Boycotting the Olympics: Lessons from the 1936 Berlin Games and Human Rights Reform

By Ann-Renee Rubia

Olympics in a Dictatorship 

In recent years, the Chinese government has received significant scrutiny from the international community due to their widespread human rights abuses. According to the United Nations, China has relocated over 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims in western China to “re-education camps,” where they have been subjected to torture, religious restrictions, sterilizations, and harsh surveillance.  In Hong Kong, Chinese police forces have attacked largely peaceful protestors, imposing violent restrictions on their right to assembly. The demonstrators’ attempts to resist these restrictions were met by brutal beatings and teargas. In Inner Mongolia, the Chinese government has moved to suppress the local Mongolian culture and language by trying to impose the teaching of Mandarin in schools over Mongolian —  this is consistent with similar Chinese initiatives to suppress the Uyghur, Tibetan, and Cantonese languages in the Tarim Basin, Tibet, and Hong Kong respectively. 

In response to China’s behavior, more than 160 human rights groups around the world have signed a letter calling for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reverse its decision to hold the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Despite evidence that China’s human rights record has only worsened since it was awarded the Winter Olympics in 2015, IOC President Thomas Bach has cautioned against an Olympic boycott “because of political background or nationality.” Though Bach later claimed he was referring to political gestures (e.g. kneeling during the national anthem), and not to the 2022 Games, his comments match the IOC’s refusal to take a stand on human rights issues.

Credit: Uyghur Human Rights Project

The Olympics have the potential to transform a country, especially politically and economically.  For example, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing marked China’s entrance onto the world stage as a major economic power. In 1988, the Olympic Games in Seoul led to the gradual introduction of democracy and economic growth in South Korea, which was at the time under a military dictatorship. Overall, there are many benefits to hosting the Olympics, including increased tourism, foreign trade, improved infrastructure, and increased civil or national pride.

Despite the Olympic boost enjoyed by host countries in the past, the sporting event has not always been a catalyst for liberalization. Despite expectations that the 2008 Olympics would be the first step in liberalizing and democratizing China, it only became more repressive and authoritarian in the years following the Games. Prior to the Olympics, tensions between Tibet and China escalated due to protests celebrating the 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Beijing’s rule.  According to interviews conducted by the Human Rights Watch, Chinese security forces used lethal force and brutal beatings against Tibetan protestors, resulting in the death of nineteen people.  Soon after, protests calling for Tibetan autonomy emerged around cities along the Olympic torch route, in a move that the New York Times labeled “a public relations nightmare.” As a result, the Chinese Communist Party tightened its  control on all media, thereby doubling-down on its authoritarian ways. The Chinese government continues to suppress the Tibetan people to this day, unencumbered by the protests surrounding the 2008 Olympics.

Despite the hope that Olympic games will help liberalize authoritarian countries, dictatorships tend to revel in the chance to host the ancient international sporting event. Perhaps most famously, the 1936 Berlin Olympics allowed the dictatorial, anti-Semitic regime of Nazi Germany to bask in the world’s attention. Using the Games as a platform to shape the Nazi Party’s image in a more favorable light, Adolf Hitler was able to temporarily distract the world’s attention from the atrocities going on beyond the stadium. The myth of Nazi “tolerance” surrounding the 1936 Olympics persists today, with a recent Tweet praising the historic sports gathering; in response, the official account for the Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz replied,  “For 2 weeks the Nazi dictatorship camouflaged its racist, militaristic character. It exploited the Games to impress foreign spectators with an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.”   

Fooling the World for 16 Days: The 1936 Berlin Olympics

Credit: Chicago Reader

Berlin had initially been awarded the opportunity to host the upcoming Olympics in 1931 while Germany was still a democracy under the Weimar Republic. It was originally hoped that the Olympics could be a sign that Germany was allowed to return to the global stage after years as an international pariah following World War I. These optimistic hopes for a democratic, well-adjusted Germany were dashed in 1933 when Hitler and the Nazis seized full dictatorial power. In 1935, they initiated a hateful racial policy against Jews and other groups through the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. In the following year, the Nazis came to see the Olympics as a chance to promote the notion of the “superior” Aryan race by demonstrating the athletic prowess of their “Aryan” German athletes. This, however, was dramatically dispelled due to the historic performance of Jesse Owens, the 28 year-old African-American sprinter who claimed four gold medals in track and field, much to the dismay of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

In an effort to ameliorate the racist, anti-Semitic reputation of the dictatorial government,  the Nazi regime moderated its anti-Jewish attacks in the weeks before and during the Olympic Games.  Nazi authorities quickly removed Berlin’s many “Jews Unwelcome” signs while they also limited the availability of print copies of Der Stürmer, the weekly anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper. At the same time, these superficial acts of “tolerance” did not mark the end of the Nazis’ violent race policy; mere weeks before the Games, the German Ministry of the Interior ordered the internment of 800 Roma residing in Berlin, in an attempt to “clean up” the soon to be tourist-crowded city.  As a result, the Nazi Party won the admiration of foreign visitors who praised the country for its tolerance and friendly hospitality, despite the presence of a concentration camp 22 miles north of the stadium. Once the Olympics were concluded and the foreign visitors had left, the Nazis returned to the public persecution of Jews, Roma, and other groups.

Looking Forward

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) violation of human rights should not be taken lightly nor ignored.  Just as the Berlin Olympics normalized Germany’s Nazi party and hid the Holocaust  and mass detention from the world, the 2022 Beijing Olympics have similar potential to distract the world from the Uyghur genocide and the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy and sovereignty.  Each country’s decision to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics rests not just on the willingness to challenge Beijing’s behavior, but also on the commitment to the statement: “never again.”

Title Image Credit: National Post