London Spy

Olympic history: Berlin 1936

London Spy

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1936 hero Owens begins the sprint

Having missed out on the chance to host the 1916 Olympic Games because of the First World War, Berlin stepped up 20 years later as a second global conflict loomed.

Adolf Hitler, the German Chancellor, seized the opportunity to promote his belief of racial supremacy. But the supreme athlete of these Games turned out to be Jesse Owens, a black American who won four gold medals.

Some commentators suggested Hitler lavished money on the Games because he fully expected Berlin to host them permanently. He built a new track and field stadium with a 100,000 capacity, six gyms and many small arenas. The first TV pictures from an Olympic Games were beamed to communal halls around Berlin. A Hindenburg airship flew over the city.

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The Olympic Stadium seen from a Hindenburg airship

A big-budget documentary film, Olympia, was commissioned. Director Leni Riefenstahl was criticised for her Nazi propagandist content, but acclaimed for technical innovations that were years ahead of their time.

There were moves towards a boycott but Avery Brundage, head of the United States Olympic Committee, resisted any attempts to link sport with politics. Spain's absence had rather more to do with its own civil war, which broke out shortly before the start of the Games.

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Hitler at the Olympics

So Berlin welcomed more than 4,000 competitors from 49 countries and can be credited with the introduction of the torch relay, in which more than 3,000 runners carried the flame from Olympia across seven countries, almost 2,000 miles in 10 days.

Such was the level of German domination that the United States failed to top the medals table for the first time since 1908.

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Owens winning the broad jump


The Germans were at their strongest in the equestrian events, which produced a clean sweep of six gold medals. They also won six golds out of nine in gymnastics and five out of seven in rowing.

But in cycling they were edged out by France, for whom Robert Charpentier won three gold medals. In swimming, Japan again dominated, with four gold medals in their total of 11 from a possible 18.

And in athletics the Germans could manage only second, with five gold medals in their total of 16. Five of Finland's 10 athletics medals came in the long distance events, with two more in the 3,000m steeplechase, but led by Owens, the United States delivered 25 athletics medals, including 14 gold.

Various reports suggest that Owens received vital advice from his closest rival, the German Luz Long, prior to beating him in the long jump, that Owens and other black athletes were snubbed by Hitler after their success, and that Jewish runners were dropped from the United States sprint relay team to avoid upsetting the hosts.

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Gestring: The future of diving


There are also conflicting views, but the certainty is that Owens was the star of the 1936 Olympics, and the stadium still displays his name carved in stone.

Possible pointers for the future came in the new event of basketball and in diving. The United States men's basketball gold would be the first of seven in a row; in the women's springboard event, Marjorie Gestring became the youngest ever female Olympic champion at just 13. One for the future — except that there wouldn't be another Olympics for 12 years.

Top three performances

1-Jesse Owens (USA) - Sealed a place in Olympic legend by winning the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump. Made a mockery of the Nazi idea of Aryan supremacy, but was treated shabbily on his return to the United States.

2-Khadr El Touni (EGY) - Weightlifter who won the middleweight class, then continued until he had lifted 35kg more than the silver medallist. Hitler ordered a street in the athletes' village to be named after him.

3-Germany's horse risers - The hosts won the individual and team gold in all three equestrian categories(dressage, jumping and eventing).

Did you know?

- 1936 saw the first torch relay, covering some 2,000 miles from Olympia in Greece to Berlin.

- Leni Riefenstahl's film of the games, Olympia, is considered a groundbreaking film-making achievement for its use of modern motion picture techinques.

- Jesse Owens nearly failed to qualify for the long jump final, but was assisted with his run-up by the German Luz Long, whom he beat narrowly in the final.

Medal table

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