Five Circles of Sportswashing

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In new book, Pacific Professor Jules Boykoff examines sportswashing and racism in 1936 Berlin Olympics

Pacific University Professor Jules Boykoff recently celebrated the publication of his fifth book: The 1936 Berlin Olympics: Race, Power, and Sportswashing. The book expands on his previous work interrogating the racialized politics of sports mega-events and organizational bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It focuses on the origins of the modern Olympic Games and the 1936 Berlin Olympics that brought Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany to center stage—and what many people consider the first modern Olympic Games.

   Boykoff defines sportswashing as “when regimes, whether they are authoritarian or democratic use sports to try to wash away social problems that they are dealing with, to try to burnish their reputation in the public sphere.” In this book, Boykoff seeks to understand what role race played in the 1936 Olympics, as racist governmental policies and pseudoscientific theories were what the Third Reich sought to propagate through sportswashing and media coverage.

   While much of Boykoff’s previous work on sportswashing has been intended for academic audiences, this book is more accessible for non-academics and people who don’t follow sports—like me. One way he does this is by developing the characters of the event, from dictators to politicians, administrators, and athletes.

   “I was more interested in pursuing the stories of some of the lesser known African American athletes, not just Jesse Owens—who’s plenty interesting—but also lesser known runners who were successful, because they were standing up to forces of racism both inside the United States and, of course, in Germany as well,” Boykoff explained.

   He continued, “I tried to weave those stories in when they’re relevant. There’s a story about a high jumper named Margaret Gretel Bergman, who was German Jewish, who was the best high jumper in the country, but was excluded because she was Jewish.” The book shows how African American and Jewish athletes went on to perform so well in the 1936 Olympic Games that they stood as living refutations of Nazi theories of Aryan supremacy.

   For me, one of the most fascinating (and horrifying) insights from the book is that, as Boykoff writes, “Nazis modeled their policies off of laws in the US like the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. . . As early as 1928, Hitler praised the US for its brutal persecution of Native Americans, how it had ‘gunned down millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage.’” American scientists promoting racist theories of eugenics underpinned Nazi policies like the Nuremburg Laws “(t)hat rendered Jews as ‘subjects’ rather than citizens.” This Nazi policy was enacted in 1935 amid calls in the US to boycott the Berlin Olympics. However, as Boykoff explained in our interview, “in stepped ‘Slavery Avery’ Brundage, the antisemitic guy who at the time was a US Olympic honcho, and he said he would take care of it.” Brundage traveled to Germany, “drank the Nazi Kool Aid,” and returned to undercut the boycott campaign.

   Eventually, “Slavery Avery” became the president of the IOC in 1952, boosted by his influence in the Berlin Olympics. Boykoff’s book centers figures of power to show how much antisemitic, racist, and sexist overlap there was between higher-ups of the growing mega-sports organizations and Nazi officials.

   Boykoff’s criticism of the IOC doesn’t stop with the early games. He pointed out examples of sportswashing in the 2008 and 2022 Beijing Olympics, the 2016 Rio Olympics, and most recently, the Men’s World Cup in Qatar. When asked how mega-sports events could become more ethical, or if there is a practical alternative, Boykoff responded, “My thinking has evolved a lot over the years—I’ve been thinking about this deeply. And I think at this point, the only way to have anything resembling a kind of ethical Olympics would be to get rid of the International Olympic Committee in its entirety, and FIFA isn’t much better. They might even be worse in certain respects.”

   In researching The 1936 Berlin Olympics: Race, Power, and Sportswashing, most of his research for this book centered on newspaper archives from around the world. Boykoff explained, “To see all the positive press that Hitler got in, say, the New York Times—they couldn’t heap enough praise on top of Hitler’s shoulders. It was pretty remarkable. And that was part of the sportswashing—you use the event to try to erase the fact that you’re literally trying to erase Jewish people from society (and erase is a euphemistic way of putting it of course), and instead focus on how powerful and wonderful Germany is to be able to put together this complex event.”

   If I could tell you about the whole book, I would, but you’ll just have to pick up a copy for yourself at the Pacific University library, the bookstore, or online. — Lane Johnson


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