Eighty years ago this month the IOC’s most controversial Olympiad was held. 1936 was a momentous year for the Olympic movement – the official Summer Olympic Games were held by the Nazis in August in Berlin. Back in February of that year another part of Germany, Garmisch-Partenkirchen♘, had hosted the Winter Olympiad. And in July there had been, or should have been, an alternative, anti-Nazi Olympiad in Barcelona … more of that later.
Never before had a modern games been manipulated for propaganda purposes to the extent that the Germans under Hitler did at Berlin. When the Summer Games were awarded in 1931 Germany was still under the governance of the democratic (but ill-fated) Weimar Republic, but with Hitler coming to power two years later Germany swiftly took on a more unsavoury and increasingly sinister complexion. The Third Reich was soon savagely attacking the liberties of Jews, communists and the Roma (gypsies) … and much worse was to come!
As it got closer to the event there were questions asked within the Olympic community about whether the Games should go ahead in Berlin. The Nazi regime’s transparent violations of human rights at home, and it’s failure to behave like a good international citizen (eg, pulling out of the League of Nations in 1933, illegally occupying the Rhineland in March 1936, etc), prompted a number of nations to consider boycotting the event.
The US Olympic Committee debated the issue at great length. American Olympic association heavyweight, Avery Brundage (later controversial head of the IOC) was “gung-ho” for going ahead with participating, running the (now hackneyed) line that politics had no place in sport. The head of the American Amateur Athletic Union, JT Mahoney, and many others, were in favour of boycotting. The patrician Brundage was widely thought to be anti-Semitic and racist (in 1935 he alleged there was “a Jewish-communist conspiracy” trying to prevent the US team’s participation in Berlin). Ultimately Brundage’s lobby narrowly carried the AAAU vote in favour of going. The American decision to participate in Berlin was pivotal in salvaging the Games for the host city.
International opposition to the Nazi Olympics remained very vocal in the lead-up to the event. Spain and Barcelona in particular had a vested interest, having lost the bid to hold the 1936 Games to Berlin (the German city won easily, 43 votes to 16)♔. SASI (the international federation of workers’ sports) decided to hold the next instalment of its Workers’ Olympiads (see my previous post) in Barcelona in 1936. The Catalan Committee in Favour of Popular Sport (CCEP), boosted by the election of the leftist Popular Front in Spain in February 1936, worked with SASI to plan and prepare the Barcelona Olympiad♕, scheduled to begin just two weeks before the start of the official (Berlin) Games … clearly timed to steal Nazi Germany’s (and the Führer’s) thunder!
In the end, although only two countries, the USSR and Spain, withdrew from the Berlin Games in favour of the Barcelona Olympiade, support for the Barcelona alternative games was widespread. The Olympiad was not state-sponsored in the fashion of the IOC carnival but backing came from progressive bodies and associations within western countries (trade unions, socialists, communists, anarchists, syndicalists, etc.). The Peoples’ Olympiad was also supported by various individuals – eg, dissident Germans with first-hand experience of the Hitler state and Jewish-American athletes opposed to Nazism.
SASI preached a cooperative and fraternal spirit to the 6,000 athletes from 22 countries who committed to participate. Whereas the Berlin Games were perceived as an affront to the Olympic ideals, Barcelona was intended to be based on a foundation of international solidarity that would elevate the “brotherhood of men and races” and “show the sport-loving masses (a Olympiad) that is neither chauvinistic or commercialised”, one devoid of the “sensational publicity of stars” that was characteristic of the IOC-run Games.
The organising committee for the Peoples’ Olympiad employed an emblem which reinforced the SASI themes of solidarity, brotherhood and world peace … three male athletes standing defiantly side-by-side, one white, one coloured and one (to all appearances) of mixed or Asian ethnicity (no females in the poster to be seen however … inclusiveness apparently hadn’t extended that far by then!).
Most of the mainstream IOC sports had been slated for inclusion in Barcelona and one or two former ones like amateur rugby revived. Also tacked on to the Olympiad were a variety of cultural activities such as folk dancing, theatre, music, chess♚ and an “Art Olympiad” (the promoters advertised the event also as a “Folk Olympiad”).
Avery Brundage and the IOC were not alone in condemning the ‘rebel’ Olympiad in Catalonia, the Spanish right-wing press slammed the idea saying, variously: it would be a “second class Olympics” because it was open to all-comers, it was a “Jewish-communist” games, etc.. On the Left the Spanish Marxist Workers’ Party (POUM) opposed the Peoples’ Olympiad on two grounds – the preoccupation with sports was “a waste of time” distracting the working class from its ‘proper’ objectives, and they mistrusted the motives of the democratic socialists (ie, SASI). Another instance of the lack of unity of the European Left in the face of the threat from the totalitarian Right.
In July 1936 on the eve of the games opening, the Peoples’ Olympiad was thwarted when the Spanish military led by General Franco staged a coup against the republican government. The outbreak of a full-scale civil war in the country resulted in the Olympiad’s cancellation. Some of the overseas athletes A number of the overseas athletes who had already arrived in Barcelona stayed, joining the Republic side and fighting in the International Brigades against Franco’s Falange forces. The Berlin Olympics kicked off as planned on 1st August with the politics indeed overshadowing the sport. Barcelona and its Montjuïc Stadium had to wait another 56 years before it finally got its chance to hold the Olympic Games in 1992.
♘♔ a double blow for Barcelona as it also earlier had lost the 1924 Olympic bid (to Paris)
♕ the infrastructure for the sports tournament was already in place – the main stadium and hotels (to be converted into a state-of-the-art Olympic village) had been constructed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition and upgraded for the city’s bid for the 1936 Games
♚ Chess has a long tradition (since 1924) of staging its own brand of international Olympics, the Chess Olympiads, now held biennially
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 such was the furore that surrounded the Berlin Olympics, the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games, comparatively, have been largely overlooked by history … Hitler did take a more low-key approach to the Bavarian event, however it was not entirely without controversy, eg, the “Jews not wanted” signs prominently displayed in the town had to be hastily removed from sight (albeit only temporarily); the German army undertook military manoeuvres in the vicinity during the Games, A Meyhoff & G Pfeil, ‘Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Uncomfortable Past: German Ski Resort Represses Memory of 1936 Winter Olympics’, Spiegel International Online, 22-Jan 2010, www.spiegel.de
 H Gordon, Australia and the Olympics ; ‘The Movement to Boycott the Olympics of 1936’, (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), www.ushmm.org
 British support of Barcelona (and opposition to Berlin) was formidable, promising a big representation of UK athletes for the Olimpíada Popular, TUC (Trade Union Congress), ‘Labor Chest – Opposition to the Nazi Games, British Workers’ Sports Associations’ (Press Release), 9-Jun 1936), in Documents on the Popular Olympiad from “Trabajadores: The Spanish Civil War through the eyes of organised labor”, BTU Congress (Modern Research Centre, University of Warwick), www.contentdm.warwick.ac.uk
 J Freedland, ‘The Anti-Nazi Games that never were’, Evening Standard (Lon.), 16-Jul 2012
 ‘The Peoples’ Olympics in Barcelona’, http://iberianature.com/
 G Calomé & J Sureda, ‘Sport and Industrial Relations’ (1913-1939): the 1936 Popular Olympiad’, (1995), www.ddd.uab.cat
 Photos of the Berlin Games at the time of the event capture how completely Nazi propaganda lorded it over the ideals of the Olympics – the massive Nazi swastika symbol is seen to dwarf the Olympic Rings at venues, ‘The Olympics: Playing Political Games’, (Modern Research Centre, University of Warwick), www2.warwick.ac.uk