The story most repeated about Hitler and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which were unquestionably put on as a political showcase for Nazi Germany, is that Hitler refused to shake the hand of the American Black athlete Jesse Owens after the latter had won a race. This myth is extremely widespread: the "Encarta Encyclopedia", issued by Microsoft (1998 edition) states the following in its entry under Jesse Owens:
"Owens, Jesse (1913-80), one of the greatest track-and-field athletes of all time . . . A member of the U.S. track team in the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, Owens won four gold medals. He won the 100-m dash in 10.3 sec, equaling the Olympic record; set a new Olympic and world record of 20.7 sec in the 200-m dash; and won the running broad jump with a leap of 26 ft 5I in., setting a new Olympic record. He was also a member of the U.S. 400-m relay team that year, which set a new Olympic and world record of 39.8 sec. Despite Owens' outstanding athletic performance, German leader Adolf Hitler refused to acknowledge his Olympic victories because Owens was black. Owens went on to play an active role in youth athletic programs and later established his own public relations firm. His autobiography, 'The Jesse Owens Story', was published in 1970".
-- Microsoft Encarta, 98 Encyclopedia. 1997 Microsoft Corporation.
The reality was in fact substantially different: what happened was that Hitler personally attended the first day of the track and field competition on 2 August 1936, and did personally congratulate the German athlete Hans Wöllke, who became the first German to win a gold medal in the Olympics since 1896.
Throughout the rest of the day, Hitler continued to receive Olympic champions, German and non German, in his VIP box.
The next day, 3 August, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Comte Baillet-Latour, approached Hitler early in the morning and told the German leader that he had violated Olympic protocol by having winners paraded to his box.
Hitler apologized and gave an undertaking that he would from then on refrain from publicly congratulating any winners, German or otherwise. During this day, Owens won his gold medals - and in line with the Olympic Committee's ruling, Hitler did not shake his hand, or anybody else's for that matter, at the games again.
It is therefore utterly false to claim that Hitler deliberately chose to ignore Owens. In fact, in the very autobiography that the "Encarta Encyclopedia" extract above refers to, "The Jesse Owens Story", Owens himself recounted how Hitler had stood up and waved to him:
"When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany".
~ Jesse Owens, "The Jesse Owens Story", 1970.
Another common story about the 1936 Olympic games is that Owens' victory "disproved the Nazi master race theory" - in fact the Olympic games as a whole were won by the German team with 89 medals, compared to the 56 medals won by the second placed USA team. Hitler was pleased with the outcome.
In what was to become an act of extreme irony, the American president of the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then involved in an election and concerned about the reaction in the USA's southern states, refused to see Owens at the White House: Owens was later to remark that it was Roosevelt, not Hitler, who snubbed him.
This is a good example of one of the more outstanding distortions which have sprung up around Nazi Germany, all as a result of a political agenda linked to Nazi Anti-Jewishness. It is also true that it is the victors' prerogative to write the historical account of events: this too has served to cloud the issue of the Third Reich and to make it into the political hot potato that it remains over fifty years after it vanished.
All Americans (at least) have heard it. In the Berlin Olympics of 2 - 16 August 1936, Adolf Hitler refused to shake hands with an American runner named Jesse Owens, who was what we now call African-American in politically correct parlance, making headlines around the world, as Hitler's racial policies towards non-Aryans were quite well-known.
First, to clear up the story of Jesse Owen's name. His real name was James Cleveland Owens, which when he drawled (he was from the dirt-poor South) to a Northern schoolteacher, "J.C" turned into Jesse.
The Berlin Olympics of 1936 took place in an atmosphere where sport and international politics were no longer separate, despite the ostensible purpose of the Olympics:
... a backdrop of momentous world events. Just a year earlier Benito Mussolini had announced the annexation of Ethiopia ... in the early spring of of 1936 Hitler's army moved into the previously demilitarized Rhineland...
... In the wake of the furious debate over the participation of athletes from Western democratic nations in Nazi Germany, an alternate games -- "the People's Olympics" -- were planned for July 19 -- 26 in Barcelona, Spain. ... On the very morning of the opening ceremonies, reactionary forces led by General Francisco Franco plunged Spain into a civil war. Born of political idealism, the People's Olympics were the victim of a political crisis.
The "Baltimore Afro-American" (8 August 1936) and other newspapers spread the story that Hitler refused to shake Jesse Owens's hand or congratulate other Black medalists. In fact, during the very first day of Olympic competition, when Owens did not compete, Olympic protocol officers implored Hitler to receive either all the medal winners or none, and Hitler chose the latter. Whether he did this to avoid shaking hands with "non-Aryans" is unclear.
Privately, Minister of Propaganda Göbbels called the victories by Blacks "a disgrace." Ignoring censors' orders to avoid offending foreign guests with racist commentaries, the radical Nazi newspaper "Der Angriff" (The Attack) wrote on August 6: "If the American team had not brought along Black auxiliaries ... one would have regarded the Yankees as the biggest disappointment of the Games."
The Berlin Olympics reeked of politics -- of Hitler's designs and calculations, of the hopes and fears of the German people, and of the anti-Nazi bloc throughout the Western world. Little wonder that the first day of athletic competition produced a controversial episode that within the week would turn into a most memorable as politically useful myth: Hitler's legendary "snub" of Jesse Owens. In truth, the yarn was a fabrication that originally had nothing whatsoever to do with Owens.
On the first afternoon of the games, Hitler excitedly watched two German athletes, Tilly Fleischer and Hans Wöllke, win gold medals, and summoned them to his box for personal, public congratulations. Shortly thereafter, he did the same for a Finnish victor. Then late in the afternoon, as drops of rain began to fall from a darkened sky, Cornelius Johnson barely beat his teammate, David Albritton, for the gold in the high jump. Just before the playing of the American national anthem announced the awarding of Johnson's medal, Hitler and his entourage left the stadium. (there are other accounts that Hitler "stormed out" of the stadium in a tantrum)
Did they make the hasty exit so Hitler would not have to shake hands with the black Johnson? Maybe they did. A Nazi spokesman explained that Hitler's party always entered and left the stadium on an exact prearranged schedule, but it is difficult to imagine Der Führer publicly congratulating a black man, whom he considered only slightly less odious than a Jew. But if he snubbed any black American athlete, it was Cornelius Johnson rather than Jesse Owens. Not until the next day did Owens win his first gold medal. By then the president of the International Olympic Committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour of Belgium, had gotten word to Hitler that as the head of the host government he must be impartial in his accolades -- congratulating all or none of the victors. Hitler stopped inviting winners to his box. He was much to sensitive to world opinion to leave himself open to negative publicity.
But Hitler had not banked on the ingenuity of the American press. "Hitler greets all medalists except Americans," the front page of the "New York Times" announced the day after the first competitive events; "Hitler ignores Negro medalists," ran the headlines the next day. Not by coincidence, the "New York Times" had earlier led the movement to boycott the Berlin Games. Still, after those initial barrages, the "Times" largely ceased mentioning the "snub" story. Other newspapers picked it up with a new twist. "HITLER SNUBS JESSE," read the huge, bold headlines of a black Cleveland paper, "Call and Post", the day after Owens had won his first medal. Ignorant of Baillet-Latour's instructions and confident of its ability to read Hitler's motives, the American press shifted the focus away from Cornelius Johnson and to Jesse Owens. Every new medal won by Owens enhanced his appeal as the target of Hitler's supoosed insult.
Yet Jesse denied it to interviewers at Berlin and to reporters on his return home. He would soon find, however, that the constant denial was too much bother and that to claim the "snub" for his own would work to his advantage. "And then," as Bob Greenspan says simply, "Jesse kept on using the story." Especially in his postwar public addresses, newspaper articles, and ghosted books, he would make much of Hitler's refusal to shake his hand, and his "leaving the stadium in a tantrum."
Of Jesse's experience in Berlin:
"German spectators gave him the warmest ovation of his life. Just before he entered the stadium, Larry Snyder (his coach) warned him to be ready for a hostile reception: "Don't let anything you hear from the stands upset you. Ignore the results and you'll be alright." Little did Snyder know that German admiration for athletic achievement transcended race prejudice. From the moment that Owens first appeared on the track, curious German athletes and coachs milled around him. ... One German coach, seemed, to Snyder, intensely interested in Jesse's graceful legs, studying them "like a scientist studying a rare species of fauna". Then, after Jesse won his first heat, the entire stadium burst out in thunderous applause. From then on he received a loud ovation every time he walked out on the track".
Owens was besieged by autograph seekers throughout his stay
He was cheered loudly every time he entered the stadium by the mostly German audience.
Owens had been prepared for a hostile reception; a coach had warned him in advance not to be upset by anything that might happen in the stands. "Ignore the insults," Owens was told, "and you'll be all right."
Later Owens recalled that he had gotten the greatest ovations of his career at Berlin.
So much for the "Germans were unified in their hatred of non-Aryans" routine.
We may safely conclude:
F. Adolf Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, intentionally snubbing him.
T. Hitler didn't shake hands with any athletes after the first day of competition, and Jesse didn't win anything until the second. Hitler did, however, snub another black American athlete, Cornelius Johnson.
But the myths don't end here. Another myth is that a few African-American athletes ran off with all of the medals. Jesse did walk off with four gold medals, no mean achievement. However:
In the unofficial point system devised by the American Olympic Committee (ten points for first place, and five, four, three, two and one for the next five finishes, the American male track and field team scored 203 points. Owens alone scored 40, almost two-thirds of the entire German teams total.
Outside of track and field, however, the Germans dominated:
87 - 1 in gymnastics, 65 - 6 in equestrian events, 43 - 4 in canoeing, 34 - 9 in boxing, 28 - 10 in weightlifting, 27 - 0 in cycling, 20 - 2 in yachting, and 19 - 10 in fencing.
Only in wrestling and basketball did American athletes make a decent showing.
When the president of the International Olympic Committee, Henri Baillet-Latour, finally proclaimed the closing of the Berlin games, both German and American scoring systems gave the Germans a decisive victory over the United States. The other European fascist power, Italy, finished a distant third in team point totals.
In "Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History", by Richard Shenkman, there is an abbreviated account of the above, and Shenkman concludes with:
"It is forgotten that Germany managed to pick up more medals that all of the other countries combined. Hitler was pleased with the outcome".
Of some independent interest is the fact that after the Berlin games, the once peaceful Olympic village became an infantry training center. The largest restaurant and music hall were transformed into military hospitals. Foreign athletes who hung out as little as two days after the end of the Berlin games could hear the rattle of machine-gun fire from nearby training fields.
"The army had done its best to help make the Olympic show a success," an American reporter commented, "but it now is resuming its real job."
A couple more well-known Jesse Owens stories:
One concerns the story of Jesse Owens and Lutz Long. This story has some truth to it, which makes it dangerous, 'cuz most of it is false.
To qualify for afternoon finals in the long jump, Jesse had to leap 23 feet 5 inches, something that he had bettered in his senior year in high school. In fact, Jesse was favored to win the gold. Notably, in a competition in Ann Arbor, he had leaped 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches, which was still a world record at the time. There are myths about the qualifying jumps. From the main text:
"His own later accounts sadly misrepresent the facts. Tacitly playing on Hitler's snub, in 1960 Owens recounted that he was so upset by Hitler's master race theories that he angrily leaped "from several inches beyond the take-off board" on his first jump, then "fouled even worse" on his second try. Later he claimed that Hitler had walked out on him just before he jumped, making him so "mad, hate-mad" that he lost his self-control. Both stories are less than credible. The athlete's utterances in 1936 contain nothing to indicate Hitler's "master race theories" were of concern to Jesse Owens at the time, and Hitler was not even in the stadium for the morning preliminaries. Even when Owens dropped Hitler from his account of his difficulties, he still got the facts wrong. In his favorite version of the event, he stepped across the front edge of the take-off board on his first attempt, then was so careful not to scratch on his second try that he made a mediocre leap, too short to qualify".
In Arthur Daley's account of Jesse's qualifying attempts at the long jump from the "New York Times" we have:
"Owens strolled over to the runway and, still in his pullover, raced to the pit and ran right through, a customary warm-up gesture. But the red flag was raised in a token greatly to the Buckeye Bullet's astonishment. That counted as one of his three jumps.
"Apparently this practice run through the pit was only customary in the US".
"On his second try, which he made in earnest, Jesse hit the take-off board cleanly and sailed through the air. Again the red flag was raised.
"Owens had stepped over the front edge of the take-off board.
"One more 'scratch' would disqualify him, placing the world's greatest long-jumper on the sidelines for the afternoon finals.
The American press reported widely on the friendship that developed between Owens and his German competitor in the long jump, Carl Ludwig ("Luz") Long.
As Owens later told the story with various embellishments and varying degrees of consistency, his reveries of self-disgust were interrupted by a German competitor, Lutz Long, who came to his rescue with words of consolation and advice. An inch or two taller than Owens, Long was blond, lean, and blue-eyed, a walking advertisement for Hitler's Aryan ideal. According to Owens's reminiscences, Long initiated a conversation. ... Then Long reportedly suggested that Jesse make a mark 6 inches back off of the take-off board (as one version of the story has it) or that he place the towel 6 inches back of the board (according to another of Owens's accounts) in order to avoid fouling.
If Long did, in fact, make the helpful suggestion, no one but Owens heard it. No one else even observed the two men in conversation at the time. The doyen of American sports writers, Grantland Rice, was in the press box with binoculars trained on Owens between his second and third attempts to qualify. ... (Rice saw) only a calm mask of a face as Jesse walked down the sprint path to the take-off board, re-traced his steps, then "anteloped" down the path to make his final jump. ... left the ground with half-foot clearance at the take-off and went past 25 feet to safety.
So Jesse qualified for the long jump. Jesse had the gold locked up before his final jump, but on the final jump:
"As he hurled himself through space," noted Rice, ... "... seemed to be jumping clear out of Germany".
"That final majestic jump, captured memorably by Leni Riefenstahl's cameramen, carried to a new Olympic record of 8.06 meters (26 feet, 5 1/4 inches). (the text is fuzzy, but I believe that Long came in second)
"Lutz Long's response, however, was most unexpected: Long rushed up to congratulate him. Years later, for select audiences, Owens indicated that this was, in fact, the first time Long and he ever spoke to each other".
The text further comments that when speaking before large groups, Owens would give the other version, complete with Long's advice in the preliminaries, and, as Jesse told it, after his final jump, Long took Owens's hand, held it high, and shouted to the crowd, "Jesse Owens! Jesse Owens!" and the entire stadium thundered with a chanting of "Jaz-ee-ooh-wenz." According to those who actually saw it, all that the two men did was walk arm-in-arm off of the field toward the dressing rooms. The truth can be *so* dull, but this is alt.folklore.urban.
Eighteen Black athletes represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics. African-Americans dominated the popular track and field events.
Many American journalists hailed the victories of Jesse Owens and other Blacks as a blow to the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy.
Göbbels's press censorship prevented German reporters from expressing their prejudices freely, but one leading Nazi newspaper demeaned the Black athletes by referring to them as "auxiliaries".
The continuing social and economic discrimination the Black medalists faced upon returning home underscored the irony of their victory in racist Germany
It is true that Owens and Long became good friends during their time in Berlin. Owens explained their "unique friendship" as "simply two uncertain young men in an uncertain world."
"Uncertain it was. Long died in combat fighting for the Third Reich in Sicily. As an aside, the quaint story of Owens meeting Long's son in Berlin in 1951 and autographing a photo of his father may actually be true. Owens claims that Hitler glared angrily at the sight of his Aryan athlete shaking hands with Owens. However, Hitler virtually ignored the incident, and I know of no solid evidence that Hitler intentionally had Long sent to the front lines to be killed in action for congratulating Owens".
Comments the text:
"He reserved his evil irrationality for Jews, Poles, and foreign foes, not for his Olympic athletes. Proud of Long's valiant effort, he congratulated him privately just before leaving the stadium. As one reporter commented, 'his eagerness to receive the youthful German was so great that the Führer condescended to wait until his emissaries had pried Long loose from Owens'.
A brief comment on the story of the two American Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller getting bumped and replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, is true. They had the dubious distinction of being the only American runners who went to the Berlin games without competing. Owens and Metcalfe may have been better runners, but the whole thing was questionable. Look it up if you like.
Another legend of Jesse is true: he really did run a 100 yard exhibition race against a thoroughbred horse, and actually won. Owens had this to say in 1971:
"People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals. There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway".
In conclusion here is a gem from "The People's Almanac":
"... Long hugged him in congratulation, but Hitler -- eager to congratulate Long -- shunned Owens".
All references except as noted are from "Jesse Owens: an American Life", by William J. Baker, published by The Free Press (A Division of Macmillan, Inc.), New York, Collier Macmillan Publishers, London, cited under fair use or plagiarism, whatever.....
It has long been regarded as the greatest sporting snub in history - when Adolf Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin because Germany had been humiliated by a black man. The moment was 1936 and an incredible American athlete called Jesse Owens had just run his way to the first of four gold medals in the 100 metres. Hitler, who had shaken hands the previous day with all the German Olympic winners, left the stadium furious that his Ayran supermen had been beaten by their supposed racial inferior.
Or so the story goes.
Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Nazi Youth movement at the time, supposedly suggested to Hitler that he let himself be photographed with Owens. Hitler replied: "The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.'
However, 73 years later, the veracity of these accounts is being challenged.
William J. Baker, Owens's biographer, says the newspapers made up the whole story. To his credit, Jesse Owens himself never contributed to the myth-making. He repeatedly stressed the warmth of his reception in Germany and his happiness during those days in Berlin.
The facts are simple, and quite different than the one usually heard.
Hitler was in his box on the first day of competition when Hans Wöllke broke the Olympic record for the shot-put and, incidentally, became the first German to win an Olympic track and field championship. At Hitler's request, Wöllke and the third place winner, another German, were led to the box to receive personal congratulations from the Chancellor. Soon afterward Hitler personally greeted three Finns who won medals in the l0,000-meter run. Then he congratulated two German women who won first and second place in the women's javelin throw. The only other scheduled event that day was the high jump, which was running late. When all the German high-jumpers were eliminated, Hitler left the stadium in the dark as rain threatened and was not present to greet the three winners - all from the United States, and two of whom were black.
Hitler left because it was late, not because he wanted to avoid greeting anyone. Besides, at the time he left Hitler could not know whether the final winners would be black or white.
The next day, 3 August, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Comte Baillet-Latour, approached Hitler early in the morning and told the German leader that he had violated Olympic protocol by having winners paraded to his box.
Hitler apologized and gave an undertaking that he would from then on refrain from publicly congratulating any winners, German or otherwise. During this day, Owens won his gold medals - and in line with the Olympic Committee's ruling, Hitler did not shake his hand, or anybody else's for that matter, at the games again. So when Jesse Owens won the final of the 100 meters the next day, he was not publicly greeted by Hitler - nor were any other medal winners of that or any of the following events.
However, despite this plausible interpretation, the snub was disputed by Owens himself, who said: "Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened that he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country".
Returning to the 1936 Games, a moment of seeming moral clarity, of good versus evil, is now starting to look more complex. A German sports reporter, Siegfried Mischner, has claimed to the "Daily Mail" in August 2009, that Owens carried a photograph of himself shaking hands with Hitler and called it "one of my most beautiful moments". Mischner, 83, says he and several other reporters saw the handshake behind the stands at the Olympic stadium but never mentioned it. However, in 2014, Eric Brown, British fighter pilot and test pilot, the Fleet Air Arm's most decorated living pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary "I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved". Additionally, an article in "The Baltimore Sun" in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself..
Owens and other eyewitnesses always maintained that the story of Hitler's snub was exaggerated. Owens said he thought Hitler waved at him at one point. But he never corroborated Mischner's story before his death from lung cancer in 1980, at the age of 66. Whatever the truth, Owens always resisted his role as a political symbol. Having grown up in the segregated American South, the grandson of slaves, he was impatient with American claims of moral superiority over the Nazis.
"After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," Owens recalled. "I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?" Owens was given a tickertape parade in New York. But when he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a reception in his honour, he was instructed to take the service lift rather than the normal guest lift, which was reserved for whites.
President Franklin Roosevelt never congratulated Owens or invited him to the White House. In fact what was to become an act of extreme irony, Roosevelt, then involved in an election and concerned about the reaction in the USA's southern states, refused to see Owens at the White House. Owens was later to remark that it was Roosevelt, not Hitler, who snubbed him.
Owens had his own memories of Berlin which differed starkly from the propaganda version. In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels. The German people cheered on Owens and his team-mates; there were German cheers of “Yesseh Oh-vens” or just “Oh-vens” from the crowd. Owens was a true celebrity in Berlin, mobbed by picture and autograph seekers to the point that he complained about all the attention. He later claimed that his reception in Berlin was greater than any other he had ever experienced, and he had been quite popular even before the Olympics.
In reality, his life and the way his myth has been exploited is not nearly so straightforward.
Any notion that the Germans were "embarrassed" because of victories by non-whites at the Berlin Games is ridiculous. Jesse Owens is very prominently featured in "Olympia", the official German documentary of the Games. Leni Riefenstahl's film masterwork also devotes great attention to many other non-whites, including outstanding Japanese athletes. The same holds true in the deluxe, semi-official German picture book commemorating the Games, "Die Olympischen Spiele 1936", released by the Cigaretten-Bilderdienst. Jesse Owens is pictured seven times in this book - more than any other athlete - and is admiringly referred to as "the fastest in the world". A large picture in the book records the chiseling of the victors' names in granite at the stadium - and singled out in this picture is: "Owens U.S.A."
Despite the remarkable achievements of Jesse Owens, and of other athletes of all races, Germany did capture more gold medals than any other nation, thus "winning"" the Olympics - a fact usually ignored in discussions of the 1936 Games.
The Games the Nazis Played
By David Clay Large, a professor of history at Montana State University, is the author of "Nazi Games" and the forthcoming "Munich 1972"
The New York Times
8 August 2011
FEW Olympics are as famous as the 1936 Berlin Games, whose 75th anniversary falls this month. The publicity that accompanied the competition, held under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, supposedly tamed the Nazi regime, if only temporarily — a story that has since justified awarding the Games to places like Soviet Moscow, Beijing and Sochi, Russia, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
But much of that story is myth. Indeed, the Olympics gave the Nazis a lesson in how to hide their vicious racism and anti-Semitism, and should offer today’s International Olympic Committee a cautionary tale when considering the location of future events.
When the committee awarded the Olympics to Berlin in 1931, Hitler was not yet in power. But by 1936 there was little question that anti-Semitism and racism lay at the heart of the Nazi ideology: the so-called Nuremberg Laws, which codified policies to isolate Jews and other minorities from German life, had been approved the year before.
The committee soon came under pressure from Jewish and leftist groups, which threatened to boycott the Games if they remained in Germany. The committee held firm, but promised that the Games would "open up" the Third Reich, that international attention would force it to tone down its repressive measures.
While it’s clear that the Games failed to “open up" the Third Reich, it remains widely believed that, to placate visitors, Hitler’s government cut back its persecution of Jews during the summer — in other words, that the Games achieved some of what the committee promised.
But the truth is more nuanced. Although the regime did discourage open anti-Semitism, this directive pertained only to Berlin. Outside the capital, the Nuremberg Laws remained in full effect.
The Games were even counterproductive in this respect: not only did such cosmetic steps assuage criticism of the Nazis, but they taught the regime how easy it was to mislead the global public.
Perhaps the most famous myth involves Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field athlete. In popular mythology, the impressive performances of America’s blacks, especially Owens, so infuriated Hitler that he refused to shake Owens’s hand after his victory in the 100-meter dash.
It’s a good story, and one widely disseminated at the time to show that the Olympic spirit had triumphed over Nazi racism. The problem is, it never happened. Before Owens even stepped onto the track, the Olympic committee president, Henri de Baillet-Latour, had told Hitler to stop congratulating victors in the stadium, something he had been doing repeatedly, unless he congratulated every winner. Fearing that Owens might be one of those winners, and determined never to press the flesh with a black man, Hitler stopped inviting athletes to his box for a public handshake.
But Owens didn’t mind — he claimed that Hitler, whom he called "a man of dignity," treated him to a friendly wave. In fact, Owens said it was not Hitler but President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had snubbed him by neglecting to send him a congratulatory telegram.
Of more lasting importance than the Owens fable is the contention, still widely propagated today, that the African-American victories in 1936 forced people everywhere to rethink their assumptions about black inferiority in high-level track-and-field athletics. Supposedly even German commentators conceded the superiority of America’s "black auxiliaries" on the athletic field.
In reality, the publicity surrounding black athletes’ success simply taught the Nazis how to refine existing stereotypes. Instead of arguing that those athletes were physically inferior, they disparaged them as freaks who, because of their "jungle inheritance," were able to jump high and run fast.
But it was not just the Nazis who held such views. Many American commentators put forth similar explanations. While certain “inherited physical advantages” might make blacks good sprinters and jumpers, the thinking went, they could never compete successfully with whites in disciplines requiring strategy, teamwork or stamina. Thus, the experts assured America, blacks could never play quarterback, or excel in sports like long-distance running or basketball.
The truth behind the 1936 Games casts a harsh light on the notion that the Olympics can have a salutary effect on repressive regimes. Indeed, there is little evidence so far that the 2008 Beijing Olympics did anything but show the Chinese government how to maintain its clamp on freedom while supposedly opening its doors to the world.
This is not to say that the Games should be held only in politically "clean" countries. But instead of blindly celebrating the alleged openness of repressive regimes that host the event, the international community should use it as an opportunity to hold them to the values that the Olympics claim to represent.
Olympic Symbols have Sinister Origins
Two of the most well-known symbols of the Olympic Games, the Olympic rings and the torch relay, did not originate in ancient Greece, but instead were immortalized in Nazi Germany, according to the recently published book, "The Naked Olympics". The lasting power of these symbols demonstrates how effective the Nazis were at creating powerful, dramatic images. It also reveals the association that Adolf Hitler and his followers wished to make between Nazi Germany and classical Greece. According to the book's author, Tony Perrottet, German filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl fabricated the myth that the Olympic rings hailed from Delphi, a city in ancient Greece. Baron Pierre de Coubertain of France originally designed the rings in 1913. De Coubertain was the founder of the International Olympic Committee. He created the rings to symbolize the first five Olympic games. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria's assassination curtailed de Coubertain's plan to feature the rings at a 1914 Olympic Congress world event in Paris. Riefenstahl, however, latched on to the creation.
"Leni Riefenstahl just liked (the ring design) as a symbol, and I believe she had it engraved at Delphi for a film shoot," Perrottet told "Discovery News".
"The image stayed there for years, and people thought it was from ancient Greece!"
The film she was shooting was "Olympia," which chronicled the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. In the same film, she highlighted the torch relay, which Perrottet said was conceived by a German professor named Carl Diem.
"There was never any torch relay at the ancient Olympic Games, or anything remotely like it," said Perrottet. "But what Diem, and German classicists who helped him out, did was to draw on two other traditions from ancient Greece."
The last of 3,000 runners who carried the Olympic torch from Olympia, Greece, arrives in the Lustgarten in Berlin to light the Olympic Flame a
and start the 11th Summer Olympic Games.
"The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn't separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That's why the Olympic Flame should never die".
- Adolf Hitler -
He explained that flames were viewed as sacred in Greece, as they were in many ancient cultures. Greek sanctuaries had "eternal flames" placed at shrines to Hestia, goddess of the hearth. These flames were used to light the altars.
Evidence from vase paintings and other art objects reveals that race relays were held in Greece, but mostly at smaller provincial games.
"So the Germans took these (traditions) and tossed them into the modern Olympics, along with plenty of pseudo-classical Kitsch, like having priestesses chant in tunics and using the sun's rays to light the first torch," he said.
The torch relay at the 1936 Berlin Games was full of Greek-inspired drama as envisioned by the Nazis. According to Perrottet's book, fourteen young girls wearing classic robes directed parabolic mirrors towards the sun.
The focused rays burst a wand into flames, which was followed by the chant, "Oh, fire, lit in an ancient and sacred place, begin your race."
Music played on old Greek instruments while the last of 3,075 relay runners used a magnesium torch to light a giant brazier in front of an approving Hitler.
Hitler's desire for Aryan supremacy during the track and field events was squashed when Jesse Owens, an African American, won four gold medals.
In his new book "Ancient Greek Athletics", Stephen Miller, an archaeology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote, "It should not surprise us that politics, and even occasional violence, played a part at the games."
"What is more surprising is that the episodes were so infrequent, and that the games went on nonetheless."
Outside of the Olympics, the German dictator's obsession with ancient Greece continued.
"Hitler had nutty ideas that soup from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany was the direct descendent of a certain Spartan broth," said Perrottet. "And the (Nazi) Germans loved to have events in classical-style plazas. The Königsplatz in Munich was apparently the spot for book burning because of the Greek style of the setting".
The Nazi fabrications live on in Greece today. In fact, Perrottet said some archaeologists that he interviewed there said the hardest thing about their work was not the blazing summer heat, but the number of tourists who questioned them every day about where the ancient torch lighting ceremony was held.
He said, "It was the most common question, and the archaeologists couldn't keep explaining to them that the Olympics had no such thing....."
The idea of lighting the torch at the ancient Olympian site in Greece and then running it through different countries was invented in its modern form by the organizers of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
And it was planned with immense care by the Nazi leadership to project the image of the Third Reich as a modern, economically dynamic state with growing international influence.
The organizer of the 1936 Olympics, Carl Diem, wanted an event linking the modern Olympics to the ancient.
The idea chimed perfectly with the Nazi belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich.
And the event blended perfectly the perversion of history with publicity for contemporary German power.
The first torch was lit in Greece with the help of mirrors made by the German company Zeiss.
Steel-clad magnesium torches to carry the flame were specially produced by the Ruhr-based industrial giant Krupp.
Media coverage was masterminded by Nazi propaganda chief Josef Göbbels, using the latest techniques and technology.
Dramatic regular radio coverage of the torch's progress kept up the excitement, and Leni Riefenstahl filmed it to create powerful images.
1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games Torch
Designed by the sculpor Lemcke, the torch is in polished steel.
On the handle, the inscription "Fackelstaffel-Lauf Olympia-Berlin 1936", with Olympic rings and the German eagle superimposed.
On the bottom part, the line of the flame's route from Olympia to Berlin.
On the platform, the inscription
"Organisazions-Komitee für die XI. Olympiade Berlin 1936 Als Dank dem Träger"
In 1936 the torch made its way from Greece to Berlin through countries in south-eastern and central Europe where the Nazis were especially keen to enhance their influence.
Given what happened a few years later that route seems especially poignant now.
"Sporting chivalrous contest," Hitler declared just before the torch was lit, "helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore may the Olympic flame never expire".
Yet the flame's arrival in Vienna prompted major pro-Nazi demonstrations, helping pave the way for the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, in 1938.
In Hungary gypsy musicians who serenaded the flame faced within a few years deportation to Nazi death camps.
Other countries on the relay route like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia would soon be invaded by Germans equipped not with Krupp torches but with Krupp munitions.
And Carl Diem, the relay's inventor, ended the war as fanatical military commander at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, refusing to accept that the Third Reich was over.
Reinhard Appel, a teenage member of the Hitler Youth based at the stadium, described a speech made by Diem in 1945 as the Red Army closed in.
"He kept referring to Sparta - the history of how the Spartans had not feared dying for their country. He demanded that we be heroes."
Hundreds of the youngsters were killed in a futile attempt to defend the stadium.
Diem however survived, and reinvented himself after the war as an academic specializing in the philosophy of sport.
Germans are still debating his reputation today.