Why Are People Comparing the 2022 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

"Boycott Beijing" activists have been drawing parallels between the Nazi Games and the upcoming Winter Olympics. Where does the U.S. diplomatic boycott fit in?

On Monday, the Biden Administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing because of China’s ongoing human rights abuses. A diplomatic boycott means U.S. athletes will still compete, but no government officials will attend the Olympics. With the news of the diplomatic boycott, and calls for a full boycott increasing, many activists are drawing comparisons between the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the 1936 Berlin Olympics (called the “Nazi Games”).

Why? Let’s get into it.

Have Olympic boycotts happened in the past?

Yes, a bunch of times! There have been full boycotts on six occasions — with a “full boycott” meaning no athletes or diplomats attended. In chronological order:

The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, were boycotted by eight countries for three different reasons. One group — Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Cambodia — boycotted in response to the Suez Crisis. (The Suez Crisis of 1956 was when Israel, with backing from Britain and France, invaded Sinai on October 29, 1956, as a pretext for those countries to intervene to protect the canal zone.)

The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, were boycotted by North Korea, Indonesia and People’s Republic of China. Those three countries participated in the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned athletes who participated in GANEFO.

The 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, were boycotted by 29 countries, mainly African nations, over the IOC’s refusal to ban New Zealand. New Zealand’s rugby team had toured and competed in apartheid South Africa — and South Africa had been banned ahead of the 1968 Olympics (under threat of boycott, too).

XIII Olympic Winter Games
A protester against the Moscow summer Olympics boycott during the Opening Ceremony for the XIII Olympic Winter Games (Photo by Steve Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)

The 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Soviet Union, was perhaps the largest boycott of the Olympics, led by the United States. The Carter administration wanted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 65 countries boycotted the Olympics that year.

The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, United States, were the subject of a retaliatory boycott of 14 Eastern Bloc countries, led by the Soviet Union.

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, were boycotted by North Korea and Cuba.

The majority of these Olympic boycotts were related to Cold War geopolitics.

If all the boycotts occurred during the Cold War, why are people talking about the 1936 Olympics? 

Great question, fake reader asking me these questions. The 1936 Olympics — known today as the “Nazi Games” — were the subject of intense debate about a boycott.

The Olympics were awarded to the Weimar Republic before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were in power. Yet when Hitler came to power, countries debated whether or not participation in the Games would grant the Nazi regime legitimacy.

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, said, “German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.” German sports promoted Nazi race science, and sports were a means of military training.

As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) details, “Hitler initially held the Olympics in low regard because of their internationalism, but he became an avid supporter after Joseph Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda, convinced him of their propaganda value. The regime provided full financial support for the event.”

Jewish athletes were soon expelled from participating in organized athletics. For example, in April 1933, the German Boxing Association stripped amateur champion Eric Seelig of his titles and threatened to kill him if he fought another match — because he was Jewish. He fled to France, then America.

Were there calls to boycott the 1936 Olympics?

Yes! The president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, said in 1933 in response to reports about persecution of Jewish athletes: “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.”

Yet in 1934, he toured German sports facilities and was convinced that Jewish athletes were being treated OK. (Spoiler: They weren’t.)

Here’s an example of how Germany convinced the world: Gretel Bergmann, a German Jewish high jumper, was expelled from her athletic club in 1933. She would return to Germany in 1935, when the German Olympic Committee wanted to appear not as virulently anti-Jewish — yet she was still banned from competing in the Olympics.

Bergmann’s participation in the lead-up to the Games was “a propaganda tool to show the world that Germany was unbiased in its Olympic team selections. It was a cynical response to organized movements, particularly in the United States, that were urging nations not to send teams to Berlin unless the Germans demonstrated that they did not discriminate. In fact, the Germans had no intention of sending her to the Olympics, and Ms. Lambert had been coerced into training. Threats were made against her family if she refused.”

Influential figures like Brundage then began to argue that politics shouldn’t interfere with sport, saying, “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” And then Brundage himself got antisemitic, alleging a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” was working to keep American athletes from competing in the Olympics.

On the flip side, the Amateur Athletic Union, led by Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, a Catholic leader, saw participation in the Olympics as an endorsement of Hitler and the Nazis.

The Modern Mercury
“The Modern Mercury” by Jerry Doyle in The Philadelphia Record, December 7, 1935. The faded large figure in the background bears the label “Olympics ideals of sportsmanship and international good will.” The image of Hitler in the foreground bears the words “1936 Olympics,” “Intolerance and discrimination,” and “Nazism.” (USHMM)

Another key boycott supporter was Ernest Lee Jahncke, American member of the International Olympic Committee, backed Mahoney’s position. He wrote, “Neither Americans nor the representatives of other countries can take part in the Games in Nazi Germany without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”

For his letter, and public stance in support of a boycott, Jahncke was expelled from the IOC — replaced with Brundage.

TL;DR: No boycott happened.

So what did happen at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

It was, as Joseph Goebbels hoped, a show of Nazi propaganda. Hitler opened the opening ceremony, swastika flags flew high and Nazi salutes abounded.

1936 olympics
Spectators giving the Nazi salute during one of the medal ceremonies as the Nazi flag flies above (1936, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jewish athletes from around the world were sidelined in order to not “offend” Nazi Germany. For example, American Jewish runners Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller — the only Jews on the American team — were set to race in the 4×100 relay, but replaced at the last minute. While “the coaches claimed they needed their fastest runners to win the race… Glickman has said that Coach Dean Cromwell and Avery Brundage were motivated by antisemitism and the desire to spare [Hitler] the embarrassing sight of two American Jews on the winning podium.” Yet, the success of Jesse Owens — who won four gold medals — and other Black athletes were a way to show up the racist Nazi Germany.

Still, the Nazi regime viewed the Olympics as a success, and they were viewed as a propaganda triumph. As the Holocaust Encyclopedia points out, “Once the boycott movement narrowly failed, Germany had its propaganda coup: the 49 nations who sent teams to the Games legitimized the Hitler regime both in the eyes of the world and of German domestic audiences.”

Why are people comparing the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the 2022 Beijing Olympics?

The Nazi Olympics were a precursor to the Holocaust, the genocide of Jews in Europe. The U.S. and other countries have already called China’s persecution of the Uyghur people a genocide. For those who don’t know, the Uyghur Muslims are an ethnic minority in Xinjiang, China — and over three million Uyghurs have been forcibly separated from their families and put in internment camps.

In a November 2021 report from the USHMM, they found that the Chinese government may be committing genocide against the Uyghurs. The report details “multiple crimes against humanity that the Chinese government is committing against the Uyghur population. These crimes include forced sterilization, sexual violence, enslavement, torture, forcible transfer, persecution, and imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty.” (Read more about how Jews can show solidarity with Uyghur Muslims in China here.)

As Sean Ingle wrote in the Guardian earlier this year, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. I am staring at two bundles of newspaper clippings — one present day, one past — and feeling a deepening chill. The first pile details China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang, where more than a million people have been ‘re-educated’ in camps, as well as the calls for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be stripped from Beijing. The second is from the Manchester Guardian in 1935, recording the abuse of Jews in Germany and demanding a boycott of the Berlin Games. The echoes are eerie. The looming question, then as now, is what the world should do.”

There’s even a campaign — Berlin Beijing — that references the parallels between the two Olympics, with the tagline, “From Berlin to Beijing, Stop Genocide.” The Berlin-Beijing coalition is led by Campaign for Uyghurs, Jewish World Watch and Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom in partnership with The Peace Project.

The Biden Administration’s diplomatic boycott specifically referenced the atrocities in Xinjiang. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that… We have a fundamental commitment to promoting human rights. And we feel strongly in our position and we will continue to take actions to advance human rights in China and beyond.”

So what’s the takeaway here?

“It was very clear that there are similarities with what’s happening in Beijing as to what was happening in Berlin in 1936, leading up to what would be the beginning of a horrific Nazi era that would lead to death and destruction for millions of Jews and millions of other people as well,” Serena Oberstein, executive director of Jewish World Watch, told Jewish Insider.

The question remains: If the world had boycotted the Berlin Olympics in 1936, would Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies be put in place as swiftly? Are we making the same mistake ahead of Beijing?

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