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The myth of sports and repressive regimes

David Clay Large, professor of history at Montana State University, writes in the New York Times (see full article here):

Few Olympics are as famous as the 1936 Berlin Games, whose 75th anniversary falls this month. The publicity that accompanied the competition, held under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, supposedly tamed the Nazi regime.

But much of that story is myth. Indeed, the Olympics gave the Nazis a lesson in how to hide their vicious racism and anti-Semitism, and should offer today’s International Olympic Committee a cautionary tale when considering the location of future events.

When the committee awarded the Olympics to Berlin in 1931 … committee soon came under pressure from Jewish and leftist groups, which threatened to boycott the Games.

The committee held firm, but promised that the Games would 'open up' the Third Reich, that international attention would force it to tone down its repressive measures.

While it’s clear that the Games failed to “open up” the Third Reich, it remains widely believed that, to placate visitors, Hitler’s government cut back its persecution of Jews during the summer [of 1936]  — in other words, that the Games achieved some of what the committee promised.

But the truth is more nuanced. Although the regime did discourage open anti-Semitism, this directive pertained only to Berlin. Outside the capital, the Nuremberg Laws remained in full effect.

The Games were even counterproductive in this respect: not only did such cosmetic steps assuage criticism of the Nazis, but they taught the regime how easy it was to mislead the global public.

This is not to say that the Games should be held only in politically ‘clean’ countries.

But instead of blindly celebrating the alleged openness of repressive regimes that host the event, the international community should use it as an opportunity to hold them to the values that [the Games] claim to represent.

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