The 1936 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympics: sport as tsuris

By Bill Simons

Yiddish has bequeathed us a word – tsuris – that pithily conveys sorrow, loss and pain. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games leaves a legacy of tsuris. Upon winning the silver medal in women’s figure skating, the superbly talented Alexandra Trusova expressed disappointment through an invective-laced tirade at finishing behind her Russian Olympic Committee teammate Anna Shcherbakova. 

According to disputed translations, the tearful, 17-year-old Trusova shouted, “I hate this sport! I won’t go onto the ice again!” Trusova flashed her middle finger without clarifying whether the gesture was aimed at her coach, officials, humanity or herself. Another of her Russian teammates, Kamila Valieva, at 15 perhaps the best figure skater in the world, imploded to a fourth place finish after testing positive for doping at a previous event. 

The exploitation and expectations endured by young, vulnerable girls underline the price of disappointing the powerful in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Within a week of the Thursday, February 17, 2022, meltdown of Trusova and Valieva, Russia, morphing rapidly from menacing bullying to military aggressor, invaded Ukraine, triggering perhaps the most dangerous international crisis since the end of World War II. 

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games provided two totalitarian states with a platform. China, able to burnish its image and infrastructure through the Olympics, inflicts genocide upon Uyghur Muslims, crushes democracy in Hong Kong, appears poised to subjugate Taiwan, holds tennis player and rape victim Peng Shuai in captivity, and offers rhetorical support to Russian militarism. Basking in its 32 medals, second only to Norway, Russia – armed with false-flag pretext and enormous troop and weaponry resources – assaulted Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky, part of a substantial Ukrainian Jewish population, leads the resistance. 

Several Western nations engaged in an ineffectual diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games, but still sent their athletes, including a number of Jewish competitors. Why did the United States, Israel and other democracies participate in a Winter Olympics that primarily benefited autocracies? 

Disturbing parallels between the 2022 Beijing Winter and 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics emerge. In Beijing, hospitality and expressions of good will encouraged the naïve to believe that the game fostered cooperation between peoples and nations. In a mocking Orwellian tableau, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross-country skier, was assigned as a torchbearer by the Chinese officials who subject her fellow Uyghur to obliteration through indoctrination, forced labor and sterilization. Likewise, in 1936, Hitler temporarily cleansed Berlin of graphic antisemitic placards. In response to charges of virulent bigotry, Germany pointed to Helene Mayer. The daughter of a Jewish father, Mayer returned from four years of self-imposed American exile to her German homeland, winning a silver medal in fencing for the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. She gave the Nazi salute from the victor’s podium. In all probability, Mayer, like Yilamujiang, performed public obeisance to an oppressive Olympic host due to threats against her family. 

By 1936, Adolf Hitler, German chancellor and fuhrer, had made his goals explicit. His 1925 biographical rant and polemic “Mein Kampf,” defiance of the Treaty of Versailles and the 1935 Nuremberg Laws outlined an agenda of German rearmament, bombastic nationalism, territorial conquest and vituperative antisemitism. Buttressed by lies and propaganda, Hitler posed as a reasonable statesman while hosting the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter and Berlin Summer Olympics. In the grip of isolationism and appeasement, the Western democracies succumbed to Hitler’s masquerade of benevolence and participated in the Nazi Olympics.

The history of the Berlin Olympics is distorted by mythology. The fable claims that democratic American athletes triumphed over their totalitarian counterparts in 1936. And that the four gold-medal victories of the great U.S. track and field star Jesse Owens, an African American, shredded Nazi racism and humiliated Hitler. The preceding derives from largely baseless shibboleths. 

Owens received more applause than any athlete from the German masses, who chanted “Yes-sa Ove-enss! Yes-sa Ove-enss!” Owens always cherished warm memories of the Berlin Olympics: “When I passed the chancellor (Hitler) he rose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing (Hitler) the man of the hour in Germany.”

Despite Owens’ personal victories, Germany won the 1936 Olympics. According to the tabulations of the American Olympic Committee, Germany accumulated 6283/4 points to 4511/3 for the U.S. This encouraged totalitarians and their followers to view themselves as invincible against degenerate liberal democracies. World War II followed. 

For the Jewish-American sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, the Berlin Olympics brought betrayal. On the morning of Saturday, August 9, 1936, the day of their scheduled heats and final, Stoller and Glickman were informed that Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens, both Black Americans, would replace them on the four-man, 400-meter relay team. Although the U.S. was favored to win the event with Stoller and Glickman competing, Dean Crowell, the American coach for the event, claimed Germany might produce a surprise super-runner. In reality, it was impossible to hide an athlete in Olympic competition. Moreover, Stoller and Glickman were at least as fast as Frank Wycoff and Foy Draper, both of whom remained on the team. An embarrassed Owens, pointing to the three medals he had already won, pleaded with no avail to let Stoller and Glickman have their chance at glory. The recast American team won a gold medal with a record time of 39.8 seconds. The German team that Crowell claimed to fear placed third, finishing in 41.2 seconds. Had Glickman and Stoller competed and run their usual times, the American team would have still finished first, although without the world record made possible by Owens. Glickman believed that Cromwell did not want to affront the Nazi hosts with Jewish medalists. 

Democracies should not participate in Olympic games hosted by totalitarians. Jews, Uyghurs, Ukrainians and adolescent girls are amongst those who have paid the price of weaponizing sports. The games should go on and strive to fulfill the aspiration of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, to promote peace, respect and excellence. Olympic reforms merit consideration, including excluding those under 18 from competition and establishing a permanent, neutral site for the games. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.