The Real Heroes of Hitler’s Olympics–and China’s

by Rafael Medof

The recent passing of John Woodruff, the last survivor of the African-American track stars who won gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, brings back memories of the controversy over those games. But Woodruff’s experience also offers an important lesson for the athletes who are preparing to take part in the 2008 Olympics in China.

During the months preceding the 1936 Olympics, many prominent Americans called for boycotting the games to protest the Nazis’ persecution of German Jewry. The July 1935 pogrom in Berlin, and the promulgation of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws two months later, increased U.S. public opposition to the games. In addition to American Jewish organizations, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also endorsed the boycott.

Nonetheless, African-American athletes chose to compete in the games. Woodruff was the first of five black U.S. athletes, including Jesse Owens, who between them won eight gold medals in the track and field competition in Berlin. Adolf Hitler was widely reported to be embarrassed at this apparent rebuff to his claims of Aryan racial superiority, a fact which elevated the black track stars to the status of heroes back home.

But there was another kind of hero in 1936: the handful of American athletes who took a moral stand and risked their careers by refusing to participate in the Nazi Olympics.

A number of American Jewish athletes refused to go to Berlin, including championship jumper Syd Koff, who had won four gold medals at the 1932 Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv and had qualified for the 1936 team; sprinter Herman Neugass, from Tulane University (“It’s my unequivocal opinion nobody should go because of the way Jews are treated,” he wrote to a New Orleans newspaper, explaining his decision); and Harvard track and field stars Norman Cahners and Milton Green.

Only one non-Jewish American athlete joined the boycott: speed skater Jack Shea, who had won a gold medal in the 1932 games and had every reason to expect he would qualify for the 1936 team. But Shea never tried out for the 1936 team; his conscience would not let him. In October 1934, he announced publicly that he would not take part in the Berlin games, as a protest against the mistreatment of Germany’s Jews.

Sadly, Shea’s courage is barely acknowledged even in the Olympic community. Although he was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame two years ago, the reason for his refusal to take part in the Nazi Olympics is still not adequately explained on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s own web site.
Nor have the Jewish athletes who refused to go been accorded appropriate recognition for their brave stance.

As the 2008 China Olympics approach, American athletes face a moral dilemma similar to that which Shea and his colleagues faced in the 1930s.

China is not Nazi Germany. But the fact is that the government of China brutally suppresses human rights (has the Tiannenmen Square massacre already been forgotten?); has provided advanced missile technology and other weapons to rogue regimes such as Syria, North Korea, and Iran; and is the single most important supporter of the genocidal government of Sudan.

China has been “a major impediment” to attempts by the United Nations Security Council to impose stronger sanctions on Sudan, the Save Darfur Coalition points out. Beijing is the largest foreign purchaser of Sudanese oil, the largest foreign investor in Sudan, and Sudan’s largest trading partner. The Chinese have also been arming Sudan’s government to the teeth. Among other things, they have provided Sudan with some $100-million worth of fighter aircraft and military helicopters, and built three weapons factories in Sudan, one of which manufactures tanks–all in violation of the UN’s arms embargo. According to the Save Darfur Coalition, Chinese-made weapons and trucks have been used by the government-backed Arab militias (the “janjaweed”) that are carrying out the massacres in Darfur.

The athletes who hope to take part in the 2008 Olympics in China might naturally dream of following in the footsteps of John Woodruff, an underdog who surprised the world with his athletic accomplishments in Berlin. But their real role model should be Jack Shea, whose moral accomplishment was greater than anything that can ever be achieved on a track or a skating rink. Will any of today’s athletes have the courage to take a stand against the Darfur genocide by boycotting the regime that is making genocide possible?

November 2007