BOOK REVIEW

Andrew MARANISS. 2019. Games of deception: The true story of the first US Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany. New York: Philomel Books, 240 pp. ISBN 9780525514633

Octavian SOFRONEA [a]


Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series]

Vol. XXIII, Issue 1, pp. 143-146

https://doi.org/10.54885/OINP7192 | Download PDF

[a] Department of Comparative Governance and European Studies, Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest, Romania octavian.sofronea@unibuc.ro

In 1931, when Berlin was chosen to organize the 1936 Olympics, few people suspected that, in less than two years, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party would gain power. Even though Hitler’s cruelty was not fully apparent yet, Jewish groups in various countries asked for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics, and in the United States a boycott proposal was launched. The Games were saved, with many efforts, by Avery Brundage, the President of the American Olympic Committee at that time. To understand how powerful the idea of a boycott was, one may remember that an alternative People’s Olympics was scheduled to take place in Barcelona, Spain, but it was canceled at the last moment because the Spanish Civil War broke out the day before competition was set to begin.

Nowadays, the 1936 Olympics are best remembered for Hitler’s attempt to use them as an instrument of propaganda to prove his theories of Aryan racial superiority (Krüger & Murray 2003; Large 2007). The Nazi regime filled the event with its own symbols but offered various excuses for their actions and visuals. Conveniently for the Reich in that context, the President of the organizing committee, Theodore Lewald, had Jewish descent. At the huge Olympic stadium, Hitler was also often in the presence of African American athletes. As it turned out, even among Germans, the most popular hero of the Games was Jesse Owens, the African American sprinter and long jumper, who won four gold medals. At the same time, during the long jump competition, Owens’ German “rival,” Luz Long, publicly befriended him in front of the Nazis. Nonetheless, Hitler used any pretext to avoid shaking the hands of the African American athletes and to be absent from the awarding ceremonies.

The new volume of Andrew Maraniss brings back to the public attention this particular context, through a comprehensive account of the first basketball competition within the Olympic Games. The 25 chapters tell the story of the tournament, offer details about its preparations and the potential boycott of the 1936 edition, and discuss the contribution that basketball brought to the Olympic movement. A US non-fiction writer specialized in subjects related to various sports popular in the US, Maraniss addresses a specific moment from the history of basketball that had an impact on the US public, but which can interest larger audiences, including for the political implications of the event. As this was the first edition to include basketball as an Olympic sport, the conditions were far from being adequate. The tournament was held in an improvised arena, outdoors, in a tennis stadium, on courts of clay and sand surrounded by a raised concrete border (Chapter 21). This affected the performance of all teams but had an impact particularly in the final between the US and Canada, when it rained and the court tuned into a mud field. That match ended with the victory of the US team (19-8) but, for both political and technical reasons, the story could have been very different. Most significantly, some of the players of the US team were also members of the Universal Pictures team, the winner of the US trials. Universal did not want their players to participate in an Olympics organized by the Nazis, threatening to fire any athlete who traveled to Berlin (Chapter 8). The players, one of whom, Sam Balter, was Jewish, decided to go anyway and raised the money for the voyage by playing exhibition games (Chapter 12). At the same time, during the tournament, the International Basketball Federation ruled that any player taller than 6 feet 3 inches (1.90 meters) could not play in the Olympics. The US, which would have lost three players, objected, and the rule was withdrawn (Chapter 9).

The photos included in the volume provide a useful addition to the narrative, offering more nuance to a story that, far from being only about sport, provides plenty of opportunities to reflect about the politics of the time and the politics of sport. A photo of the moment when the American basketball delegation received the gold medal (Chapter 23) was of course to be expected. But at the end of the ceremony, there was one extra medal left. This was for Dr. James Naismith, who invented basketball 45 years before the Berlin Olympics. The book also contains a unique photo of a ticket from the very first day of Olympic basketball (7th of August 1936), with the signature of Carl Diem (Chapter 22), a key actor in the 1936 edition of the Games. To present a better image of Germany, the Nazis outdid themselves, sparing no expense in preparing for the staging of the Olympics. They intensified their propaganda and press campaign to praise German preparations. There were many newspapers promoting the event and, during the Games, the daily Olympia Zeitung was printed and distributed widely. In fact, no other edition of modern Olympic Games has witnessed such a wide press coverage. The coordinator of these activities was none other than Carl Diem.

The 1936 Olympics were also the first to be broadcasted. More than twenty large screens were set up throughout Berlin, allowing the local people to see the Games for free. The image of the Olympic Stadium is impressive. The opening and closing ceremonies took place in a 110.000-seat arena (Chapter 21). The Berlin Games also produced the first noteworthy official film, Olympia, directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Olympia was part of the Nazi plan to bring to the world the myth and mysticism of Adolf Hitler’s regime. Leni Riefenstahl, born in 1902, became interested in the world of film at an early age, and quickly ascended in the hierarchy of the German film industry. Most significantly, in 1933, she filmed the Nüremberg party meeting and her job editing the final version was highly appreciated. Then, in 1934, she outdid herself directing the film Triumph of the Will. Her work impressed not only Hitler, but the entire International Olympic Committee. They commissioned Riefenstahl to direct a documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, when it was released, Olympia became a definitive standard for future sports documentaries. On this matter, Maraniss is less critical than more substantive analyses of Riefenstahl’s contribution (Graham 1986; McFee & Tomlin 1999; Mackenzie 2003), noting that, although intended as a piece of Nazi propaganda, the film ended up being a celebration of the human spirit.

The Games provided a temporary distraction from Nazi domestic and foreign policies. Even though the result was short-lived, the festivities and public performances provided the regime some semblance of respectability. Because of the Games, two other events that occurred in 1936, namely, Germany’s withdrawal from the Locarno Pact and the occupation and remilitarization of the Rhineland, which was a violation of the Treaty of Versailles, were largely ignored. In August, military service became mandatory for all German men and Hitler revealed his plans for war. The Olympics were nothing more than a planned peace interlude, another successful foreign policy for Hitler, and sport was just another weapon in the Nazi arsenal. Against this background, Maraniss offers the most comprehensive story of the first Olympic basketball team of the US, while attempting to explain the complicated international relations of those times, the challenge of the Nazi regime, the boycott that could have destroyed the Olympic movement, and the symbolic moment of medal awards. Although targeting mostly the general public and those who love to read about sports and about basketball in particular, due to its collection of carefully documented data the volume can be also a valuable instrument for experts and researchers in the field of sports and politics.

REFERENCES

GRAHAM, Cooper C. 1986. Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. London: Scarecrow Press.

KRÜGER, Arnd & Willian J. MURRAY, eds. 2003. The Nazi Olympics: Sport, politics, and appeasement in the 1930s. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

LARGE, David Clay. 2007. Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936. New York: W.W. Norton.

MACKENZIE, Michael. 2003. From Athens to Berlin: The 1936 Olympics and Reni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Critical Inquiry 29(2): 302-336. https://doi.org/10.1086/374029

McFEE, Graham & Alan TOMLIN. 1999. Riefenstahl's Olympia: Ideology and aesthetics in the shaping of the Aryan athletic body. The International Journal of the History of Sport 16(2): 86-106. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523369908714072

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The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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CITE THIS ARTICLE

SOFRONEA, Octavian. 2021. Review of Games of deception: The true story of the first US Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany by Andrew Maraniss. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] 23(1): 143-146. https://doi.org/10.54885/OINP7192