The Olympic boycott movement that failed
Americans of a certain age remember the famous U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, followed by a retaliatory Soviet snub of the Los Angeles Summer Games four years later. But as human rights activists advocate a boycott of next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing - a movement that has gained momentum in recent weeks after the contentious case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai - there's been far less attention paid to a much earlier effort that was narrowly defeated.
More than 80 years ago, a wide range of American activists and public figures targeted the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, known today as the "Nazi Olympics." Politicians, civil rights groups (including the NAACP), college presidents, newspapers, labor organizations and a host of state legislatures and city councils cited Nazi Germany's ongoing persecution of Jews as justification to skip the Berlin Games.
Boycott opponents, meanwhile, argued that sports should be free of politics, and that it would be unfair to deprive athletes the chance to compete on the world stage. The boycott effort culminated with a December 1935 vote of the Amateur Athletic Union, which came within a whisker of succeeding.
In the lead-up to the Beijing Games, which begin Feb. 4, boycott advocates have pointed to a host of human rights abuses by China, including its detention of more than a million ethnic Uyghurs in camps, which the State Department has labeled genocide. (China denies allegations of human rights abuses.)
The current boycott campaign in this country doesn't have anywhere near the reach of the 1936 effort, although President Joe Biden recently said the United States is considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics over China's human rights abuses. That would mean U.S. government officials wouldn't attend but American athletes would still be allowed to compete in Beijing.
The Olympic boycott campaign of the 1930s, which included pressure on high-profile Black athletes like Jesse Owens to skip the Games, rang hollow to some African Americans. They pointed to this country's mistreatment of Blacks, from Jim Crow laws in the South to all-White major league sports. In fact, after Owens's teammate Mack Robinson won a silver medal in Berlin, it would be another 11 years before his younger brother Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in Brooklyn.
Owens became a breakout star at the '36 Summer Olympics, winning four gold medals, which many hailed as a blow to Nazi claims of Aryan supremacy. But even with those U.S. victories, the Olympics provided Nazi Germany with an invaluable boost to its international stature. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's exhibit on the '36 Olympics noted, "the regime exploited the Games to impress many foreign spectators and journalists with an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany."
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The International Olympic Committee awarded Berlin the Olympics in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler came to power, to welcome Germany back into the community of nations following the country's defeat in World War I. After the Nazi takeover, U.S. and international Olympic officials expressed concern about Germany's treatment of Jews and other minority groups, especially in sports.
"The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race," said the American Olympic Committee's president, industrialist Avery Brundage, in 1933.
The Nazi government, fearful of losing a major participant to an Olympic competition that it hoped would bolster its prestige on the world stage, invited Brundage to Germany in 1934 for a tightly scripted tour to assuage those concerns. Following the VIP treatment from his Nazi hosts, Brundage concluded that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly, so the Games should go on.
Brundage would become one of the most forceful advocates of U.S. participation in Berlin, even if that meant taking antisemitic shots at American Jews pushing for a boycott. "Certain Jews must understand that they cannot use these Games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis," said Brundage, who labeled the anti-Olympic campaign a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy." Some American newspapers called Brundage a Nazi stooge.
Although it would be years before the Nazis implemented "the Final Solution," the mass murder of European Jews, Germany's persecution of Jewish people was already on full display before the '36 Olympics. In September 1935 the Nazi government passed the notorious Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship.
Brundage soon found a worthy adversary: former New York judge Jeremiah Mahoney, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, which organized and ran the U.S. Olympic trials. The AAU, which was founded in 1888, managed so many sports for much of the 20th century that it was effectively the controlling arm of the American Olympic Committee, now known as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said Olympic historian Bill Mallon. (The AAU's influence on the Olympic movement "almost totally evaporated" when Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, Mallon noted, but that was decades after the Berlin Games.)
Mahoney, who had succeeded Brundage as the AAU's president in 1934 and championed a boycott, said Hitler "wined and dined" Brundage, and accused his predecessor of trying to "intimidate" his opponents. The rhetoric would only escalate as the adversaries fought for the heart and soul of the U.S. Olympic movement in the coming months.
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The two men came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Brundage was a conservative Republican who would later head the IOC for two decades, while Mahoney was a Democrat known for fighting racial and religious discrimination. Left-wing groups fueled the U.S. boycott effort, although some high-profile Republican politicians, such as New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, also championed the cause.
The Berlin boycott campaign heated up in 1935, ahead of a December vote of the AAU. In August, 20,000 people jammed into an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York, demanding that the U.S. pull out of the Olympics. Two months later, Mahoney sent an open letter to Dr. Theodor Lewald, the president of the German Olympic Committee, revealing that an AAU investigation found that Germany was in fact excluding German Jewish athletes from the Games, despite Lewald's assurances to the contrary.
Lewald, a career civil servant whose role predated Hitler's ascension to power, was an unusual public face of the Nazi Olympics. His father was from a prominent Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism in the early 19th century, but that ancestry was enough to subject Lewald to virulent attacks from the Nazi press because he was a "non-Aryan," said Susan Bachrach, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who worked on the museum's '36 Olympics exhibit.
The Nazis initially demoted Lewald from his position, but had to reinstate him after the IOC threatened to move the Games from Berlin. Even with this concession, the Nazis forced Lewald to resign as head of the DRL, Germany's primary national sports organization, his power diminished, Bachrach said.
In his letter to Lewald, Mahoney pointedly addressed the German official as the "unhappy" and "nominal" head of the German Olympic Committee, and alluded to the pressure that Olympic officials had to exert to keep him in the post.
"I fear that, lacking any real authority, you are being used as a screen to conceal your government's flagrant violations of the Olympic ideal of fair play for all, even the weakest," Mahoney wrote. "If you are not a hostage of your government, I counsel you, my dear Dr. Lewald, to formally and publicly resign your office in the Olympic committee in respect to those ideals of sportsmanship to which your whole life has hitherto been dedicated."
In Berlin, the German government was nervously keeping tabs on the boycott effort across the Atlantic. As ESPN's Jeremy Schaap wrote in his book, "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics," the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Eric Phipps, informed the Foreign Office in November 1935 that Hitler was "taking an enormous interest in the Olympic 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," Phipps wrote in the dispatch.
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Meanwhile, some Black athletes challenged Mahoney and his fellow boycott champions for arguing that the U.S. should take a moral stand against discrimination and skip the Olympics.
After Mahoney told a crowd at Columbia University in October 1935, "I wish to God the Nazis could witness an athletic competition in this country," Black sprinter Ben Johnson called him out. "I think Justice Mahoney should clean up the South, where Negroes are barred from his Amateur Athletic Union and discriminated against in Olympic selections," said Johnson, who followed Mahoney at the school's Social Problems Club.
Owens gave the boycott campaign a boost in November, when he told a radio interviewer, "If there is discrimination against minorities in Germany, then we must withdraw from the Olympics." But his stance proved short-lived.
Owens's coach at Ohio State, Larry Snyder, urged Owens to go to Berlin. "Why should we oppose Germany for doing something that we do right here at home?" he asked.
On Dec. 3, 1935 - the same day that New York Mayor La Guardia headlined a boycott rally in midtown Manhattan - the Associated Press reported that Owens and four other Black track and field stars told Brundage in a letter that the U.S. should participate in the Olympics. One of the five, Ralph Metcalfe, said that he "felt that no political situation should alter plans for the coming games in Berlin."
In response, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, drafted a letter urging Owens to reconsider. While acknowledging how "hypocritical it is for certain Americans" to point out bigotry in other countries, he wrote: "Participation by American athletes, and especially by those of our own race which has suffered more than any other from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm." But White never sent the letter.
NAACP documents at the Library of Congress show that White asked a couple of aides for their input on the letter, including Roy Wilkins, who would succeed White as the NAACP leader. Wilkins told White in a memo that while the organization was on solid ground urging a U.S. boycott, he didn't think "the situation calls for our special petitions to the Negro athletes asking them to stay out of the games."
So in place of the letter, White sent Owens a telegram, writing that any American athlete who chose to compete in Berlin "will unquestionably live to regret his participation." In clipped telegram lingo, he told Owens that skipping the Olympics would "render great service to cause of justice."
"As a Negro I want to say unequivocally that I hope that no American athlete will put foot on German soil while Hitler is in power," White added.
Mildred Bond Roxborough, who would go on to serve in several high-profile positions at the NAACP, including director of operations, was a young girl when Owens decided to compete in the '36 Olympics.
"My parents were disappointed that he went, because Hitler considered Black people less than human," said Roxborough, now 95. But after Owens dominated at the Games, "there was great joy in the household."
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Meanwhile, the dueling sides of the boycott ratcheted up the rhetoric in the days leading up to the AAU vote.
Even though the American Olympic Committee had the final say on U.S. participation, had the AAU voted to boycott the Games, it would have been highly unlikely that the Americans would have participated in the Olympics, Schaap said in a recent interview.
"The AAU was the organization that certified athletes and Olympic teams. Technically, yes, the AOC might have scrambled to somehow field a team, but the AAU vote was decisive," he said.
A few days before the December 1935 vote, Brundage essentially branded the boycott movement a foreign plot. "To those alien agitators and their American stooges who would deny our athletes their birthright" to participate in the Olympics, Brundage said, "our athletes reply in the modern vernacular: 'Oh, yeah!'"
Four days later, when the AAU met at the Commodore Hotel in New York to debate the boycott, Mahoney countered that it was Olympic proponents like Brundage who were doing the bidding of a foreign country.
"The Nazi government wants more than American participation in a sporting contest," he said. "It wants to bring the American dollar into the very weakened Nazi treasury. And it wants to picture Hitler with Uncle Sam standing behind him and saying, 'We are with you, Adolf!' "
The next day, AAU delegates voted 58.25 to 55.75 to participate in the Olympics. Mahoney resigned his post as head of the organization, and Brundage replaced him. There had also been short-lived boycott campaigns in Great Britain, Canada, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands, but those countries fell in line after the AAU vote.
In the end, a then-record 49 nations competed in Berlin. No nation wound up boycotting the Games, said Mallon, the Olympic historian, although Spain was a no-show because of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet Union didn't compete in the Olympics until 1952.
In preparation of the Summer Olympics, Germany whitewashed antisemitic sentiments in Berlin under orders from Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in April 1936, the last of the "red-painted signs announcing that 'Jews Are Our Misfortune - Whoever Buys From Jews Is A Traitor' were removed today from all public places in Berlin" - part of an effort to eliminate all outward manifestations of antisemitism during the international competition.
The U.S. wound up sending a large contingent of competitors, including 18 Black athletes. A leading Nazi newspaper derisively referred to them as America's "Black auxiliaries," but mostly the regime was on its best behavior during the Games - and got the propaganda victory it had sought.
An August 1936 New York Times story, headlined "OLYMPICS LEAVE GLOW OF PRIDE IN THE REICH," gushed that the Berlin Olympics were the "biggest athletic games ever held, the most largely attended, the best organized, the most picturesque and the most productive of new and startling records" and had even "made the Germans more human again."
While the boycott battle between Brundage and Mahoney drew in some notable politicians, it wasn't taken up by the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't get involved in the debate over the Berlin Games - a stark contrast to President Jimmy Carter's decision 44 years later to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
The legacy of that boycott is probably the main reason that the American campaign to skip the Beijing Olympics hasn't been as muscular as the '36 effort, Schaap said. However well-intentioned, he said, the 1980 Olympic boycott didn't achieve its objective: to pressure the Soviets to get out of Afghanistan.
"We also know the stories of the athletes whose Olympic hopes were thwarted by the boycott," said Schaap, who noted that the subsequent lack of Soviet and Communist bloc athletes diminished competition at the '84 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. "That entire experience, I think, has had a profound effect on the idea of boycotting the Olympic Games again."