Adolf’s Games

A new look at Canada’s participation in the 1936 Olympics.

When the Canadian athletes entered the stadium for the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, they did something that elicited both applause and controversy. As they passed Adolf Hitler, they extended their right arms sideways and upwards. It was meant as a gesture in the spirit of the Games—an Olympic salute, as it was known—although it looked an awful lot like the Canadians were offering the Führer a hearty Nazi greeting.

As Richard Menkis and Harold Troper note when recounting this moment in More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics, the Canadians were not the only ones to commit this gaffe (although, oddly, Canada was the lone nation to repeat the gesture at the Summer Games in Berlin). The misunderstanding, then, is likely a moment of ignorance or naiveté. But the photograph of the Canadians’ salute, reprinted in the book, is cringe inducing and, even more so in hindsight, chilling. The same might be said about many of the stories of Canada’s involvement in the Nazi Games. That involvement is the focus of Menkis and Troper’s work, a thorough and fascinating look at the officials who ensured that Canada would send a cohort to both Olympics, the athletes who competed and the citizens who tried—and failed—to ignite a nationwide boycott.

Menkis and Troper examine the period leading up to the Olympics in order to understand the economic and political climate in Germany—showing how Hitler came to power, and how his brutal regime began to strip Jewish people of their rights. The discrimination extended to sports: Jews were “expelled both from membership in sports clubs and from participating in athletic competition against non-Jews.” Daniel Prenn, for example, was Germany’s best tennis player; he was barred from the country’s Davis Cup Team because he was Jewish. The authors focus on this point because the Nazis would later downplay their militant racism during the Games. “Under the Nazis, all sports federations, organizations, and clubs were declared agents for the betterment of the Aryan race.”

Menkis and Troper also turn their attention to the officials of sport—members of the International Olympic Committee and the Canadian Olympic Committee—in order to demonstrate their influence and the verve with which they pursued their overriding goal of sending athletes to the Games. For the COC’s Old Boys, as they were often called, participation in the Olympics was a nation-building exercise that would not be thwarted.

Menkis and Troper lay out the journalistic record, illustrating how the Canadian press covered Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jewish people. The evidence, when seen from the perspective of Canada’s decision to participate in the Nazi-led Olympics, is damning. More than two years before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, for example, the Toronto Daily Star’s Matthew Halton travelled to Germany, and his work depicted the horror that was already taking place. As Menkis and Troper explain:

In March, he sent back reports on how the Nazis were teaching hatred, including a chilling description of “a parade of hundreds of children, between the ages of seven and sixteen, carrying the swastika and shouting at intervals, ‘The Jews must be destroyed’.”

There were journalists who insisted that Halton’s work was overblown. But it is clear that news of Germany’s abuse of Jews had begun to reach a sizeable population, in Canada and elsewhere, who were moved to enact a boycott. The movement began with a suggested rejection of German goods and services, and both Jewish and leftist communities eventually sought a Canadian boycott of the Olympics, although they would not work in unison. The Games “afforded Germany and the Nazi Party a potential propaganda bonanza,” and Canada’s refusal to participate, it was hoped, would send a message that Germany’s racism would not stand unopposed. But the story of the attempted boycott is one of frustration—and it is a lament for what might have been. As the authors note, one prominent figure in the movement, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, “was convinced the undoing of Hitler might well begin if the world would but deny him his Olympic triumph.”

Hitler would not be denied that triumph, but Menkis and Troper do not condemn the athletes’ participation in the games. “They were mostly young, enthusiastic, and came from Canada to compete in the Olympic Games, not probe German social conditions.” There were those who declined to participate, such as high jumper Eva Dawes and boxer Sammy Luftspring. One especially captivating story involves the lone Jewish-Canadian Olympian at the Summer Games, Irving “Toots” Meretsky, a basketball player who was tasked with leaving the athletes’ village to deliver letters from Jews in Windsor to their family members in Berlin. The recipients were reportedly too frightened to open the door more than a crack.

The COC, in a post-mortem of Canada’s showing at the Olympics, viewed the games as “harbingers of international goodwill and harmony between nations.” They could not have been more wrong, of course. In hindsight, it is difficult to deny that participating was a mistake—although, as the authors point out, “it is impossible to know whether, had the narrative been different, had Canada and other nations boycotted the 1936 Olympics, the march to war in Europe might have played out differently.” We can say, though, that there was a refusal to see any connection between the celebratory spectacle that is the Olympics and the horror unfolding in Germany.

The media, for one, shares some of the blame. A few sports writers working for major newspapers supported the boycott: the Montreal Herald’s Elmer Ferguson and the Vancouver Sun’s Hal Straight were two of them. But most, including prominent figures such as the Toronto Daily Star’s sports editor Lou Marsh, refused. As the authors point out, “persecuting Jews was one thing—the Olympic Games was another.”

But what exactly is the connection between the Olympics and human rights—and by extension, sports and human rights? Are the Olympics necessarily apolitical, and therefore in some way beyond morality? We need only look at recent events to see that this question is as relevant as ever. Ahead of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, there were calls for a boycott over concerns about Russia’s newly instituted anti-gay laws. Those calls were largely ignored. But Russia, facing claims of further human rights violations, will again draw the world’s attention when it hosts the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The World Cup, too, faces other controversies, with reports that the labourers tasked with constructing the tournament’s venues in Qatar, in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, are modern-day slaves—and that many of them are dying on the job. We care about big sporting spectacles because they offer us a glimpse at the best of humanity—to see the fastest runner win gold, or watch the most gifted striker score a goal so effortless it seems like some kind of black magic. But at what cost?