Beyond  /  Retrieval

The 'Protest' Olympics That Never Came to Be

A leftist response to the 1936 Games being held in Nazi Germany, the proposed competition was canceled by the Spanish Civil War.

In the very hot summer of 1936, a team of American Olympians crossed the Atlantic by ship, reaching Scotland on July 13. From there, they traveled to Paris, where they boarded another train, finally arriving at their destination a few days before the games were scheduled to start. They explored the city and visited the Olympic stadium. “Never felt so good in all my life. Having a swell time,” Bernard Danchik, a gymnast, wrote to his parents on July 16. But Danchik wasn’t writing from Berlin, the host city of that year’s official Olympic games: Instead he, along with nine other American athletes, had just landed in the sunny streets of Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad, a counter-event organized to protest what they called the “Hitler Nazi Olympics.”

Five years prior, Berlin had won the bid to host the Olympic Games, beating out other finalist cities, including Barcelona. At the time, Germany was governed by the Weimar Republic. After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Jewish groups, unions and trade organizations in the United States and across Europe criticized allowing the Nazis to host the Olympics, especially after the 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of most of their rights. According to research by historian Peter Carroll, author of the 1994 book The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, by 1935 “half a million Americans had signed petitions demanding an alternate site" and several newspapers, including the New York Times, had registered objections to U.S. participation.

That same year, a mixed group of church leaders, college presidents and trade unionists created the Committee on Fair Play in Sports with the explicit aim to stop the United States from sending its elite athletes to Berlin. “All right-thinking Americans and lovers of good sportsmanship must oppose our participation,” one of their pamphlets read, “because the Nazi government is deliberately planning to use the Olympic games to promote its political prestige and to glorify its policies.” The opposition was grounded in anti-fascist sentiment, an objection to Hitler’s treatment of “non-Aryans.”

Boycott supporters included Jeremiah Mahoney, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which worked closely with the Olympic committee to send athletes to the games. Mahoney, an active opponent of religious and racial discrimination, believed that participating in the Berlin Olympics would ...