Philip Barker ©insidethegames

Even 80 years on, the Berlin Games of 1936 remain the most controversial and most talked about in the history of the modern Olympic movement. 

Swastikas outnumbered the Olympic flag and Hitler swept in by motorcade to open what many felt were the most impressive Games ever staged.

Hitler had been in opposition when a postal ballot to choose the host city had been taken in 1931. A number of cities had initially been interested, but in the final analysis the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members went for Berlin at the expense of Barcelona.

It was not until 1933 that Hitler came to power. Originally a fierce opponent of the Games, he changed his mind and ordered that they be staged on a monumental scale. 

The other Nazi leaders added their support.

"Olympic Games are the testing grounds for the competitive spirit, which is not only the foundation of happiness and the security of nations, but of human progress in general," said Hermann Goering.

The driving force of the organisation was Carl Diem, a leading German sports teacher and administrator. He had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Olympic Movement and had done much of the planning for the 1916 Games. These never took place because of the First World War. This time, Diem’s labours would bear fruit. 

The stadium was designed by Werner March on the same site as the 1916 stadium. Greatly enlarged to hold 100,000 people, the complex also included a swimming pool within a few paces of the main stadium.

Above the stadium entrance the five Olympic rings were suspended. In a huge tower, a giant bell tolled. It had been forged in Bochum. It carried the message “Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt’’ - I call the youth of the world.

The Greek team march to the Opening Ceremony ©Philip Barker
The Greek team march to the Opening Ceremony ©Philip Barker

Huge crowds came out to see it pass on its way to Berlin and in its own way, it proved a powerful marketing tool for the Games. The promotion of the Olympics was outstanding and one idea in particular stood the test of time. 

In 1934, Diem spoke to Ioannis Ketseas, later to become an IOC member in Greece. A plaque in the tiny village of Tegea commemorates their conversation. They spoke of an Olympic flame to be lit in Ancient Olympia and brought by Relay to Berlin. The organisers also started publishing information bulletins with news about Berlin in multiple languages. Yet all the positive publicity could not silence growing protests throughout the world.

Many were very uneasy about holding the world’s greatest sporting festival in a totalitarian regime which targeted its Jewish population. 

Opposition voices were soon raised. Briton Philip Noel Baker, a 1912 Olympian destined later to win the Nobel Prize for peace, explained: "My grounds of principle were strong. Hitler had violated the Olympic Charter by excluding Jews and Catholics and workers from the Olympic team."

Even the IOC seemed aware that this was no ordinary regime. In 1933, they had gathered in Vienna shortly after Hitler had become Chancellor. They were at pains "to be quite sure that the guarantees given by the Government in power in 1931 be considered as reliable".

It soon became clear that the head of the Organising Committee, Dr Theodore Lewald, had Jewish ancestry. He was also an IOC member in Germany. Pragmatism on both sides carried the day and Lewald remained in his post.

The IOC members were given an undertaking from the German Olympic Committee that "all the laws regarding the Olympic Games would be observed" and that "as a principle, German Jews shall not be excluded from German teams".

In America, the opposition to the Berlin Games included an IOC member, Ernest Lee Jahncke. Never convinced by these assurances, he wrote open letters in support of a boycott.

“In spite of your alleged proofs, the nature of which you do not disclose, the plain and undeniable fact is the Nazis have consistently and persistently violated their pledges," he said.

"I am convinced that to hold the Games in Nazi Germany will be to deal a severe blow to the Olympic idea. They have denied Jewish athletes adequate opportunity to condition themselves for competition in the Olympic elimination contests."

Jahncke’s argument was reinforced by the treatment of athletes such as Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann, an international class competitor with high hopes as Berlin approached. She was pressurised into returning to Germany, ostensibly to train for the Games. When the team was announced, her name was not included.

Meanwhile, the IOC concerned themselves over what to do about Jahncke.

The Hindenburg airship carries the Olympic flag over the stadium ©Philip Barker
The Hindenburg airship carries the Olympic flag over the stadium ©Philip Barker

The minutes for the 1936 Session in Garmisch Partenkirchen record that the members "objected strongly to the attitude of Mr Lee Jahncke in view of the fact that he had clearly infringed upon the status of the International Olympic Committee in betraying the interests of the Committee and in failing to preserve a sense of decorum toward his colleagues".

When they met again in Berlin, a unanimous vote called for the expulsion of Jahncke. His fellow American William May Garland did not vote but the IOC minutes pointed out that he "nevertheless expresses his profound disapproval of the attitude of his colleague". 

Ostensibly, the decision had been made because Jahncke had not been a regular attendee at IOC meetings. They swiftly co-opted Avery Brundage to fill the vacancy.

Meanwhile, preparations for the Games were now unstoppable. A flame had been lit in the ruins of Ancient Olympia in Greece. From there, a Relay began to bring the flame by foot to Berlin. It was all breathlessly reported by Berlin Radio from a state-of-the-art mobile truck.

After ceremonies in Athens, the flame made its way through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Austria. In Vienna came a sinister portent when youths jeered the runners and sang the Nazi Horst Wessel song. Finally, a day before the Games, the flame crossed the German border at Hellendorf and from then on it passed through enthusiastic crowds on its way to the German capital.

As the competitors arrived, they saw streets decked with Olympic flags and swastikas. The women were accommodated separately but the men from 49 countries were taken to the Olympic Village which had been built in the woodlands around Berlin.

‘’Here you will dwell with your friends and fellow participants, a community of comrades serving the same ideal who are overjoyed to greet you, live with you and pass pleasant hours in your company,’’ said the official welcome.

The accommodation huts bore the names of German towns and all kinds of entertainment was laid on for the athletes. Even the Berlin Philharmonic was enlisted to entertain the teams with a concert, after which a spectacular firework display followed.

The Olympic Village was run by the military. Much of the organisation had been carried out by Captain Wolfgang Furstner. Tragically, it came to light that he had Jewish ancestry. He was replaced in charge of the Village but allowed to continue in a secondary role. All too aware of what was to come, Furstner took his own life shortly after the Games had come to a close.

On opening day, Hitler swept into the stadium. Spiridon Louis, the 1896 marathon champion, joined the Greek team as they led the other competing nations inside. When the French entered, they gave the Olympic salute by extending their arms. This bore more than a passing resemblance to the Nazi salute and the home crowd roared their approval.

Finally it was the turn of the German team, dressed all in white. They numbered 389 men and 44 women. The band struck up the Hohenfriedberger March and Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film of the Olympics showed Hitler leaping to his feat to salute the team.

The Olympic flame had reached Berlin and was carried through the Lustgarten which had been draped with swastikas. Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s head of propaganda, had given an impassioned speech. The runners then continued the Relay towards the stadium.

Finally, a blonde athlete called Fritz Schilgen appeared in sight of the huge crowd. He carried the flame around the track before lighting a simple brazier at the marathon end of the stadium.

Richard Strauss conducted the orchestra and choir as they performed his Olympic hymn. ‘’I kill the boredom of advent by writing an Olympic hymn for the proles," he had said dismissively.

Olympic weightlifting champion Rudolf Ismayr spoke the Olympic oath. In those days, protocol required the use of the national flag so he grasped the swastika as he spoke.

When the sport began, there was one man who stood above all others. His name was James Cleveland Owens of the United States. He had broken record after record one memorable afternoon in 1935 and at the Olympics, he was America’s great hope. 

Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals to carve his name in the Olympic pantheon. His long jump competition with German rival Luz Long has passed into Olympic lore. They posed happily together for photographs and Long suggested that the American adjust his take off mark. Owens did so and won. 

He also dominated the sprints with gold in the 100 metres, 200m and 4x100m relay. Huge crowds made their way to the stadium each day and many of the events were captured by Riefenstahl’s cameras. 

Some were also transmitted on television, beamed to viewing rooms around Berlin. Around 160,000 watched, including Owens himself at the Olympic Village. Television passed its ordeal "by fire’’, said the Organising Committee, in their lavishly illustrated official report on the Games.

A postcard shows the Olympic flame in Berlin ©Philip Barker
A postcard shows the Olympic flame in Berlin ©Philip Barker

The marathon was won by Sohn Kee Chung of Korea. But he did not wear the flag of his own country but that of occupying Japan. He was recorded in the result books as Son Kitei, a Japanese version of his name. When he received his medal the Japanese anthem was played. 

"I ran without a country, it was heartbreaking," he said later. When a Seoul newspaper published a photograph with the rising sun airbrushed out, those responsible were arrested.

The 1500m, considered the blue riband event of the Games, lived up to advance billing. The race included no fewer than six of the top seven from 1932 including defending champion Luigi Beccali of Italy. 

Jack Lovelock had only finished seventh in Los Angeles, but had become a medical student and researched how to finish at maximum speed. It served him well in a scintillating last lap against his American rival Glenn Cunningham.

The Olympic swimming pool was next door to the stadium. There, 17-year-old Rie Mastenbroek of The Netherlands came through to win the 100m freestyle with a barnstorming finish. She also anchored the Dutch team to victory in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

Watching from the stands was Eleanor Holm who had been expected to star in Berlin. She had been expelled from the USA team for disciplinary reasons after drinking and gambling on board the ship she travelled on to Europe.

Elsewhere, Indian hockey was enjoying a golden age. Inspired by a hat-trick by the legendary Dhyan Chand, they hammered eight goals against Germany en-route to a third successive gold medal. They were not to lose their title until 1960.

Hitler had been out and about. He turned up at the football to see Germany beaten by Norway. He was not happy.

The real controversy though came in the quarter-finals. Peru had beaten Austria but were ordered to replay the match behind closed doors after a pitch invasion. When they refused to do so they were expelled. The gold medal eventually went to Italy who were coached by the legendary Vittorio Pozzo. The Italians also won the World Cup either side of the Olympic success.

The Nazis did include a Jewish competitor in their team.

Fencer Helene Mayer, who had moved to America, had been stripped of her club membership back home. However, she was later 'invited' back from the USA to compete. To all appearances she was the ideal German woman and even gave the Nazi salute on the podium.

Runners compete in the 1936 Olympic marathon ©Philip Barker
Runners compete in the 1936 Olympic marathon ©Philip Barker

The Germans won all six available gold medals in the equestrian events. Among them, Heinz Pollay won individual and team gold in the dressage. He later wrote a further chapter in Olympic history as the first man to pronounce the oath on behalf of judges and officials in 1972.

Many visitors were impressed by the organisation of the Games. Few went quite so far as South African boxer Robey Leibbrandt.

A secret Nazi report noted that "he speaks German well, and although he admires our leader, he must be educated in the theory of National Socialism. I am convinced that here we have excellent material".

The agent’s assessment was accurate. Leibbrandt became a Nazi spy.

As the Games closed, organisers raised the flags of Greece for the past, Germany for the present and Japan, the designated host city for 1940. The Olympic flame flickered and died.

In the weeks that followed, the IOC’s Olympic Review proudly published a letter of congratulation.

"Our special recognition and sincere thanks are due to the athletes from every part of the world whose splendid achievements gained our admiration and whose names will survive in the history of sport," the letter said. 

"I hope that the Berlin Olympic Games have served to strengthen the Olympic ideals and thereby to create new ties between the nations." The letter was signed by Adolf Hitler.

The Olympic flame would not burn for another 12 years as war came. The Greek writer Alexandros Philadelpheus wrote that "Hitler rejected the Olympic flame, grabbed a Torch from the Black Forest, dipped it in the bloodstained altar of Votan and Ertha and charged unchecked to burn down the whole of the earth".