A Dark Olympic Moment: Exhibit Explores the 1936 Nazi Games

By Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.
April 15, 2010 Updated: April 15, 2010
Adolf Hitler rides in a motorcade through the Brandenburg Gate to the opening ceremonies of the XI Olympiad in Berlin, August 1, 1936. (USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)
Adolf Hitler rides in a motorcade through the Brandenburg Gate to the opening ceremonies of the XI Olympiad in Berlin, August 1, 1936. (USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

An exhibit currently on display at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre provides a comprehensive look at the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany and its impact on the world.

More Than Just Games: Canada & the 1936 Olympics explores the Nazi anti-Semitic policies that marred the German Games.

By relating the stories of individual athletes from Germany and abroad who competed—or refused to compete—in the 1936 Games, the exhibit puts a human face on this dark part of Olympic history and the controversial Games held under Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime.

In 1931, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose Germany as the host of the 1936 Summer and Winter Games, welcoming the country back into the international fold after its defeat in World War One. The Weimar Republic democracy in power at the time would soon be ousted as Hitler quickly rose to power, becoming Chancellor in 1933.

On March 23, 1933, the Enabling Act was forced through the German Parliament, effectively turning the fragile democracy into a fascist dictatorship.

After Hitler seized power a quick succession of policies were implemented that stripped the Jews of their rights as citizens and their ability to compete in sporting events. On April 25, 1933, the Nazi Sports Office implemented an “Aryans only” policy in gymnastics and sport. Jewish athletes were excluded from German sports clubs and not permitted to compete against non-Jews.

In the fall of 1935, the Nazi government introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews and other “enemies of the state” of their basic civil rights. In the time leading up to the Olympics, anti-Semitic propaganda was rife throughout Germany and was gaining international attention.

However, the Nazi anti-Semitic policies of the time ran contrary to the Olympic ideals of inclusion, and the IOC and the international community pressured Germany to allow German Jews to participate in the Games.

The Nazi dictatorship stood to win a huge propaganda success in hosting the Olympics, so at the behest of the IOC and out of fear that the event would be boycotted, Germany conceded and allowed the participation of two “half-Jewish” athletes: hockey player Rudi Ball and fencer Helene Mayer.

Ball was a star member of the German hockey team who was initially barred from competing in the 1936 Olympics and was only reinstated because his star teammate, Gustave Jaenecke, refused to play without him. Without Ball and Jaenecke, Germany had no chance of winning a medal in hockey. It is reported that in return for agreeing to compete, Ball’s family was given permission to leave Nazi Germany for South Africa.

Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.