The Next Page / The Nazi Olympics: The failure of a boycott
History Games: At the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Jesse Owens -- represented here in silhouette outline -- won the gold medal for America in the long jump (and three other competitions). Germany's Carl Ludwig "Lutz" Long (at right) took the silver and Naoto Tajima of Japan won the bronze. The United States nearly boycotted the Olympics to protest Hitler's rule.
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The International Olympic Committee chose Germany to host the 1936 Summer Olympics in April 1931, almost two years before Hitler came to power with his storm troopers and malevolent Aryan theories. His economic and social strangulation of the Jews began at the same time that intense preparations for the Olympic Games were ordered. The Berlin games were to be a gala showcase for all the world to see and admire the pomp and circumstance of the "new Germany," a mighty giant risen from the ashes of her humiliating defeat in World War I -- all because of Hitler.
But a movement was brewing in the United States to boycott the Olympic Games on the grounds that Germany was persecuting Jews, including Jewish athletes, and thus violating the rules of fair play and true sportsmanship. Other nations were waiting to see what we would do. To go or not to go, that was the question.
In November 1933, at a meeting in Pittsburgh of the Amateur Athletic Union (composed of the athletes) and the American Olympic Committee (the supporting business interests), resolutions were passed to withhold certification of the U.S. Olympic team until it was evident that Jewish athletes in Germany had unfettered access to training facilities and could compete for places on the German team. The gauntlet was thrown down for the Germans to demonstrate their commitment to fairness.
But could their assurances that all was right in Germany really be believed? Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee said yes; Jeremiah Mahoney, head of the Amateur Athletic Union said no.
Mahoney was not alone. On his side was Pittsburgher Ziggy Kahn, the colorful director of athletic program at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, the forerunner of the present Jewish Community Center.
Kahn had organized an anti-German Olympic Committee in 1933 to press the case for American non-participation. William Haddock, the president of the Allegheny Mountain Association (Kahn was vice-president), a constituent organization of the Amateur Athletic Association, was enlisted by Kahn to support the boycott. Letters were sent out to other AAU member organizations urging a boycott.
To respond to the growing boycott movement, Brundage was designated by the American Olympic Committee to go to Germany and assess the situation regarding the Jewish athletes and report back. So in September after his overseas trip, he announced that the Nazis were living up to their word and so there was no longer any reason for America to hold up on the decision to participate in the Olympic Games. What he failed to note however, was that he interviewed the Jewish athletes in the presence of the Gestapo. Woe to he who told the truth!
Was Brundage just naive or was something more sinister afoot? University of Pennsylvania professor Carolyn Marvin has researched Brundage's personal letters and has come up with a rather damning assessment of this apostle of the Olympic Games. Ms. Marvin believes that underneath Brundage's protestations that Germany was indeed following the rules and that politics must be kept out of the games was a subtle, or perhaps not so subtle, anti-Semitism. He feverishly sought to link Jewish opposition to the games to a Communist conspiracy, even though Jews were not alone in favoring a boycott. (Mahoney himself was a Catholic and most American newspapers actually were against our going.)
It is instructive that one of Brundage's own allies in his cause, Frank Kirby, wrote to Brundage that "the fundamental difference between you and me is that you are a Jew hater and a Jew baiter and I am neither."
Despite Brundage's assurances of German compliance with Olympic fair play standards, Mahoney, Kahn and many others were understandably not convinced given the almost daily headlines in American newspapers about what was really happening in Germany. In response to the ongoing boycott efforts, Brundage blasted Mahoney and the boycott movement.
In a pamphlet he distributed to sport groups in America he questioned whether "the American athlete (should) be made a martyr to a cause not his own." He warned the opponents of participation that when the American public understands that the Jews are so involved in the protest, that a new wave of anti-Semitism will sweep across the United States. (Levels of anti-Semitism were already uncomfortably high in America.)
Showdown in New York
The stage was set for a showdown in December 1935. The executive committee of the AAU was meeting then in New York City. Mahoney's clear intent was to deny Brundage the moral and financial assistance that the AAU provided for U.S. participation.
The resolution that Mahoney rose to present to the assembled body read in part: "Be it further resolved that the AAU calls upon its members, upon American athletes and upon all who love fair play, to govern themselves in accordance with the letter and spirit of these resolutions and to give no support or encouragement to the formation of an American team to compete in the Games and to take no part in the Games either as spectators or competitors, if they are held in Germany."
But immediately, a move to table the resolution was put forth, a move well orchestrated and calculated by the Brundage forces. Debate was stymied, but Mahoney managed to rebuke Brundage for his attempt to throttle the discussion and for allowing the United States to be the "tail to the Hitler kite." Brundage responded saying he was satisfied that the Olympic ideals were being respected by the Germans, that the AAU would self-destruct if it failed to aid the American Olympic Committee.
There was more maneuvering, more bitter recriminations, more tension before the final vote was taken two days later. Ziggy Kahn and the delegation from the Allegheny Mountain Association all voted against U.S. participation. But in the end, Brundage won by 2 1/2 votes, 58 to 55 1/2.
As one historian later wrote: "The degeneration of the proceedings into a dialogue permeated by name calling, suspicion, voting manipulation and accusation indicated not only the strength of belief possessed by the opposing groups, but also the sordidness that unfortunately invaded this episode of U.S. amateur sport history."
The deed was done, but had there been any input along the way from American government officials? William Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany (the subject of "In the Garden of the Beasts" by Erik Larson, who recently spoke at the Drue Heinz Lecture series), was most vocal in his opposition to America's participation in the Berlin games. So, too, was George Messersmith and Raymond Geist, consular officials overseas who flooded the State Department with cables questioning the German pledges that sporting facilities and teams were open to Jews.
The State Department, however, chose not to respond to these warnings or pass on their cables to American sports officials. This was not surprising -- the State Department was evidencing little sympathy for the plight of the Jews at this time.
And what about our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt? He never issued any statement on the boycott effort one way or another and even allowed himself to be the honorary chair of the American delegation. Should he be castigated for his silence?
It would not be correct to say that Roosevelt didn't care about the persecution of the Jews or that he didn't recognize the looming threat that Hitler posed to the free world. But perhaps he believed that the Olympic movement should be non-political, as Brundage and his supporters were insisting.
And if the Olympic authorities had made the decision to go, was it the president's role or responsibility to intervene in any way? (President Jimmy Carter led America to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980 after the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. He was pilloried for his moral stand.) Or perhaps, given the climate of anti-Semitism, Roosevelt just chose to stay clear of this hot potato.
So we went to Berlin in 1936 and so did all the other nations. Hitler had triumphed. The games ran smoothly; everything was very organized, efficient, exciting. All the hate signs against the Jews were taken down; all the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda temporarily squelched. It was an economic windfall and a propaganda bonanza for him.
However, as one historian has written, our participation in the Olympic Games was just another example of the Allies' policy of appeasement -- a policy of going along as the dictator methodically chipped away at any hopes for peace.
An Olympic hero from Pittsburgh comes home
At the 1936 Olympics, a man from the greater Pittsburgh area starred. He was John Woodruff, a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh from Connellsville. He won the gold medal in the 800-meter run. Despite his achievement, Woodruff was still the victim of discrimination -- not in Germany where he was warmly welcomed, but right here in Pittsburgh.
In 1937 the Pitt track team of which he was the captain was scheduled to compete in a multiteam meet at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. However, Pitt was informed that black athletes would not be welcomed because there were no accommodations available for blacks at the school given the practice of segregation. New York University, another team that was invited to the meet, took a principled stand and pulled its team from the competition. But the Pitt coach, Carl Olson, made the decision to go without Woodruff.
Woodruff was furious. Here he had won gold representing America only to come back to be insulted on his home turf.
In 2006 on the 70th anniversary of his gold medal victory and one year before his death, John Woodruff appeared in a wheelchair at half-time at a Pitt-Rutgers football game. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg stepped forward to honor Woodruff, having formally apologized to him the night before on behalf of the University of Pittsburgh for its caving in to discrimination in 1937.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had opposed U.S. participation in the 1936 Olympic Games as did several black newspapers, but The Pittsburgh Courier disagreed. The issue was complicated, but the paper felt that the expected performance of the 18 black athletes representing America would only show the absurdity of Nazi racial theory and make the African-American community and America proud.
But beyond this, the Courier could not understand, let alone accept the fact, that a widespread protest movement had been started in response to the persecution of Jews in Germany when blacks in this country were facing their own American-style segregation, discrimination and outright violence themselves.
The exhibit at the August Wilson Center gives us a window into these tumultuous and disturbing times.
"The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936" runs through February at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown. The exhibit, on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is co-sponsored by the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
See augustwilsoncenter.org for details.
First Published December 16, 2012 12:00 am