Commentary

A story of an Olympic boycott that almost worked

Updated: April 9, 2008, 3:27 PM ET
By Jeremy Schaap | ESPN

Seventy-two years ago this summer, Hitler's Germany played host to the Games of the Eleventh Olympiad in Berlin.

The games are now best remembered for the brilliance of Jesse Owens -- who won four gold medals -- and the success of the Nazis' propaganda machine. For the first time in the history of the modern Olympics, the Games were held hostage by the political goals of the host nation.

What's largely forgotten is the fact that a powerful American movement to boycott the Nazi Olympics nearly succeeded. The final vote of the AAU's delegates was 58.25 to 55.75 in favor of participation. If three more delegates had voted to boycott the Games, the Nazis would have presided at a meaningless event.

In "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics," ESPN's Jeremy Schaap tells the story of Owens and of the efforts to keep America out of the 1936 Olympics.

Here's an abridged excerpt:

Read More

• To read more of "Triumph" by Jeremy Schaap, you can purchase the book here.
• Be sure to check out new reports from Schaap on E:60 starting on April 15.

"The Judge and the Millionaire" -- New York, 1935

ODDLY ENOUGH, the most vigorous and effective proponent of an American boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Germany was not a Jew. Instead he was a devout Irish-American Catholic known all his life for his stubborn opposition to racial and religious discrimination. Born on Manhattan's East Side in 1878, Jeremiah Titus Mahoney worked his way through New York University -- where he played football, baseball, and lacrosse and high-jumped -- and then NYU's School of Law. In 1923 Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed him to the state Supreme Court, where he served for six years before returning to private practice.

By 1935, Mahoney had ascended to the presidency of the Amateur Athletic Union, making him responsible for the selection of America's Olympic team. After long reflection, he came to the conclusion that American participation in Hitler's Olympics would serve only to legitimate a wholly evil regime, a regime that was discriminating against its own Jewish citizens as it chose its Olympic teams.

"There is no room for discrimination on grounds of race, color, or creed in the Olympics," Mahoney said. "The A.A.U. voted in 1933 to accept an invitation to compete at Berlin in 1936, provided Germany pledged that there would be no discrimination against Jewish athletes. If that pledge is not kept, I personally do not see why we should compete."

Despite the assurances of American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage to the contrary, anyone could see that the Third Reich had no real intention of allowing Jewish athletes to compete fully on its Olympic teams. Almost since the day the Nazis had come to power, it had been clear that they planned to discriminate against Jewish athletes, despite their assurances to the contrary. Those assurances had first been offered in Vienna in June 1933, at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee. The committee had convened in part to decide whether Germany would still be allowed to host the 1936 Olympics. If the Germans refused to promise to treat Jewish athletes fairly, the committee would move the games. Initially the Germans offered merely to abide by all the laws regulating the Olympic games. "The German Olympic Committee had arrived with this promise from their government in their pockets," John MacCormac reported for The New York Times from Vienna. But when several American members of the IOC demanded a specific assurance that Jews would not be excluded from the German Olympic team, the German legation had to cable superiors in Berlin for instructions. Finally the Germans agreed to the broader guidelines.

"What has happened is another proof of the spirit of fellowship that sport engenders," said His Excellency Dr. Theodor Lewald, the chairman of the German Olympic committee. MacCormac was duly impressed. "This development represents a complete backing down by the Hitler government," he wrote. "The straightforward character of the promise obtained from the German Government came as all the greater surprise, and the opinion was expressed that a real blow had been struck in the cause of racial freedom, at least in the realm of sport."

Of course, no such blow had been struck. The Nazis, typically, simply made a promise they had no intention of keeping. Still, the IOC went to the trouble of entrusting the task of enforcing the agreed-upon regulations to Lewald and the other members of the German Olympic committee: the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt, Carl Diem, Dr. Heinrich Sahm, and Hans von Tschammer und Osten. The Viennese reporters covering the story were skeptical. They thought, quite rightly, that "nothing but formal and empty assurances on the question of Jewish participation in the Olympics could be expected from the committee, which, it was remarked, consisted of 'diplomats rather than sportsmen.'" The Austrian press already knew how much stock to put in Nazi promises.

Just a few days after the convention in Vienna, at a Nazi party meeting in Berlin, Hans Von Tschammer und Osten, the German minister of sport, made it clear that the Austrians were right. He told his fellow Nazis, on the record, that the pledges made in Vienna would not hinder the national agenda. "We shall see to it that both in our national life and in our relations and competitions with foreign nations only such Germans shall be allowed to represent the nation as those against whom no objection can be raised," he said. Everyone in the room knew which people were to be objected to.

Von Tschammer und Osten said virtually the same thing at another meeting, in Cologne. He wanted his fellow Nazis to know exactly where he and the German Olympic officials stood, despite Lewald's public statements. To clarify the German position for its readers, the Associated Press asked him to answer several questions. Responding to a question about a German decision to deny Jewish sports clubs "all special facilities," Von Tschammer und Osten wrote:

"It is hardly fair to expect that state support be given to purely Jewish organizations, which, being composed almost exclusively of Zionists, are even today in sharp political conflict with the government. Just as Nationalist sports organizations during the past years continued to enlist and engage in activities without any material assistance by relying purely upon themselves, so, too, no other treatment can now justly be meted out to Jewish organizations. That certainly won't create any difficulty for them, for in their circles substantial private means are available."

For three years the Germans engaged in similar rhetorical games with the international press and diplomatic corps. No, they said, we would never discriminate against the Jews. They have every right to take part in our Olympic trials. But of course, like everyone else, Jewish athletes must be sponsored by local clubs. And of course we cannot compel the local clubs to have them as members. These clubs have rights, too. And they must also abide by our laws. Which bar Jews from non-Jewish clubs. What about Jewish clubs? They are all either Zionist or Communist fronts. You cannot possibly expect them to be allowed to send athletes to our trials. And so on.

[+] EnlargeJesse Owens
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesJesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Still, the boycott movement was gaining momentum. In his syndicated column, Heywood Broun wrote, "I think that one of the most useful kinds of protest that can be made against the fascist regime of Hitler lies in our staying away from the Olympic Games in Berlin."

In his syndicated column, Westbrook Pegler wrote, "Now that it is admitted that the German Olympics are to be a political undertaking intended to glorify the Nazi program, the American Olympic Committee has no right to commit support to participation."

But AOC president Avery Brundage saw no evil -- not in 1935, anyway. In 1933, though, immediately after Hitler became chancellor and began implementing his anti-Semitic agenda, he had sided with those who were reconsidering America's support for the 1936 Olympics, the winter games to be held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the summer games in Berlin. Brundage was made uneasy by the German decision to drop Dr. Daniel Prenn, a Jew who was one of the country's greatest tennis players, from its Davis Cup team. He was also troubled by reports that Dr. Lewald was to be dismissed from the Olympic committee because he was Jewish. As early as April 1933, the newly installed Third Reich sought to have Lewald removed from his post organizing the 1936 Olympics because his father, who had been baptized in 1826, was of Jewish descent. Politically, Lewald was an archconservative. For the Nazis, though, all that mattered was the fact that his father had been born a Jew, albeit around the time Abraham Lincoln had been born.

Brundage said he would see for himself how the Third Reich was treating its Jewish citizens, including, of course, its Jewish athletes, several of whom were among Germany's best, such as the high jumper Gretel Bergmann and the ice hockey star Rudi Ball. But his tour of the country in August 1934 was merely a public relations stunt. Hitler wined and dined the prickly construction magnate. Over the course of six days, Brundage spoke to several Jews -- but only in the presence of Nazi chaperones such as Karl Ritter von Halt and Arno Breitmeyer. Not so shockingly, no one told him how bad the situation had become, and he failed to witness any overt displays of Nazi hostility to Jews. Dismissing Mahoney's concerns, Brundage declared that the Olympics "are an international event and must be kept free from outside interference or entanglements, racial, religious or political." He also said, "Certain Jews must understand that they cannot use these games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis." In other words, Brundage was saying, as he would famously say after the massacre in Munich in 1972, that the games must go on.

Even American diplomats thought that Brundage was dangerously myopic.

"Should the Games not be held in Berlin," George Messersmith, the United States consul-general in Berlin, wrote to his superiors in the State Department, "it would be one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer within an awakening Germany and one of the most effective ways which the world outside has of showing to the youth of Germany its opinion of National Socialist doctrine." It was "inconceivable," he continued, "that the American Olympic committee should continue its stand that sport in Germany is non-political, that there is no discrimination. Other nations are looking to the United States before they act, hoping for leadership; the Germans are holding back on increased economic oppression against the Jews until the games are over. America should prevent its athletes from being used by another government as a political instrument."

Despite the obvious -- and well chronicled -- games the Germans were playing, Brundage went out of his way both to praise their efforts to include Jews and to insult Jewish athletes. "The fact that no Jews have been named so far to compete for Germany doesn't necessarily mean that they have been discriminated against on that score," Brundage said on July 26, 1935.

Most famously, Brundage absolved himself of all moral responsibility when he said that organized amateur sport "cannot, with good grace or propriety, interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group."

Seven weeks after Brundage's statements, Hitler made an important trip to Nuremberg, the quaint medieval city that the Nazis considered their spiritual home. It was there, on September 15, 1935, that he announced the new anti-Semitic decrees that came to be known as the Nuremberg Laws. In an instant Germany's Jews were stripped of their citizenship, deprived of protection by the laws of the land, and forbidden to marry Aryans or to employ Aryan women as servants.

At the time, the United States was far from a bastion of equality itself. Jim Crow was still very much alive and well, and not just in the South, and that made it difficult, even hypocritical, for Americans to lecture the Germans about their attitude toward Jews. But whereas race relations in the United States were for the most part improving, Germany was clearly heading in the opposite direction. In a mere thirty-three months in power, the Nazis had turned back the clock to the Middle Ages for the country's Jewish subjects. Hitler had decided that the Olympics would serve as a spectacular showcase for his regime, so now it was all the more important that Jews be excluded from the games.

From the beginning, Hitler knew the games would afford him a unique opportunity to promote the thousand-year reich he envisioned. "The Chancellor is taking an enormous interest in the Olympic Games," Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador to Berlin, wrote in a dispatch to the Foreign Office on November 7, 1935. "In fact he is beginning to regard political questions very much from the angle of their effect on the Games ... The German government are simply terrified lest Jewish pressure may induce the United States Government to withdraw their team and so wreck the festival, the material and propagandist value of which, they think, can scarcely be exaggerated."

As the games approached, the Third Reich worked feverishly to make both the winter and summer games shining examples of its competency. As Janet Flanner put it in her "Berlin Letter" to The New Yorker, "For two weeks Germany profoundly wants visitors to feel at home." To make visitors feel at home, Germany had to pretend that it wasn't what it had become since 1933. Flanner reported that the brown-shirted men of the SA and the black-shirted men of the SS had been ordered to keep their uniforms in the closet as much as possible for the duration of the summer games, and that they had also been ordered not to discuss "racial problems in public, and to give a foreign lady, no matter what her profile, their seat in a tramcar."

Of course, the games would be virtually useless to the Nazis if Jeremiah T. Mahoney blocked American participation. The American athletes were the best in the world, and staging an Olympics in their absence would be akin to holding a wine-tasting competition without offerings from Burgundy and Bordeaux -- a giant waste of time.

But Mahoney was attacked on both the right and the left, by the crypto-fascists like Brundage and by a large segment of the black intelligentsia. In October 1935, for instance, he ran full-speed into the double-standard argument. Speaking at Columbia University, he explained to his audience why it was a moral imperative for the United States to boycott the German Olympics. But to Ben Johnson, the black Columbia sprinter who was expected to compete for a place on the American Olympic team, Mahoney's argument was the apogee of hypocrisy.

"The Negro in the South is discriminated against as much as the Jews in Germany," Johnson said shortly after Mahoney's visit to campus. "It is futile and hypocritical that Judge Mahoney should attempt to clean up conditions in Germany before cleaning up similar conditions in America."

Johnson had a pretty good point. For fifty years blacks had been banned from the major leagues. Much more recently, the National Football League had drawn the color line. Additionally, in 1935 no one could have foreseen the horrors awaiting European Jewry. Many German Jews themselves were still hopeful that things would get better, not worse. Johnson could not be blamed for equating the plight of America's blacks with the plight of Germany's Jews. At that time Hitler had murdered more Nazis than Jews, most notably during the so-called Night of the Long Knives, in 1934. Kristallnacht, the infamous state-sponsored pogrom, was still three years away.

But Johnson did not speak for all black Americans. In August 1935, New York's leading black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, urged Olympic hopefuls to take a stand against fascism by staying home. Not surprisingly, though, most athletes -- including the Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller -- were against the boycott. The black athletes rationalized their decision by pointing to domestic prejudice and, like the Jewish athletes, by suggesting that their own victories in Berlin would embarrass the Third Reich and repudiate its claims of racial superiority.

In the end, the athletes' arguments were quite fair but in the final analysis irrelevant to the AAU's decision. Brundage and his lieutenants were no more interested in the civil rights of black Americans than in the civil rights of German Jews. They were concerned with the perpetuation of their own power. And there was little power to be wielded by an Olympic committee that did not go to the Olympics.

Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Ownens and Hitler's Olympics" by Jeremy Schaap published by Houghton Mifflin in February. Copyright 2007 by Jeremy Schaap. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Jeremy Schaap

SportsCenter Reporter/Host, Classic Sports Reporters
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."