In a few weeks’ time, the world will be tuning into the planet’s greatest spectacle – the Olympic Games. A razzmatazz of pageantry, sporting drama, high politics and doubtless some lowdown corruption, the Olympic fortnight celebrates humanity at both its best and its worst.
Although many rightly believe that the event has its roots in ancient Greece, today’s Olympics owe more to a rather more modern time and place – Nazi Germany. For it was in Berlin 80 years ago that the Games acquired their bombastic triumphalism, complete with back-handers, drug-taking, and “female” athletes whose gruff baritones indicated they were competing in the wrong events.
Today, it is not appreciated quite how much of the ritual of the Olympics was pioneered by the Nazis. It was they who dreamt up not only the torch relay, but also the whole notion of a lavish and epic opening ceremony that does as much to promote the host nation as it does sport. And, just as we are seeing in Rio today, the Nazis also used the Olympics as an opportunity to spruce up their city, by clearing it of “undesirables” and attempting to mask any insalubrious quarters.
As well as the window-dressing and the self-promotion, the Nazi Olympics also featured another regrettable staple of the modern Games – drug-taking. After he had scored a perfect 200 in the pistol shooting in the modern pentathlon, the American athlete Charles Leonard recalled in his diary how he was openly asked by his fellow competitors what sort of “dope” he was using. “I do NOT use dope,” he angrily scrawled. If he had, then the chances are that it would have been some form of amphetamine, which was widely used to give flagging athletes a boost.
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Another element of the modern Games that was prevalent in Berlin was the presence of athletes of questionable gender. Those of an older generation will recall with some jocularity the “ladies” who competed for East Germany in the 1960s through to the 1980s, but suspiciously hirsute athletes were also a fixture in 1936. The medal holders in the women’s 100 metres all appeared to possess a Y chromosome, and the Nazis were also cynical enough to enter a man called Dora Ratjen in the women’s high jump, whose evident masculinity earned him the sobriquet “Hermann the German”.
Sadly, corruption seems to be as much a feature in the Olympic movement as the five rings, and Berlin was no exception. Thanks to his instrumental role in seeing off a boycott of the Games by the American Olympic team, the sports administrator and construction mogul Avery Brundage was secretly awarded the contract by the Nazis to build the German Embassy in Washington DC. Brundage would later become head of the International Olympic Committee, although the fact that he had been bribed by the Nazis would only emerge long after his death.
Ultimately, that fortnight in Berlin eight decades ago made the Olympics what they are today. But the Olympics also gave something very important to Adolf Hitler – it made Nazi Germany seem respectable. It was a misconception for which the world was to pay a very heavy price.
Hitler's Olympics premieres 9pm Saturday on Yesterday