1936, the Year of the Olympics and the Alternative Olympics: a Cocktail of Sport and Politics

Eighty years ago this month the International Olympic Committee held what was probably its most controversial games – in Berlin. 1936 was a momentous year for the Olympic movement, in February the Winter Games were held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps, followed by the Summer Games in August. Then there was also the alternative games in Barcelona, the Peoples’ Olympiad, scheduled for late July of that year.

Never before had a modern games been manipulated for propaganda purposes to the extent that the Germans did under Hitler at the Berlin Summer Games^. When Berlin was awarded the Games in 1931, Germany was still under the governance of the democratic Weimar Republic, but with Hitler coming to power two years later Germany swiftly took on a more unsavoury and increasingly sinister complexion. The Third Reich was soon savagely attacking the liberties of Jews, communists, the Roma (gypsies) and other targeted groups of German society with much worse to come!

As it got closer to the event there were questions asked within the Olympic community about whether the Games should go ahead in Berlin. The Nazi regime’s transparent violations of human rights at home, and its failure to behave like a good international citizen (eg, pulling out of the League of Nations in 1933, illegally occupying the Rhineland in March 1936, etc), prompted a number of nations to consider boycotting the event.

The US Olympic Committee debated the issue at great length. American Olympic association heavyweight, Avery Brundage (later controversial head of the IOC) was “gung-ho” for going ahead with participating, running the (now hackneyed) line ‘that politics had no place in sport’. The head of the American Amateur Athletic Union, JT Mahoney, and many others, were in favour of boycotting. The patrician Brundage was widely thought to be anti-Semitic and racist (in 1935 he alleged there was “a Jewish-communist conspiracy” trying to prevent the US team’s participation in Berlin). Ultimately Brundage’s lobby narrowly carried the AAAU vote in favour of going. The American decision to participate in Berlin was pivotal in salvaging the Games for the host city*.

International opposition to the Nazi Olympics remained very vocal in the lead-up to the event. Spain and Barcelona in particular had a vested interest, having lost the bid to hold the 1936 Games to Berlin (the German city won easily, 43 votes to 16). This was a double blow for Barcelona as it also earlier had lost the 1924 Olympic bid to Paris.

SASI (the international federation of workers’ sports) then decided to hold the next instalment of its Workers’ Olympiads in Barcelona in 1936. The Catalan Committee in Favour of Popular Sport (CCEP), boosted by the election of the leftist Popular Front in Spain in February 1936, worked with SASI to plan and prepare the Barcelona Olympiad, scheduled to begin just two weeks before the start of the official (Berlin) Games (clearly timed to steal Nazi Germany’s thunder!).

In the end only two countries, the USSR and Spain, withdrew from the Berlin Games as a protest against the Nazis, both opting to participate in the Barcelona Olympiade, Notwithstanding this there was broad support for the Barcelona alternative games+. The Olympiad was not state-sponsored in the fashion of the IOC carnival but backing came from progressive bodies and associations within western countries (trade unions, socialists, communists, anarchists, syndicalists, etc.). The Peoples’ Olympiad was also supported by various individuals – eg, dissident Germans with first-hand experience of the Hitler state and Jewish-American athletes opposed to Nazism.

SASI preached a cooperative and fraternal spirit to the 6,000 athletes from 22 countries who committed to participate. Whereas the Berlin Games were perceived as an affront to the Olympic ideals, Barcelona was intended to be based on a foundation of international solidarity that would elevate the “brotherhood of men and races” and “show the sport-loving masses (a Olympiad) that is neither chauvinistic or commercialised”, one devoid of the “sensational publicity of stars” that was characteristic of the IOC-run Games.

The organising committee for the Peoples’ Olympiad employed an emblem which reinforced the SASI themes of solidarity, brotherhood and world peace … three male athletes standing defiantly side-by-side, one white, one coloured and one (to all appearances) of mixed or Asian ethnicity (no females in the poster to be seen however … inclusiveness apparently hadn’t extended that far by then!).

Most of the mainstream IOC sports had been slated for inclusion in Barcelona and one or two former ones like amateur rugby revived. Also tacked on to the Olympiad were a variety of cultural activities such as folk dancing, theatre, music, chess and an “Art Olympiad” (the promoters advertised the event also as a “Folk Olympiad”).

Avery Brundage and the IOC were not alone in condemning the ‘rebel’ Olympiad in Catalonia, the Spanish right-wing press slammed the concept saying, variously: it would be a “second class Olympics” because it was open to all-comers, it was a “Jewish-communist” games, etc. On the Left the Spanish Marxist Workers’ Party (POUM) opposed the Peoples’ Olympiad on two grounds – the preoccupation with sports was “a waste of time” distracting the working class from its ‘proper’ objectives, and they mistrusted the motives of the democratic socialists (ie, SASI). Another instance of the lack of unity of the European Left in the face of the threat from the totalitarian Right.

In July 1936 on the eve of the games opening, the Peoples’ Olympiad was thwarted when the Spanish military under General Franco staged a coup against the republican government. The outbreak of a full-scale civil war in the country resulted in the Olympiad’s cancellation. A number of the overseas athletes who were already in Barcelona stayed on, joining the Republic side and fighting in the International Brigades against Franco’s Falange forces. The Berlin Olympics kicked off as planned on 1st August with the politics indeed overshadowing the sport. Barcelona and its Montjuïc Stadium had to wait another 56 years before it finally got its chance to hold the Olympic Games in 1992.


^ photos of the Berlin Games at the time of the event capture how completely Nazi propaganda lorded it over the ideals of the Olympics – the massive Nazi swastika symbol is seen to dwarf the much smaller Olympic Rings at venues such as the Berlin Olympic Stadium, ‘The Olympics: Playing Political Games’, (Modern Research Centre, University of Warwick), www2.warwick.ac.uk

* H Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games ; ‘The Movement to Boycott the Olympics of 1936’, (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), www.ushmm.org

+ eg, British support of Barcelona (and opposition to Berlin) was formidable, promising a big representation of UK athletes for the Olimpíada Popular, TUC (Trade Union Congress), ‘Labor Chest – Opposition to the Nazi Games, British Workers’ Sports Associations’ (Press Release), 9-Jun 1936), in Documents on the Popular Olympiad from “Trabajadores: The Spanish Civil War through the eyes of organised labor”, BTU Congress (Modern Research Centre, University of Warwick), www.contentdm.warwick.ac.uk

About Pagan Maven

Outside left for Gorky Park Cadres U12s; Kremlin Gremlins U14s - Stalinovskiy Vodka Juvenile League. Ricky Lenin B & F medal winner 1966-67. Mascot for Felchester Rovers senior side in the Q-League. Bolshevikskaya Primary School cadet sports journalist covering the USSR V Australia international amateur boxing tournament "From Russia With Glove" (Melbourne 1963). Emeritus Left Winger, Trotskiy Collectivisation Colts.


  1. Peter Fuller says

    Fascinating story PM. While I consider myself well-informed in politics as well as the history of sport, I had never heard of the SASI planned alternative. That is one of many significant moments and turning points during the thrties. Of course it is arguable that the Games proceeding and particularly Jesse Owens’ triumph justified the event and countered the exploitation of the occasion by Hitler.
    Thanks again for bringing this to our attention.

  2. PM, there was the oft quoted take of Hitler refusing ht congratulate JJesse Owen s of his great performances. Correct me if this is not an urban myth. I’m under the impression hitler was not actually in the stadium to see Jesse Owens set the great standards he set.

    Yes the POUM, they were wreckers . Didn’t Orwell flirt with them on the way to being the fervent anti-communist he became. Hmm, I won’t add the behaviour of some anarchist militia units to my comment.


  3. It appears that the lingering notion that Hitler directly snubbed Jesse Owens is myth. Owens himself later said that is wasn’t Hitler that snubbed him but it was FDR, his own president! Roosevelt personally never acknowledged Owens’ achievements … no letter of congratulations, no invite to the White House, nothing from the White House (until Eisenhower belatedly made a token effort to redeem the oversight with Owen nearly 20 years later!).

    Apparently the way it went is like this – in those days the Olympic format was different, they started with track & field. On day 1 Hitler attended. Cornelius Johnson, a black American high-jumper won the gold medal & Hitler DID snub him by leaving the stadium before Johnson’s medal ceremony. On day 2 Owens won most of his golds but Hitler just didn’t turn up at all … it was not thought to be related to Owens per se but to either disinterest on his part (Hitler was absolutely NO sports fan!) or the lack of German medal chances on that day. Hitler returned the following day & personally congratulated the winning German athletes, but not others who won on that day. The IOC then told the Fuehrer that he had to congratulate all of the victors, not just the Germans. Hitler responded by refusing to individually acknowledge any of the winners from that point on.

    As to the question of whether the African-American athletic overachiever was an uncomfortable fit for the Nazis & their ideological underpinnings, it appears he was only at most a minor embarrassment. The fact was that overwhelmingly the Berlin Games were a sporting triumph for the German team as a whole – they dominated the medal count, 89 compared to the US 56, for the Germans this totally overshadowed Owen’s personal achievement of 4 golds. In fact, the German people themselves (fanatical Nazi Party members aside) enthusiastically greeted Owens’ performances according to all accounts.

    With POUM, that’s right Glen, Orwell’s experience fighting briefly for its militia in the SCW, left him disillusioned with communism as a whole, and with its Stalinist, authoritarian tendencies in particular (recounted in Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”) , leading later to the uncompromising position he took against communism in “Animal Farm” & ‘1984’.


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