Why Grandpa Boycotted the Olympics

I can imagine how difficult it must have been to call for a U.S. boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Germany.

My father often spoke of the day my grandfather, Rabbi Louis I. Newman, brought the legendary Yankees player Lou Gehrig to speak to the children of the Temple Rodeph Sholom Sunday school in New York. Knowing what a passionate sports fan my grandfather was, I can imagine the great pleasure he must have derived from that experience. For the same reason, I can imagine how difficult it must have been for him to take up the mantle of calling for a U.S. boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Germany.

In the lead-up to today's opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather's role in the 1936 boycott movement. One can catch a glimpse of his steely personality in a photograph that appears in the current exhibit about the 1936 Games at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There he is, on the speakers platform at an Olympic boycott rally in the 1930s, ready to fight the good fight, even when it meant clashing with one of his true loves, the world of sports.

The International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 games to Germany prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler. But even after the Nazis came to power and began persecuting Germany's Jews, the IOC refused to move the games. It argued that sports and politics should not be mixed, and it accepted at face value Hitler's promise to allow Jewish athletes onto the German teams.

A number of prominent Americans urged a boycott of the Games. The boycotters included not only Jewish leaders such as my grandfather, but also some members of Congress, as well as organizations such as the Catholic War Veterans and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They argued that participation in the Berlin Olympics would help legitimize the Hitler regime, and that the Nazis would exploit the games to improve their international image and divert the world's attention away from their human rights violations.

Very few American athletes joined the boycott, according to new research by Rafael Medoff, of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. It's not easy to sacrifice something for which you have been training for years, perhaps your entire life. Still, it's regrettable that the names of those who stayed away have been forgotten, amid the understandable attention showered upon Jesse Owens, the African-American track star whose Olympic victories showed up Hitler's theory of Aryan racial superiority. (Owens' Jewish teammate Marty Glickman traveled to Berlin, but was pulled from the 4x100 meter relay race by the coaches of the U.S. track team to please their Nazi hosts.)

One can hear echoes of the arguments of the 1930s in today's debates regarding China's policies. For all the differences between modern China and 1930s Germany, the fact is that by suppressing the people of Tibet and those who wish to promote democratic ideals and human rights in China, supporting the government that is perpetrating genocide in Sudan, and helping Syria build nuclear weapons sites, Beijing has given its critics ample reason to protest.

Some advocate quiet diplomacy, or business as usual; they say that criticism will only provoke the Chinese to dig in their heels. On the other hand, Hollywood figures such as Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg, and journalists such as Nicholas Kristof and Nat Hentoff, have energetically sought to draw attention to China's outrageous policies. Joey Cheek, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist in speed skating, helped create Team Darfur to generate criticism of Beijing from within the sports world. For his efforts, his visa to attend the games was revoked by the Chinese government the day before he was to leave for Beijing.

If my grandfather were alive today, he might have gone further and urged a boycott of the Games, as he did in 1936. My guess is that he would have rejected the "don't mix sports with politics" argument, on the grounds that it is Beijing that is doing the mixing, by asking the nations of the world to treat it like a freedom-loving regime when its policies reflect the opposite.

Reasonable people have differed on the question of whether a boycott of these Games is the most effective tactic. But by now, the lesson we have learned is that silence is not effective. In order to be granted the Games, China made commitments to freedom of information and human rights that it has not fulfilled. Inside China there are many activists yearning for greater freedoms and they need to know that we stand with them precisely at this time when the world, and the Chinese government, is watching. China's tremendous economic growth in the past decade means that the social preconditions for democratization are falling into place. A few well-chosen words while the whole world is watching could show symbolic support for the freedom of one-fifth of the world's population.

Earlier this year, a number of world leaders said they were considering staying away from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, to protest Chinese actions in Darfur and elsewhere. This would have been a symbolic protest, to be sure, but certainly appropriate. Symbols are important, both to the Chinese government and those who resist their policies. As the Games drew closer, however, most leaders, including President George W. Bush, decided to attend the opening. The most prominent international leader to boycott the opening ceremony is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Surely, Germany understands the implications of international silence. The rest of the freedom-loving world would do well to learn from the past, too.

Prof. Saul Newman teaches political science in the Department of Government at American University.