For just over two weeks in August 1936, Berlin hosted the Summer Olympics. Germany won the bid to host the Games from Barcelona in 1931, well before the Nazi regime had infiltrated the country. Despite the politics, propaganda and a potential boycott by several countries, the Games not only went on as planned, but actually saw its share of firsts.
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The 1936 Summer Olympics included events in track and field, boxing, cycling, diving, equestrian, fencing, gymnastics, field hockey, modern pentathlon, polo, rowing, shooting, soccer, swimming, weightlifting, water polo, wrestling and sailing. Men’s handball, canoeing and basketball made their Olympic debut at these games. Although eventually discontinued from the Olympics in 1954, the 1936 games also staged various art competitions, including paintings, lyrics, sculpture, music and architectural design.
Berlin played host to 49 teams of athletes, a larger number than in any previous Olympics. Germany had the largest team with 348 athletes while the United States’ team fielded the second largest team with 312 competitors. Although what was once the Soviet Union is now a strong contender in the Olympic Games, it did not participate in any Olympics, including the 1936 Berlin games, until the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Because of the new “Aryans only” policy that excluded those of Jewish, part-Jewish and gypsy heritage from participating in any German athletic organizations, Germany’s team had only one athlete with a part-Jewish heritage participate in the games, Helene Mayer. Mayer ultimately won the silver medal in fencing before moving to the United States. Banned athletes included amateur champion Erich Seelig, top-ranked tennis player Daniel Prenn and world-class high jumper Gretel Bergmann.
The Olympic Torch
The 1936 Olympic Games saw its share of firsts. Not only was it the first Olympic Games broadcast on television, but athletes ran the traditional Olympic torch relay for the first time at the games. Dr. Carl Diem, who ran the 1936 Olympics for the Germans, convinced the head of media coverage, Josef Goebbels, to have young Aryan athletes carry burning torches from Mount Olympus to Berlin’s stadium. Because the Nazis revered the ancient Greeks as the forerunners of the Third Reich, Diem easily convinced Goebbels to allow 3,422 Aryan runners to carry the torch 3,422 km from Greece through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria into Germany.
United States runner Jesse Owens won his place in track and field history in Berlin. He won four gold medals and, as an African-American, destroyed Adolf Hitler’s attempt to use the games to prove Aryan superiority. Another United States team member, 13-year-old Marjorie Gestring, became the youngest female gold medalist during any Olympics by winning the springboard diving event at the Berlin Games. A Danish swimmer, 12-year-old Inge Sorensen, took the bronze in the 200 m breaststroke, bringing acclaim as the youngest to ever win a medal in an individual event.