The Propagander ™ FAQ

Did Germany Win the 1936 Olympics?

Anyone with only a passing knowledge of the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany probably has a misleading view of the event. One often hears it presented thusly:

African-American athlete Jesse Owens stole the show in Berlin, winning four gold medals. This left Adolf Hitler enraged and infuriated, and he snubbed him discourteously and spitefully, refusing to acknowledge the athletes accomplishment. Owens triumph disproved Nazi racialist claims and equaled a victory for the American team over the Germans.

The problem with this narrative is that it is not history, it is spin. The only actual fact in this otherwise fanciful tale is that Jesse Owens did indeed win four gold medals. The rest is fantasy. Here is what actually happened.

August 2, 1936: A record 110,000 spectators attend the first day of competition in Olympic stadium: 3,956 athletes from 49 nations. Hitler attends the games first day, receiving Olympic champions, German and non-German, in his VIP box and congratulating them personally.

August 3, 1936: When Hitler arrives at Berlin's Olympic Stadium for the second days competitions, Comte Baillet-Latour, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, reproaches Hitler for having had the winners of each event paraded to his personal box the previous day. The Chairman complains that this violates Olympic protocol. Hitler apologizes and promises that from then on he will refrain from publicly congratulating the winners.

Owens wins the first of his gold medals this day, and many are surprised when the expected personal congratulations from the German Fuehrer doesn't happen. Hitler is subsequently criticized in the press for 'snubbing' Owens, with the many stories concerning it taking on an indignant tone. The speculation is that Hitler's motivation for the snub is rage and embarrassment for having been shown up by a member of an 'inferior' race on his home turf.

From The Jesse Owens Story by Jesse Owens:

When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.

Owens will later be even more specific:

Hitler didn't snub me--it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.

It is unfortunate that this bad reporting has been used for so long to 'prove' a political talking point that can be demonstrated adequately through legitimate reporting. While there is documentation that Hitler expressed violent disappointment over Owens accomplishment in private, and was less than pleased by the obvious implication, he behaved with perfect courtesy in public. When inaccuracies such as these are eventually debunked, they cast doubt on points to which there would be no doubt had the initial reporting been accurate. Subsequent retellings of the event not fact-checked perpetuated the myth, and gave further ammunition for revisionists anxious to bring doubt to the issue.

Once one gets past the unnecessary and unfortunate lie that Hitler publicly snubbed Jesse Owens, the fact of the matter is that the performance of the entire African-American component of the US team was a propaganda victory for the opponents of Hitler's racialist politics. There had been a very noisy call in the US for the games to be boycotted because of Hitler's persecution of the Jews and other minorities. Interestingly, one of the most anti-boycott sections of American public opinion was African-American newspapers, noting the hypocrisy of White Americas discrimination against Black athletes in the United States. It was in this forum that the theory that beating the Nazis in their own game--by fielding more Black athletes from the US than ever before in the Games, with a commensurate increase in medals earned by these 'inferiors'--would put the lie to Nazi Racialist assumptions. Two Black women and 16 Black men eventually made their way to Berlin, three times the number that had participated in the 1932 Games. Their performance made history and gave anti-Nazis their only cause for cheer in what would become a triumph for Hitler's Germany.

African-American athlete John Woodruff:

There was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man. We destroyed [Hitler's] master race theory whenever we started winning those gold medals . . . . There was some talk about the Olympics being boycotted because of what Hitler was doing to the Jewish people in Germany, but it was never discussed amongst the team members. We weren't interested in politics, you see, at all. We were only interested in going to Germany and winning.

And win they did, but the truth is that, in comparison, the American team didn't do all that well:

August 6, 1936: From Goebbels newspaper Der Angriff:

If the American team had not brought along Black auxiliaries ... one would have regarded the Yankees as the biggest disappointment of the Games.

Just as a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut, Goebbels assessment of the American showing at Berlin is accurate enough. Germany placed first in all categories, with the US placing second. What is noteworthy about this showing by Germany is that they dominated the US with only half the population to draw from. 1936 World Population statistics (source: Gaberoff Encyclopedia 1936 Edition, Sofia, Bulgaria), reveal that the population of Germany (with the Saar included), was 65,488,000, while the US population was almost twice that, 122,775,000.

From Jesse Owens: an American Life, by William J. Baker:

In the unofficial point system devised by the American Olympic Committee (ten points for first place, and five, four, three, two and one for the next five finishes, the American male track and field team scored 203 points. Owens alone scored 40, almost two-thirds of the entire German teams total. Outside of track and field, however, the Germans dominated 87 - 1 in gymnastics, 65 - 6 in equestrian events, 43 - 4 in canoeing, 34 - 9 in boxing, 28 - 10 in weightlifting, 27 - 0 in cycling, 20 - 2 in yachting, and 19 - 10 in fencing. Only in wrestling and basketball did American athletes make a decent showing. When the president of the International Olympic Committee, Henri Baillet-Latour, finally proclaimed the closing of the Berlin games, both German and American scoring systems gave the Germans a decisive victory over the United States. The other European fascist power, Italy, finished a distant third in team point totals.

Here are the numbers:

Rank Nation       Gold Silver Bronze Total

1.   Germany       33  26     30     89
2.   United States 24  20     12     56
3.   Hungary       10   1      5     16
4.   Italy          8   9      5     22
5-6. Finland        7   6      6     19
5-6. France         7   6      6     19
7.   Sweden         6   5      9     20
8.   Japan          6   4      8     18
9.   Netherlands    6   4      7     17
10.  Great Britain  4   7      3     14

At the Winter Olympics, which preceded the Summer Olympics (of course), the Nazis allowed half-Jewish athlete Rudi Ball to compete as a token concession to international pressure. As with Hitler's exclusionary policies in other areas, Germany would have most probably done even better in the 1936 Olympics had more German-Jewish athletes been allowed to compete.

One token 'non-Aryan' participated in the Summer Games, half-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer. She won a silver medal. Unfortunately, she also gave a Nazi salute from the victors podium. It is interesting that the bronze medal went to an Austrian Jew--it should be recalled that Austria was not yet united with Hitler's Germany in 1936--and the gold was won by a half-Jewish Hungarian fencer. Jewish fencers thus swept the fencing medals in 1936.

Jewish track star Gretel Bergmann had been the odds-on favorite to take the gold medal for the high-jump, but was disallowed from competing. This is yet another example of the Nazis racial nonsense being counter-productive.

Altogether 13 Jewish athletes won medals in 1936, and 6 of these was Hungarian. Unfortunately, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, two Jewish-American track competitors, were bumped from a relay race at the very last minute and replaced by two African-Americans, one of which was Owens. There were accusations at the time that this move was made in order to avoid placing so many Jewish athletes on the podium and arousing Hitler's displeasure. However, there is no proof that this was the track coaches motivation. Why would an American coach make such a decision to appease Hitler? While Glickman was of the opinion that anti-Semitism was why he was benched, Stoller, while gravely disappointed, didn't think so. One would like to believe that the move was made for entirely competitive motives, and it probably was, but who knows. It would not have been beyond the realm, as it were.

Why did Germany win the 1936 Olympic Games? The actual cause of Germanys victory is twofold:

1) The Nazis placed great emphasis on physical fitness, and supported sport and fitness programs for citizens of all ages, both in the schools and at the work place. This far-sighted policy had benefits not only for the 1936 games, but for Hitler's future army of conquest as well.

2) They supported in all ways their amateur athletes destined for the Olympics, making sure that they had the best access to medical support, the best possible training and facilities, and they took care of them monetarily as well. While many nations were--and are--not adverse to making the 'amateur' status of their Olympic athletes suspect by supporting them beyond what is strictly allowable, the Nazis were the original innovators of this national subterfuge. The Eastern Block of the Cold War would later perfect this system to achieve similar results.

Conclusion: What the triumph of the African-American athletes demonstrated was that the good showing of Hitler's Germans was not due to the supposed superiority of the Aryan race, but to other factors, as delineated above. However, the fact is that the 1936 Berlin Olympics were, nonetheless, a clear victory for Nazi Germany.
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