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The Nazi Olympics – a missed opportunity?

As Gareth Edwards reminds us in his excellent letter in today’s Guardian, Jesse Owens was able to give the Nazis that slap-in-the-face at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because the boycott campaign preceding it had not been strong enough to stop the US, British and other national Olympic authorities from taking part. In the US, as Gareth notes, there was a serious, well-publicised campaign to press the reactionary US Olympic elite to withdraw from the games. It was very much a ‘popular front’ era campaign, aiming to build a wide coalition against fascism. (Opposition to the boycott by sections of the US Jewish leadership proved to be one of several obstacles the campaign encountered.)

It’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened had the boycott campaign – in US, Britain and elsewhere – been successful. Surely that would have been a much greater reverse for the Nazis than Owens’ triumphs. Nazi legitimacy inside and outside Germany would have been undermined. At this point the regime had been in power for only three years. It was still consolidating and therefore still vulnerable.

And if the Olympic boycott movement had succeeded, the possibilities for mounting an economic boycott would have been much improved. In general, the political landscape would have become less favourable to the fascists.

The Berlin Olympics took place only about a month after the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Over the next three years, Germany and Italy aided the right, while the US, Britain and France adopted “neutrality” – refusing to aid or allow arms sales to the elected popular front government. Again, had a different policy been followed, fascism could have been defeated in Spain, and the knock-on effects of that would have been huge. No Hitler-Stalin pact and therefore no invasion of Poland in 1939.

So while a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in itself would not have changed the course of history, it could have played a critical role in a broader effort to isolate and weaken Nazi Germany (well before it turned to European conquest) – and that certainly would have made a crucial difference.

Of course, none of this lessens Jesse Owens’ achievements in Berlin, or dilutes our eternal pleasure in seeing the sports field used to humiliate the arrogant and powerful.