Sport and moral cowardice

Do sport and politics mix, asks David Aaronovitch

May 18, 2017 10:55

This column began in a somewhat random place. Researching something else only tangentially linked, I found myself thinking again about the Berlin Olympics of 1936. How on earth had they happened?

Or, more precisely, how did it come about that the athletes of the great democracies travelled to Germany, a place where Jewish sportsmen and women were effectively excluded from public life, in order to give the Nazis and Adolf Hitler a gigantic propaganda boost? After all, if the competitors of the free world declared that Hitler and the boys were an OK lot, how could any ordinary German disagree? 

That much had been clear to American diplomats. George Messersmith, the United States consul-general in Berlin had told his superiors that “should the Games not be held in Berlin it would be one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer… and one of the most effective ways which the world outside has of showing to the youth of Germany its opinion of National Socialist doctrine.”

The athletes themselves — through their associations — were to be allowed by the governments of the main democracies to decide on participation. They had already seen German Jewish athletes, like boxer Erich Seelig and tennis player Daniel Prenn, expelled from their sports and having to leave Germany. The Germans had clearly broken Olympic rules outlawing discrimination and there was significant pressure from Jewish, left-wing groups and some powerful Christian groups, for a boycott

The most important country in this was the United States. There, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jeremiah Maloney — a Catholic — was strongly in favour of boycotting. Up against him was a building tycoon called Avery Brundage who was, for 20 years after the war, the president of the International Olympic Committee. Brundage, then sitting on the American Olympic Committee, set about creating a plausible case for going. 

The first argument was that politics and sport did not mix: “The Olympic Games,” he wrote, “belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” He characterised the discrimination problem as a “Jew-Nazi altercation” in which sportspeople should not get involved.  His problem being that it was the Nazis who had politicised sport, he then embarked on a minimisation of the campaign against the Jews. He toured Germany in 1934, talked to some Jews, and came back saying the problem had been exaggerated. 

When the issue finally came to a vote at the AAAU, in December 1935, enough people wanted to believe Brundage and he won, but only just. There were fewer than three votes in it. And some of the votes were swayed by the fact that some top Jewish-American athletes themselves argued for the games. If they hadn’t, it’s quite possible that many other countries would have followed in America’s wake and Hitler’s games would have been a fiasco. 

So what about Britain? The crucial vote here was taken at the Amateur Athletics Association AGM in March 1936. The main mover for the boycott, according to Guy Walters’s history of the Games, Berlin Games: How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream, was a man called George Elvin. But unfortunately for him his main opponent was not just a famous Olympian, winner of the 100 metres at the Paris Olympics, but also Jewish — Harold Abrahams. 

Abrahams eschewed the “it’s not so bad in Germany” argument deployed by Brundage and was far more reasoned. “I ask myself whether it is ultimately in the best interests of world sport and better world relationships that the AAA should pass this resolution and withdraw from the Games,” he argued. He thought a boycott would affect innocent individuals while not improving the situation of German Jews. “I do not believe that any real good will come if this resolution is adopted; on the contrary, I believe that it will do harm”.

If he said it, who could gainsay him?  Abrahams, who had converted to Catholicism in 1934, won the vote. Britain followed America and helped provide Leni Riefenstahl and her beloved führer with some of the best footage a thousand-year Reich could hope for. 

Ironically, the decision left the BBC with a problem. Abrahams was down to go to Berlin as a commentator. Cecil Graves, the BBC’s Controller of Programmes mulled it over. “We all regard the German action against the Jews as quite irrational and intolerable” he told colleagues, “but would it be discourteous to send a Jew commentator to a country where Jews are taboo?”

In the end Abrahams went, possibly unaware that he had himself almost missed the cut. He had almost himself been a victim of the moral cowardice that he had helped succour.

May 18, 2017 10:55

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