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National Perspective | OLYMPICS

Nazi Games Exhibit Details Discrimination, Deception

Two American Jews were booted off track team, apparently to spare Hitler embarrassment.

July 23, 1996|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sixty years ago, during Adolf Hitler's showcase Olympics in Berlin, the coaches assembled the U.S. track team and announced that two athletes would be dropped from the 400-meter relay team that day.

A preposterous reason was offered. The American team was the heavy favorite, but the coaches said it had to be strengthened even more because there were rumors that the Germans had some powerful sprinters in hiding. This argument sounded lame and phony, however, for the two runners dropped were the only Jews on the U.S. track team: Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. Glickman, now 78, told his story at a seminar last week that served as a prelude to a special exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the 1936 Nazi Olympics. The exhibition opened Friday, coinciding with the opening in Atlanta of the 1996 Olympics.

According to Glickman, who became a renowned sportscaster years later, black American track star Jesse Owens did not want to take the place of any of the dropped runners in 1936.

"Coach, I've won my three gold medals," Owens pleaded. "I'm tired. I've had it. Let Marty and Sam run. They deserve it."

But, Glickman said, assistant coach Dean Cromwell admonished Owens: "You'll do as you're told." The Germans never produced any secret weapons. Owens won his fourth gold medal, leading the relay team in a world record time that lasted 20 years. But there is no doubt in Glickman's mind that the original relay team could have won the gold medal.

Glickman, speaking to a packed audience, said that the decision to pull him and Stoller off the relay team had been made by Avery Brundage, who ran the U.S. Olympic Committee and then the International Olympic Committee for many years.

"He was an American Nazi," said Glickman, "and he wanted to spare Hitler and his entourage the humiliation of seeing Jews [receiving medals] on the podium."

The exhibition makes clear that much of the pageantry of the Olympics these days had its origin in the Berlin Games. Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, wanted to associate Germans with the classical athletes of ancient Greece. The Nazis originated the idea of athletes carrying the Olympic torch in relays until it finally reaches the Olympic Stadium.

The International Olympic Committee had awarded the games to Berlin in 1931, two years before the Nazis took over Germany. When Hitler came to power, he was lukewarm about the Olympics until Goebbels convinced him that the event could be turned into a propaganda triumph for Nazi Germany. The government spent $8 million on the Berlin Games, setting the pattern for lavish outlays by host cities.

Some groups tried to organize a boycott of the 1936 Olympics. A few Jewish athletes, such as sprinter Herman Neugass of Tulane University and hurdler Milton Green of Harvard University, decided not to go. The Long Island University basketball team, heavily Jewish, turned its back on the Olympic trials. But Brundage, in a narrow vote, managed to persuade the U.S. Olympic Committee not to boycott Berlin.

Germany did win the most medals at the Games, but the 18 blacks on the U.S. team caused the most sensation, winning eight gold, four silver and two bronze medals--almost a quarter of the total American haul. A Nazi newspaper, according to the exhibition, denounced these Americans as "black auxiliaries," implying their victories should not be counted in the U.S. total.

Stories have circulated that Hitler refused to shake hands with black athletes who won gold medals. In fact, for whatever reason, Hitler did not shake hands with any of the medalists. A Willard Mullin cartoon in the old New York World-Telegram shows Hitler muttering, "Ach, maybe iss gute t'ing I keep mine han's in der pockets," while a graceful Jesse Owens races off with four gold medals.

Hitler decided that Germany must be on its best behavior, and numerous anti-Semitic street signs were removed for the duration of the Games. John Woodruff, the black American who won a gold medal in the 800-meter run, said that he encountered no discrimination in Berlin.

His problems occurred afterward. While his University of Pittsburgh track team prepared for a meet with the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1937, the Navy coach told the Pitt coach that his players would not compete against blacks. So the Pitt coach ordered Woodruff, the Olympic gold medalist, to stay home in Pittsburgh.

"That let me know what the situation was," Woodruff says on a videotape in the exhibition. "Things hadn't changed. Things hadn't changed."

The Americans said that they did not understand the enormity of Nazism while they were in Berlin. When they marched around the stadium and set eyes on Hitler for the first time, Glickman said, many of the U.S. athletes had the same thought: "He looks just like Charlie Chaplin." Glickman said that the athletes saw Hitler as a comic figure who would not last very long, "just like the tin-pot dictators of South America."

*

A different view of the 1936 Olympics came from Margaret Lambert, a German Jewish high jumper who was known as Gretel Bergmann in those days. The Nazis ordered her to train for the Olympics, she said, because they wanted to convince the Americans that they were not discriminating against anyone. Once the American athletes set sail for Europe and there was no longer any chance of a boycott, the Nazi government dispatched a letter to Lambert.

Although she had equaled the German record in the high jump, the letter insisted that she was not doing well and would be dropped from the team. This official notification closed with a "Heil Hitler!"

Museum officials said that the exhibition would be on display in Washington for a year then would go on a worldwide tour, ending in Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Olympics.

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