Beijing hosts Olympics

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politcal mattersPolitical Matters motored to Washington, D.C., in June, for the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA). When I’m not writing this column, I edit and publish the American Jewish World, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community in Minnesota. The AJPA gathering provides an opportunity to meet my colleagues from around the country and compare notes. It’s a difficult time for the newspaper industry, which is dealing with declining readership and revenues.

The conference involves a lot of seminars, so I spent most of three days in hotel meeting rooms. I did find time to attend a Washington Nationals game in the new $600 million Nationals Park – great ballpark, truly horrible team. On my last afternoon in D.C., I toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (On my next visit I hope to see the National Museum of the American Indian.)

A small group from the AJPA contingent was treated to a tour of “The

Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” by the exhibition’s curator, historian

Susan Bachrach. The special exhibit, which will be on view through Aug.

17, has a special resonance in the midst of the ongoing controversy

over the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. There are calls from around the

world to boycott the Beijing Games because of Chinese repression in

Tibet, and the government’s support of the Sudanese regime, which is

waging a campaign of genocide in the province of Darfur.

Past is prologue, as they say. There also were voices urging a boycott

of the Berlin Games, to protest the Nazi regime’s dictatorial and

anti-Semitic policies. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)

awarded the Olympic Games to Berlin in 1931; two years later, Adolf

Hitler became Germany’s chancellor and set about to eliminate all

political opposition. Of course, the Nazis, and their henchmen in other

countries, destroyed two-thirds of European Jewry, six million souls,

including one and half million children. The Nazis’ industrialized

process of mass murder – of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), the physically and

developmentally disabled, and other “undesirables” – epitomizes evil in

the modern world.

“The Nazi Olympics” provides fascinating insights into a period when

sports became a tool of Nazi propaganda, which promoted the doctrine of

“Aryan” racial superiority. Jews, such as Gretel Bergmann, a

world-class high jumper, were expelled from the German Olympic team in

1936. The Nazis wanted to bar all Jewish athletes from the Games, but

backed down in the face of a threatened boycott. Jesse Owens, the great

African American athlete, won four gold medals in Berlin, which belied

Nazi claims of Aryan supremacy; Hitler, faced with the choice of

shaking Owens’ hand or foregoing handshakes with all the winning

athletes, chose the latter option.

While touring the exhibit, I thought about Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox

Tribe from Oklahoma) the All-American in football at Carlisle

Industrial Indian School, who won the gold in the decathlon and the

pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. At the

medals presentation, King Gustav V of Sweden grabbed Thorpe by the hand

and declared: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe

later described his accomplishment in Stockholm as the proudest moment

in his life. At the ceremony, he simply replied, “Thanks, king.”

Thorpe’s Olympic triumph, however, was short-lived. Six months after

winning his gold medals, Thorpe was charged with taking money to play

baseball in North Carolina several years earlier. (“Pop” Warner also

provided cash to Thorpe when he played at Carlisle.) The Amateur

Athletic Union and the American Olympic Committee asked Thorpe to

return the medals he won in Stockholm and erased his name from the

record books.

In the case of the black athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, they

were feted by the Germans then returned to an America where “Jim Crow,”

racial segregation, was still pervasive. It’s nice to think of the

Olympics as an arena of pure athletic competition; but politics will

intrude again at the Beijing Olympic Games. And Visa, a corporate

sponsor of the Olympics, will feature Jim Thorpe in their advertising

campaign.

Sheila White Eagle

My April column of Political Matters was devoted to honoring the life

of Sheila WhiteEagle, who worked diligently for the betterment of the

Indian community. On June 7, Sheila lost her four-year battle with

breast cancer. She was the director of the St. Paul Area Council of

Churches’ Department of Indian Work program for more than 20 years. The

Council of Churches Web site has a touching memorial to Sheila, in

words and photos, at: www.spacc.org. May her memory be a blessing to

those who knew her and are mourning her loss.