happened. The “snub myth” has lived on, despite denials by Owens at the time, and historians later. The day of the so-called snub was August 2, the day before Owens won his first gold medal. Hitler had invited the first day’s winners to his box to be congratulated. The final event of the day, the high jump, lasted until late in the afternoon, and many fans had left the stadium, including Hitler. When the high jump winner turned out to be Cornelius Johnson, a black American, a New York Times headline read, “Hitler Ignores Negro Medalist.” When Jesse Owens became the star of the Games, journalists changed the story, making Owens the victim.
The next day, the IOC president, Count Baillet-Latour, informed Hitler that he would either congratulate all winners of Olympic events, or none. Hitler chose none. There were no more personal congratulations after that, except in private.
The American athletes had no reason to dislike Hitler or the politics of Germany. In fact, at one point, Jesse Owens and Adolf Hitler appeared to admire each other. According to Owens, Hitler paid tribute to him during the competitions. In a newspaper article, Owens was quoted as saying, “When I passed the Chancellor, he arose, waved his hand to me, and I waved back to him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.” Owens continued to deny that Hitler ever snubbed him, even after he returned to the United States. On one occasion, he described Hitler as “a man of dignity.”
Germany had good reason to take pride in these Olympics, not only for the impressive organization of the Games, but also for their outstanding athletic performances. Most people believe the United States won the most medals and that it was black Americans who dominated the events. In fact, Germany won 89 medals and the United States won only 56. In the gold medal count, Germany had 33 winners and the United States had only 24. And of those 24 gold medal winners, only five of them were black Americans.
Most Olympic Games gradually fade from memory as the years pass. But the 1936 Berlin Games live on, especially because of the film, Olympia, the work of the German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl. Even though Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, wanted the film to emphasize Nazi ideals and did not want the film to include black Americans, Hitler sided with Riefenstahl and gave her complete artistic control of the project. Because of Riefenstahl, Jesse Owens’ athletic talents and popularity are featured in the film. Considered one of the top ten films of all time, DVDs of this classic production of Olympia are available in libraries and video stores around the world. Because of Leni Riefenstahl’s foresight, talent, and passion, the 1936 Olympic Games have lived on.
In many ways, the nationalism created by the Berlin Games has carried over to the 17 summer Olympic Games that have followed, but to none more so than the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. By 2008, China had grown from a nation of rural poverty to an economic powerhouse. Like the Germans, the Chinese wanted to use the Olympic Games to showcase their government and their way of life to the world. This had been easier to accomplish in Germany than in China, since human rights violations in China were not as well hidden.
Another similarity between the two countries was their attitudes toward the expense of hosting the Games. Neither had a budgetary ceiling. The Beijing Olympics were by far the most expensive ever, but analysts have noted the US$40 billion price tag was mere pocket change when compared with the roaring Chinese economy.
The most important similarity between the Germans and the Chinese was the amount of pride felt by the host country’s people. As the Games approached, the Chinese frequently quoted Confucius, who said “Isn’t it a pleasure when friends come from far away?”
The Beijing Olympics were by far the biggest international event ever held in China. There were 10,942 athletes from 204 countries, 10,000 volunteers, 20,000 journalists, and 2 million spectators visiting Beijing. There were 4.7 billion television viewers. The 16 million residents of Beijing called it their “coming out party.” The best facilities were complemented by the best organization that could be imagined. The Olympic Grounds were clean, green, and absolutely beautiful. But the biggest surprise was the lack of air pollution. The Chinese government spent US$20.5 billion on 200 projects to clear the air, resulting in the best air quality Beijing had experienced in 10 years.
The motto for the Beijing Games, “One World, One Dream”, was selected from more than 200,000 entries from around the world. The motto called upon the world to build a greater future for humanity. Action superstar Jackie Chan, who was born in Hong Kong as Chan Kong Sang, was the singer for the official countdown recording for the Beijing Olympics. Then 54 years old, the actor, who is best known for his innovative movie stunts and comic timing, recorded the Olympic song, “We Are Ready,” during a trip to Beijing in the spring of 2008. The song was played on radio stations throughout China prior to the Games.
Even though “We Are Ready” became the theme song for the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese organizers were not absolutely ready until they could overcome one problem unique to these Games--massive air pollution. Chinese cities, Beijing particularly, had become notorious for their bad air. Some of the Chinese people I met at the Olympics had never seen blue skies. To help combat the pollution, fares for public transportation were lowered to reduce driving during the Games. People who still wanted to drive were restricted to driving every other day, with even-numbered license plates allowed on the roads one day and odd-numbered the next.
The Beijing Games were conducted at 37 different venues, including 12 constructed specifically for the Games. The center-piece for the Beijing Games was the National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest.
As was the case in Berlin, tickets to Olympic events were difficult to come by in Beijing. This was particularly true for basketball games, as player Yao Ming was China’s most prominent sports hero. He was also the tallest, at 7 feet, 6 inches. Yao, who played center for the Houston Rockets, had been receiving therapy for more than five months because of a stress fracture in his left foot. But even though an Olympic appearance by Yao seemed doubtful because of the injury, tickets for all of the Olympic basketball games were sold out as soon as they went on sale in Beijing. Those who were unable to buy tickets to Olympic events could watch them on any of the 24 big-screen TVs set up around Beijing that exclusively telecasted Olympic events, free of charge, 18 hours a day.
As was the case in the previous two summer Olympics, Beijing relied heavily on the use of volunteers. More than 1.2 million people from around the world applied to be volunteers for the Beijing Games, and 100,000 of them were selected and trained. An additional 40,000 city volunteers staffed 550 posts around Olympic venues, providing information, helping with translations, and offering emergency aid.
Though it rained in Beijing at times during the Olympics, China ensured nature cooperated for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies with its Weather Modification Program. Before these two events, approaching rain clouds were seeded by rockets containing silver iodide crystals. Moisture then collected on the crystals, which became heavy enough to fall as rain before the clouds reached the Bird’s Nest. The rocket launchers were mounted on the back of pickup trucks. During the opening ceremonies, approaching rain clouds were bombarded by 1,104 cloud seeking missile launches from 21 different launch sites. The goal was to disperse the oncoming rain. Apparently it worked, as there was no rain at the stadium that night.
The opening ceremonies, which featured 15,000 performers and cost $100 million, culminated with the entrance of the torch relay’s final runner, former gymnast Li Ning. (The relay, with its 21,800 runners, covered 85,000 miles in 130 days.) Suspended by wires, Li completed a lap of the roof of the Bird’s Nest before placing the sacred flame in the stadium’s cauldron, where it burned throughout the Olympics.
The flame was seen on six continents and in every province in China. The torch relay had one unusual twist on its way to Beijing. In an effort to take it “to new heights,” the Olympic flame was relayed to the top of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest.
As spectacular as the torch relay was planned to be, it turned out to be a public relations nightmare. Because of China’s human rights violations and its treatment of neighboring Tibet, the relay was plagued with protests and attempts to extinguish the flame. The route had to be changed a few times, and the flame was actually extinguished by protesters in Paris.
As was the case in Berlin, the host nation won the most gold medals, with 51. The United States was second, with 36. However, in the total medal count, the United States bettered China with 110 medals to 100.
Both Berlin and Beijing demonstrated to the world that their countries were modern, progressive, and capable. The people of both nations took pride in their Olympic achievements and showed emphatic support for their governments. Both proved to be Olympic “champions.”
In the Olympic Games of the modern era, host nations have always had reasons to celebrate their national pride, but none more so than Germany in 1936 and China in 2008.