Let the Games Begin: Olympics, Sports and Supremacy in the Prewar World

This summer’s Olympic Games were for many a much-needed respite from a pandemic of which we have  all grown weary. Tuning in to watch our athletes fighting it out has for many revived the sense of national pride  that had taken something of a battering from the political whirlwind of the last few years. For most of us, this is harmless fun, but it can be all too easy to forget that beneath the cultural posturing and showmanship that Ben Carter has explored in the article he has written for this blog, there lies the prerequisite competitive nationalism that inspired the fascist preoccupation with the Olympics throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. As David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, has pointed out, the very spectacle of the Olympic Games as we know them today has its roots in Leni Riefenstahl’s, a German film producer active in the production of Nazi propaganda, Olympia. This film featured now outdated anthropological concepts about race as central themes. It is a heritage that can be hard for us to reconcile, and which is often hidden from view as a result.

(Credit: France 1976, via Creative Commons)

Demonstratively, Hitler’s 1936 Games began a new phase in Olympic history, one stemmed only by the outbreak of the Second World War and the aversion to nationalism that arose from it. A phase in which the gentlemanly, largely aristocratic sporting values envisaged by the modern Games’ founder, Baron de Coubertin, were replaced by the nationalist application of social Darwinism that so characterised early twentieth century thought. The school of thought which bred, and was intensified by, the worldwide rise of fascism; most notably in Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan. It is no coincidence that the ‘Phantom Olympics’ of 1940 were due to be held in Tokyo, capital of the increasingly authoritarian and supremacist Japanese Empire, or that their fellow fascists, the Italians, had a gentleman’s agreement with the Japanese to refrain from proposing Rome as a host – Mussolini was subsequently thanked by the Japanese for the ‘generous understanding’ he had shown them. Rome was in fact later put forward as a candidate for the 1944 Games which again never went ahead – losing out in the end to, somewhat prophetically, London.

Contemporaries were well aware of the potential the Olympics held as a political battleground. Barcelona’s Popular Olympics of 1936 were set up in direct opposition to the Berlin Olympics, the rejection of fascism its founding purpose. This wasn’t a fringe movement either – over 20,000 fans and athletes attended the Games. Funding came in from all over Europe, from as far afield as Scandinavia – they were funded by idealogues, not bureaucrats. The Popular Games were ended before they ever began by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil ar, but their anti-fascist legacy didn’t peter out with them. Two hundred of the athletes would later fight alongside the Popular Front against Franco’s government during the Civil War. The Games were ideologically charged at their birth and remained so after their death. These Games were more than a protest. They were a response to the allegations of impotence and antiquity levelled by the fascists against the forces of democracy. They were a demonstration of the virility and youth of the anti-fascist movement. In the 1930s, physical force and political power were inseparable – the Popular Olympians were fighting fire with fire.

Samuel Lake

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