If hindsight is 20-20 it’s also two-dimensional. The past is often depicted by amateur historians and skillful propagandists as a morality play with cardboard characters: good, bad; black hat, white hat. This is the screenplay of every John Wayne film you ever saw.
More Than Just Games asks, why did Canada support the 1936 Nazi Olympics? Actually there were several reasons. Co-authors Richard Menkis of the University of British Columbia, and Harold Troper of the University of Toronto, are talented writers with a keen eye for detail. Just Games is not merely honest; it is compelling.
First, Menkis and Troper dispense with myths.
No, Hitler did not pointedly refuse to shake U.S. sprinter Jesse Owen’s hand after the black athlete won gold; Hitler had shaken so many hands earlier in the games the International Olympic Committee told the effusive Fuehrer he’d breached protocol: no more handshakes.
No, Canadian athletes did not give the Nazi salute in the parade of athletes. They gave the traditional Olympic salute, arm straight from the side. It was a naïve thing to do, and uneasy British athletes dropped the salute altogether, but the 120-member Canadian delegation could be forgiven for being provincial.
And no, Olympic organizers never intended to give Hitler the Olympics in the first place.
Two cities had bid for the 1936 games: Berlin and Barcelona. At a 1931 IOC meeting that settled the issue, Barcelona unsurprisingly received only 16 of 59 votes. “The German Weimar Republic and Berlin, if hardly rock stable, seemed to IOC members a far safer bet,” authors note.
Hitler would not seize power till 1933 and Spain was already a basket case. When the IOC voted, Spain’s King Alfonso had just fled the country; there were bread riots and a general strike in Madrid; Spain was ruled by a military dictatorship, and three prime ministers had been assassinated to date. “From the vantage point of 1931, Berlin seemed a far more credible bet,” writes Just Games.
But Hitler did seize power and Nazi brutality was known by 1936. From the vantage point of 21st century readers horrified by the Holocaust, Canada’s participation seems inexplicable. Here Menkis and Troper crisply document the apologia of those pre-war years.
Nazis had consulates in Montréal and Winnipeg; the Deutsche Bund of Canada had 2,000 members; and the German cruiser Karlsruhe was given a warm welcome by the Royal Canadian Navy when it paid a 1935 call on the Port of Vancouver.
Anti-Nazis of the era also had the taint of bolshevism: high jumper Eva Dawes of Toronto boycotted the ’36 German games but had no qualms in competing at a Soviet-sponsored track meet in Moscow in 1935. Dawes returned from Stalinist Russia with high praise for the “great and marvelous work that has been accomplished in a country owned and built by the workers.” Dawes sadly passed away before the authors could complete a scheduled interview.
More telling, the Germans like Soviets were marvelous hosts. Overt anti-Semitism was tucked away for Olympic festivities, and Canadian athletes would later write “we were royally treated everywhere.”
The great Olympic scandal of 1936 was not that Hitler hosted the summer and winter events, but that Canada lost in hockey to Great Britain. As sportswriter Lou Marsh of the Toronto Star put it, “Canada has no real reason for dropping out of the Olympics unless Great Britain decides to withdraw her team.”
More Than Just Games is well-told and beautifully researched. In 1936, as today, the IOC maintains a “low human rights bar”, the authors conclude: “Low enough for all countries to qualify.”
By Holly Doan
More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics, by Richard Menkis & Harold Troper; University of Toronto Press; 254 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-26904; $27.95