From 1932 to today’s games of 2012, Jewish athletes in the Olympics became involved in controversies through the machinations of racist and ultra-nationalist ideologues to subvert athletics to politics and make it clear that they were unwelcome. The predominance of Jewish athletes in international sports events has been strongest in the fields of wrestling, boxing, gymnastics, fencing, swimming and weightlifting although their share of Olympic medals has often been glossed over or ignored. Last week’s events put this in perspective.
The Olympic Games have degenerated from an original ideal and represent an even greater travesty than the World Soccer Cup and have gone from the ideal of pristine sport (champions and winners crowned with a wreath of olive leaves) untarnished by money, commercial endorsements and professionalism, flags, anthems and nationalism, to a circus festival. Originally in ancient Greece, the Olympics were events of great religious significance accompanied by ritual sacrifices to Zeus. Victory was considered as a means of acquiring immortality and filled a void in pagan Greek culture with its lack of any belief in an afterlife. Indeed, sport continues to function in the same way in our increasing secular societies. The mere mention of Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth or Joe Louis conjures up their colorful personalities and magnificent careers for a majority of American men yet hundreds of millions of fans identify so completely with the efforts of a few individuals who are worshipped as heroes and the incarnation of their nation that they miss out entirely on a first hand understanding the skills and mistakes involved by never attempting to play the game as participants.
The modern Olympics that began in Athens in 1896 were founded by the French aristocrat, Pierre De Coubertin, and came at the end of a long period of peace and tranquility in Europe. De Coubertin proclaimed that “Olympism” was to be an ideal based on fair play, gentlemanly amateurism and good will among nations. This ideal has since been dragged through the dirt. It has become a commercialized venture meshed with the vested interests of major international corporations and government manipulation. The Olympics also became the stage for murder by fanatics of the "Black September" terrorist movement (Munich, 1972), political demonstrations on the winners’ platform (Black Power advocates at Mexico City, 1968), the growing use of drugs, and a total transformation from its original amateur basis to professionalism accompanied by large subsidies from governments eager to satisfy fans and promote patriotism with the spotlight focused on the raising of national flags and the playing of national anthems.
The Munich Massacre was one of the most gruesome displays of the Black September Palestinian Arab terror organization as they disregarded every convention of civilization in order to secure their aims and the use of political Islam was when athletes from Moslem countries refused to attend the memorial services. In 2012, the political weight from Islamic countries made itself felt, preventing any recognition of a memorial service in honor of the athletes murdered in 1972. The Olympic Committee and London organizers could not find room for such a display for certain “unwelcome athletes”; and who were/are they?
In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Denmark's Greco-Roman wrestling champion Abraham Kurland, a member of the HaKoah Jewish Sports fraternity, won a silver medal that garnered scant attention outside his specialty but all those with a keen knowledge of his sport confidently predicted that he was the heavy odds-on favorite and would easily win GOLD in the 1936 Olympics. Kurland did not participate however - as a Jewish athlete - he knew full well that the 1936 games to be held in Nazi Germany violated every ethical precept that the initiators of the Olympic Games had established and hoped for in previous years.
His decision relieved the Danish Olympic Committee that was fearful that Kurland might win the Gold Medal and "embarrass Denmark." Of course, this is what Jesse Owens did, causing Hitler to leave the stadium in a huff rather than watch the Black American athlete stand on the winner’s podium and receive his gold medal. Kurland and his brother fled Denmark in 1943 to Sweden along with almost the entire Jewish community. They returned at the end of the war and continued their sports activities in many matches that they won but by the 1948 games, Abraham Kurland, although a participant, was by then “too old" (age 45 by then) to have a chance.
Several brief attempts were made in 1936 by athletes in Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands to boycott the Berlin games held in Nazi Germany. German Socialists and Communists in exile expressed opposition to the games and boycott proponents supported a counter-Olympics, known as the “People's Olympiad” planned for summer 1936 in Barcelona, Spain. It had to be cancelled after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, just as thousands of athletes had begun to arrive.
In 1936, the world’s Jewish athletes and their fellow sportsmen and women in a dozen countries faced a dilemma – to compete or not in the 1936 games held in Berlin and used by the Nazi regime as great propaganda spectacle. In order to prevent any mishap at the games, Nazi Germany soft-pedaled its anti-Semitic platform and pretended that Jewish athletes would not be treated differently. By the time of the selection of the participants, all Jews had been excluded from German sports associations and so were not involved in the selection process although they were “allowed” to form their own associations and were left with the most inferior equipment and training facilities.
Attempts by athletes to boycott the Olympics were frowned upon by Olympic selection committees in the United States and other democracies. On May 13, 1931 (before the Nazis' ascension to power), the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin and was the first real international signal that Germany had returned to the “community of nations.” The German Boxing Association expelled Jewish amateur champion Eric Seelig in April 1933 who later resumed his boxing career in the United States. Another Jew, Daniel Prenn, Germany's top-ranked tennis player, was excluded by Germany's Davis Cup Team. Gypsies, were also purged from German sports.
Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee originally criticized Germany’s policies and questioned the validity of the 1936 games, but when criticism of Germany threatened to interfere with the planned games, he then went on to publicly state that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly and that the Games should go on, as planned. Brundage opposed a boycott, arguing that “politics had no place in sport" and that “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” When he was put in the hot seat by his policy, he responded by writing in the American Olympic Committee pamphlet “Fair Play for American Athletes, that “American athletes should not become involved in the present Jew-Nazi altercation” (as if the two sides were wholly equivalent). As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the United States out of the Games.
A boycott of the games was supported by Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Al Smith, Governor of New York, and James Curley, Governor of Massachusetts, The Catholic journal The Commonweal (November 8, 1935) advised boycotting an Olympics that would “set the seal of approval upon the radically anti-Christian Nazi doctrine." The American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee, joined by the non-sectarian Anti-Nazi League, staged mass rallies to protest Nazi persecution of Jews and called for a boycott as early as 1933. Individual Jewish athletes made their own decisions. Milton Green, captain of the Harvard University track team, took first place in the 110-meter high hurdles in regional pre-Olympic trials and his fellow Jewish teammate, Norman Cahners, qualified for the final Olympics trials as well. Both chose to boycott the national Olympic trials.
Two other Jewish track stars, Marty Glickman (later to become a well-known sports commentator) and Sam Stoller, were denied at the last moment their places on the American 440 meter relay team and were the only participating American track athletes sent to Berlin who did not actually compete. Both felt keenly disappointed at not having had the chance to run with Owens and demonstrate to the world that Jews as well as Black Americans could excel and hand Hitler and the Nazis a double ideological defeat. Controversy remains regarding whether they didn’t participate because they were not the best choices for the 4 man relay team or whether it was due to the fear of stirring up “more controversy” (Brundage’s view).
The same dilemma of participation or a boycott of the games faced Black athletes in 1936. A total of 18 African Americans — 16 men and 2 women — went to Berlin, triple the number who had competed for the United States in the 1932 Los Angeles Games. All of them came from predominantly white universities, a fact that demonstrated to everyone the inferiority of training equipment and facilities at black colleges where the vast majority of African American student athletes were educated in the 1930s. The achievements of Owens at the 1936 games in Hitler's face, and the great American pride in the victory of boxer Joe Louis over German champion Max Schmelling paved the way for the integration of major league baseball in the United States after the war. It had simply become wholly anachronistic and absurd to exclude African-Americans and the Olympic Games had demonstrated this beyond even the prejudices of the worst racists at home.
In 1972, Jewish American swimming star Mark Spitz Mark Andrew Spitz won seven gold medals at the Summer Olympics, an achievement subsequently only surpassed by Michael Phelps. Spitz set new world records in all seven events in which he competed but his victory was clouded by the horrible murder of eleven Israel athletes that made every Jewish participant at the games unsure of his and her safety.
This past week Aly Raisman, a young Jewish American teenage gymnast from Massachusetts turned in a sterling Gold Medal performance in her event of the floor exercise to the tune of Hava Nagila and reignited Jewish pride the world over. She commented that “the fact it was on the 40th anniversary of the Munich murders is special, and winning the gold today means a lot to me. If there had been a moment’s silence, I would have supported it and respected it.”
In a symbolic sense, her gold medal was also for Kurland, Glickman, Stoller, Green, Cahners, Seelig, Prenn, countless Black Americans, the Israelis murdered at Munich and all those athletes who had been denied a chance in the past.