The Golden Calf Idols of the World Cup, The Olympics, and What Happened in Berlin, 1936

by Norman Berdichevsky (August 2010)

Few NER articles have resulted in the avalanche of readers’ responses as did Theodore Dalrymple’s July 2010 piece “Of Snobbery and Soccer.” The reason is the enormous controversy over Dalrymple’s critical look at those aspects of the World Cup that appeal to hero worship, the manipulation of national pride, and the absurdities of a mega-billion dollar industry hiding behind the facade of sport. For me, as for Dalrymple, The World Cup represents the worst aspects of chauvinism in which tens of millions of spectators invest the players on the field with a national mission designed to elevate their own egos. For many Americans soccer is not just a "boring" sport but frequently looks corrupt with more than just a few players routinely acting out feigned injuries to win a referee’s penalty award of a free kick or the punishment of yellow or red cards handed to an opposing player. Nevertheless, even before our modern age world-wide real time television transmissions of all sports events including the World Cup,  the adolescent snobbery and exaggerated patriotism encouraged by governments have always trumped any human considerations. 

I have an interest in soccer and know something about the game since I was a fan at a time in the 1950s when the sport held the interest of very few American boys. I fondly recall my Russian born father’s love of the game that he had followed in Europe and throughout the years we lived in the Bronx, home of several of the teams that competed in the semi-pro American Soccer League (ASL). The teams’ names represented the overwhelmingly ethnic origin of the players and fans:  New York HaKoah,  Newark Portuguese, Brooklyn Italians, Philadelphia Ukrainians, New Brunswick Hungarian-Americans, Brookhattan-Galicia, Newark Ukrainians, Warsaw Falcons, Galicia-Honduras, Brooklyn Hispano, Baltimore Pompeii, Kearney Celtic, even the team called the New York Americans was made up almost primarily of the foreign born. It was semi-pro or C+ if most fans had to grade it but it provided countless hours of true sport, free of acting and the commercialization of every aspect of the true ideals of the game. I recall even now there were many exciting matches, made all the more interesting by my father’s commentary compared to the many tedious games I have started to watch on the World Cup competition and switched off after a half hour of utter boredom.

Yes, there was an aspect of pride for fans back then who were proud of their sons, fathers, cousins and uncles displaced from Europe or Latin America and first generation immigrants who played for the love of the game and to demonstrate their ethnic pride but it was light-years away from the super-star status and megabuck professional game and the World Cup.     

To put it gently, this was a very low key league and enjoyed recognition only within the New England-New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia-Baltimore  area until the early 1970s when soccer enjoyed a sudden expansion of national interest. Crowds usually numbered from a few hundred to several thousand and I spent many afternoons watching my father relive his youth at the local fields, nearby Sterling Oval and the more distant Zerega Oval (both in the Bronx).

Our neighbor downstairs, Mr. Glazer, in the apartment building where we lived at McClellan Street played for the Jewish team, HaKoah, named after the world famous champion club of the 1920s, HaKoah of Vienna. We were proud that they were the ASL champions three years in a row, 1957-59, so I guess I too have been guilty of using sport as an aid to bolster my ego.

Dalrymple is both right and wrong when he compares spectator sports to porn. It is basking in the light of someone else’s achievements who is “having fun” but it can be more than just a pleasant diversion. What has gone wrong with both the World Cup and the Olympic Games is, that 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 so 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 Olympic Games have degenerated from an original ideal and represent an even greater travesty than the World 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.

The modern Olympics that began in Athens in 1896 was 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. It has become 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. Allegations of bribery of officials to win the bidding for the chosen site are now common. Until becoming open to professional athletes, the Olympic Games witnessed the sharp contrast betweeen Western athletes forced by their committees to freely compete and qualify for selection to the games under close supervision of their amateur status while those in the East communist bloc were given preferential treatment and hidden subsidies to ensure that they would not be handicapped by work and family obligations. 

The International Olympic Committee has been led by such individuals as
Avery Brundage, accused of both racism for handling the issue of apartheid in the South African delegation and his crass reaction to the bias against Jewish athletes in Berlin, 1936 and the  murder of the eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Games in 1976 while Juan Antonio Samaranch was accused of nepotism and criticized for his ties with the Franco regime in Spain. The Munich Massacre was one of the most gruesome displays of the members of the Black September Palestinian Arab terror organization as they disregarded every convention of civilization in order to secure their aims and how the true face of Islam was revealed when athletes from Moslem countries refused to attend the memorial services. Reporter Howard K. Smith, in his nightly television commentary of news events intoned, "hearts and minds today are heavy with the thought that there is something wrong with mankind." What was wrong then and what is wrong now is the lack of the ability to call evil by its name, face it and destroy it.

The predominance of Jewish athletes in international sports events has been strongest in the fields of wrestling, boxing, fencing, swimming and weightlifting although their share of Olympic medals has often been glossed over or ignored. 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.” A close colleague of Hitler and rabid Nazi,
Hans von Tschammer und Osten, headed the Reich Sports Office that oversaw all sports bodies and clubs, including the German Olympic Committee planning the 1936 Games. He and Propaganda Minister Goebbels proclaimed “German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.”

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 interefere 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. 
The same dilemma of particpation or a boycott of the games faced Black athletes. Many Black journalists expressed their view that the first issue to be addressed was discrimination against their own athletes in the United States who were still excluded from professional baseball.  Writers for such papers as The Philadelphia Tribune and The Chicago Defender responded however that athletic victories by Blacks would contradict and refute Nazi racial views of “Aryan” supremacy and foster a new sense of Black pride at home.

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.

The story of Denmark’s participation and the outcome of the games in Berlin deserve mention and an appreciation of how the lure of fame, fortune and “national prestige” for the athletes has been a fatal attraction. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, two Danish teenage girls, the 15 year old Ragnhild Hveger, won a silver medal and the 12 year old Inge Sorensen, won bronze. All of Denmark hailed them as heroines and great patriots. They were greeted on their return to Denmark by a crowd of 30,000 Danes at the train station in Copenhagen.  Hitler sent them a congratulatory telegram which so flattered them that both of them became eager exponents of friendly relations with the New Germany and during the war, fraternized openly with German occupation troops. The older girl even let herself be actively used in Nazi propaganda.

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 but all those professionals in 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 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 who were 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 which 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. 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.

Those who tried to demolish the golden calf of Olympic Medals in 1936 had failed. Sports then as now was mass entertainment and a “circus” for the masses with enormous economic and political interests that would not let anything stand in their way.

The  Danish Jewish Wrestler,  Abraham Kurland


Use of the two photos are courtesy of Ruth and Henrik,


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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome. 



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