Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In 1931, the International Olympics Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympic Games to Berlin, thereby facilitating Germany’s acceptance to the world of nations after years as an international pariah in the wake of World War I. And then came Hitler.

Soon after Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933, some American citizens, infuriated by Germany’s refusal to permit Jewish athletes to participate in the games, protested America sending its athletes to Berlin, the first time in the history of the modern Olympics that a boycott was demanded because of human rights abuses.


Shamefully, some leading Jewish groups, particularly the American Jewish Committee and B’nai Brith, did not publicly support a boycott because they feared triggering an anti-Semitic backlash, both at home and in Germany.

In an attempt to quell the steadily growing boycott movement, and in one of the greatest farces of all time, the American Olympic Committee (AOC) sent its president, Avery Brundage – a proud anti-Semite and an admirer of the Führer – to discuss the issue with the Nazis.

Hitler argued that the Jews were not victims of discrimination but, rather, that as a race distinct from the German people, they could not compete as members of the German team and were therefore grouped into separate sports federations. After a brief and tightly-managed inspection of German sports facilities, Brundage publicly proclaimed that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly and, to the surprise of virtually no one, he advised the AOC to accept Germany’s invitation.

He received support from the president of the International Olympic Committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who wrote to him, “I am not personally fond of Jews and of the Jewish influence.” Despite the Nuremberg Laws enacted on September 15, 1935, most the world joined Brundage in manifesting deliberate myopia with respect to situation of the Jews of Germany.

In an AOC “Fair Play for American Athletes” brochure, Brundage wrote that that American athletes should not become entangled in any “Jew-Nazi altercation.” He even went so far as to argue that George Washington would have urged the United States not to interfere with foreign affairs and, as the anti-Olympics controversy grew toward the end of 1935, he alleged a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the U.S. out of the Games.

Original newspaper photograph showing Jeremiah Maloney, retiring executive of the AAU (left), congratulating Avery Brundage, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, on the latter’s election as president of the Amateur Athletic Union at the close of its convention in New York, December 8, 1935.

At the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meeting at the Hotel Lexington on December 8, 1935 (see exhibit), Brundage convinced the AAU in a bitter and very close contest to vote in favor of American participation in the Nazi Olympics, and other countries that had been contemplating a boycott fell quickly in line.

President Roosevelt received briefings about the treatment of Jewish athletes in Germany and warnings from several high American diplomats that Hitler was playing the United States for propaganda purposes, and William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany, condemned the AOC’s decision to go to Berlin.

Nonetheless, FDR refused to take a position on the boycott issue, claiming that the AOC had to operate freely and independent of any outside political pressure – even though he was then serving as honorary president of the AOC – and the games not only went forward with America’s participation, but the U.S. team was the largest by far in the Olympics.

When the 1936 Games of the XI Olympiad were held in August 1936, the Nazis had already commenced construction of labor camps, political prisons, and concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, located a mere 22 miles north of the Olympic stadium in Berlin.

Hitler was determined to use the Olympics as a showcase for his Aryan ideal, and he took extraordinary steps to put on the most grandiose Olympics of all time, including building a new 100,000-seat track and field stadium and an ultra-modern Olympic village. He sought to prove to the world that that Germans were indeed “the Master Race” and to exhibit Aryan supremacy through the anticipated heroics of his German athletes.

Toward that end, he commissioned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl through the German Olympic Committee to film the Games, and her film, “Olympia,” a masterpiece of propaganda, pioneered many of the techniques now common in filming sports.

Allowing Jewish participation in his games was antithetical to Hitler’s goals of promoting his ideals of racial supremacy and, with a handful of token exceptions, German Jewish athletes were barred from the Nazi Olympics. Other countries were “strongly discouraged” from sending Jewish athletes to Berlin, and many countries – including, sadly, the United States of America – sidelined Jewish athletes to avoid antagonizing their Nazi hosts.

In particular, two American Jewish sprinters who had made the U.S. Olympic squad as members of the 400-yard relay team, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, traveled to Germany and prepared for their race, only to be advised on the morning of the race that they had been scratched and replaced by two African American runners, one of whom was Jesse Owens, who selflessly protested that Glickman and Stoller deserved to run. To his dying day, Glickman maintained that the reason for his cancellation was anti-Semitism – by his own American coaches.

The Berlin Olympics are perhaps best known for the metaphorical slap in the face administered to Hitler by Jesse Owens – “a member of a mongrel race” according to the Nazis – who won four gold medals, though Germany did lead the field with 89 total medals to America’s 56 medals.

As one commentator beautifully put it, “a black man’s incredible success in a crucible of hate served as the ultimate rejection of the idea of white supremacy.” Nonetheless, the 1936 Olympics were an enormous propaganda triumph for Hitler, who successfully buried his “Jewish problem” and presented the Third Reich to the world as a peaceful and tolerant nation.

Collection of “Boycott Nazi goods” labels.

The remarkable, albeit little-remembered, story of the alternative anti-Nazi Olympics begins in February 1934 when, in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) was formed by mostly Yiddish-speaking immigrant trade union leaders, including leaders of established groups such as the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, the Jewish Labor Bund, and the United Hebrew Trades.

Representatives who assembled at a conference on New York’s Lower East Side elected Baruch Charney Vladeck as the JLC’s first president and established ambitious goals for the organization, including providing support of Jewish labor institutions in Europe; assisting the anti-Hitler underground movement and Nazi victims; working together with American organized labor in fighting anti-democratic forces; and combating anti-Semitism in America. Vladeck (1886-1938) was an American labor leader, manager of the Jewish Daily Forward, and a member of the New York City Council.

At the 1933 American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention, Vladeck and Jewish union leaders convinced the AFL to support a boycott of Nazi goods. At the AFL annual convention a year later, he convinced the delegates that the Nazi persecution of Jews should be viewed as part of a general assault on labor rights and political liberty, in response to which the AFL created the “Labor Chest” to aid victims of fascism and financed a variety of other JLC-inspired educational and aid projects.

When Brundage and the American Olympics Committee declined to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Vladek and the JLC snapped into action. Along with Executive Secretary Isaiah Minkoff, Vladeck began to organize a massive anti-Nazi demonstration to take place simultaneously with the Nazi Olympics, which would be open to all amateur athletes “regardless of race, creed, color or political affiliations.”

World Labor Athletic Carnival program.

This World Labor Athletic Carnival – which also came to be known as the “Counter-Olympics” – was designed to provide a public voice to New Yorkers and the citizens of the world who opposed the very idea of holding the Olympics in Hitler’s Germany, thereby conferring prestige on and legitimacy to the Third Reich. An important side-benefit of the program was to provide a broad public forum to the JLC and other groups actively opposing the Nazis.

Holding the Counter-Olympics in New York, the center of Jewish culture in the United States with its large Jewish population, was a no-brainer but, ironically, it was a leading New York Catholic politician, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, who led the effort to convince the New York Olympic committee to withdraw from the 1936 Olympics and who was the principal organizer of the Counter-Olympics.

The JLC was ultimately joined by a coalition of New York left-wing political organizations, labor unions, and the Socialist and Communist parties. Mahoney, a former president of the United States Amateur Athletics Union, had served as a former New York state supreme court justice and lost the 1934 mayoral election to Fiorello LaGuardia. A leader in the “Move the Olympics” movement, he resigned from the American Olympic Committee to protest holding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Mahoney and LaGuardia, former political opponents, appeared together at a Dec 3, 1935 rally at the Mecca Temple for Shriners on W. 55th Street in New York, where they jointly implored Americans to join the boycott movement against the Hitler Olympics. They were joined by many other political leaders and read letters of support from state governors and senators, but it was the passionate oratory of LaGuardia, himself of Jewish descent – his mother was Jewish and was raised in an Orthodox home – that most roused the throng.

As discussed above, only a few days later, the AAU voted for the United States to go to Berlin, creating a powerful additional incentive for the managers and supporters of the Counter-Olympics to go forward with their event. The World Labor Athletic Carnival was designed as a restrained alternative to the Nazi Olympics, but it held only track and field competitions and was never envisioned as the leading democratic alternative to the Berlin Games.

That role was to have been played by a “People’s Olympics” that had been scheduled to commence on July 17, 1936 in Barcelona, Spain. The Barcelona Games posed a genuine challenge to Hitler’s Olympics, as many thousands of anti-fascist athletes and enthusiasts gathered there, including seven American athletes sent by the Committee for Fair Play in Sports.

Also attending was a delegation of 20-30 Jewish athletes from Eretz Yisrael that featured a highly-ranked soccer team with players drawn from well-regarded Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Haifa teams. Unfortunately, the planned games had to be cancelled at the last minute because the city had been made unsafe by the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

The JLC had great influence in New York City’s political affairs. In particular, David Dubinsky, JLC treasurer and head of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and a force to be reckoned with, brought his union’s powerful support for the Counter-Olympics to the table. Dubinsky convinced New York Parks Superintendent Robert Moses and Mayor La Guardia to permit the Counter-Olympics to be held at Downy Municipal Stadium on Randall’s Island, where the Olympic trials featuring Jesse Owens had been held. Important support was also provided by American Federation of Labor President William Green.

The executive director of the Counter-Olympics was Abe Tuvim (1895-1959), who served as president of the American Federations of Musicians (1929-1937), as a member of the American Strategy Council (1944), and as executive director of JNF America (1951-1958). He also played an important part in winning American support for the creation of Israel. Co-chairs of the event included Governor Herbert Lehman, who attended the games and presented the prizes, and Mayor LaGuardia.

During the two-day event held August 15-16, 1936, the Labor Carnival brought together some 400 athletes from around the United States and abroad, including teams representing New York union locals. At AAU events, prizes included a gold watch for the winner, a gold medal for the runner-up, and a silver medal for the third-place finisher, and the “Governor Lehman trophy” was awarded to the team scoring the most aggregate points in open events.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although the Counter-Olympics had gained the endorsement of the Amateur Athletic Union, the highest body for such competitions, AAU Secretary David Ferris wrote to Brundage that he had nothing to worry about because all the best athletes would be at the Olympics and the Counter-Olympics would not present any kind of substantive threat.

He was correct. As one critic described it, “it was a display more of solidarity than actual competition.” Except for George Varoff, who set a world record by pole vaulting a remarkable 14’ 4-1/2” – a full 1-1/2 inches better than the gold medal winner in Berlin – the performances were generally mediocre. Moreover, the event was a box office flop – notwithstanding broad publicity generated by the Jewish press and the union papers – and the two-day attendance was only 18,000, far lower than expected.

The pundits provide many explanations for the failure, but the biggest reason was undoubtedly the lack of interest in watching athletes who were not generally good enough to make the Olympics – though a few international competitors did participate, including pole vaulter Varoff, high-jumper Walter Marty, and sprinters Eulace Peacock and Perrin Walker – and thus this interesting event in Jewish history was quickly forgotten.


Previous articleRedeeming Relevance: Parshat Nasso: Sotah and the Metaphor of Monogamy
Next articleReport: Security Cabinet Approves Agreement to End Operation, Ceasefire to Begin 2 AM Friday
Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at