While the U.S. Olympic team sailed to Europe, Nazi soldiers in Berlin were arresting thousands of Romani families and sending them to detention camps, where foreigners wouldn’t be able to see them. Only a few years later, most of them would be murdered in death camps. Goebbels had converted Berlin into “a place where illusion could be perfected,” so that journalists and statesmen would return to their own countries singing praises for Hitler’s country. Goebbels arranged for international journalists attempting to interview Berlin’s Jews about their lives to be referred to state offices, so that they wouldn’t learn anything that could damage the Reich’s reputation. Leni Riefenstahl prepared her team of cameramen to film the Olympics, instructing them to film Hitler and his entourage from below eye level so that they looked larger than life.
While many visitors to the Olympics saw Berlin as a beautiful, civilized city, Brown emphasizes the true horrors of the situation: beneath the bright, friendly façade of the Olympics, Germany was becoming one of the most brutal, sadistic states in the world. Nevertheless, thanks to the ingenuity of Goebbels and Riefenstahl, among others, the Nazis were able to conceal evidence of their evils and project an image of benevolence and even of tolerance. By strictly controlling journalists’ access, Goebbels ensured that these they would write only flattering stories.
During the voyage to Europe, Roger Morris and Don Hume became very seasick and lost a lot of weight. Joe didn’t get too seasick, but he resented that the ships cook wouldn’t serve him more food. He liked the blue Olympic uniform he’d been issued, however, considering that he “had worn the same rumpled sweater to rowing practice for a year.” During the voyage, he and the rest of team worked out with the rowing machine, but Ulbrickson quickly ordered them not to, arguing that too much machine rowing would interfere with their form on the water. The teammates succeeded in lifting the ban on large portions of food, though Ulbrickson stopped them from eating anything too fattening.
During the voyage, Don Hume became seriously ill, and didn’t fully recover until after the Olympics were over—adding more questions about the Americans’ chances. Joe loved his new uniform, conscious, perhaps, of how his prowess as a rower had brought him new respect and opportunities for social advancement. Strangely, Ulbrickson didn’t want his athletes working out during their long voyage, meaning that they inevitably gained weight and lost some of their muscle toning.
Eleanor Holm, a gold medalist in swimming, and one of the most popular athletes on the ship, was notorious for drinking. More than once, she stayed up late drinking champagne with journalists and friends. Even after Avery Brundage threatened to send her back to America, she continued drinking, and Brundage expelled her from the U.S. Olympic team. In the long run, Holm’s expulsion was good for her career, since it made her even more famous.
At the time, the consumption of alcohol was legal (Prohibition had been repealed in 1933), but Avery Brundage didn’t want an Olympic athlete embarrassing herself with drunken behavior. The way Brundage treated Holm may have reflected his sexist double standards (especially considering how much drinking the male Olympians did while in Berlin).
On July 21 the ship reached Ireland, and then proceeded to France. The ship finally arrived in Germany on the night of July 23. The oarsmen were glad to be at the end of their voyage—they hadn’t had a chance to exercise very much, and they had all gained weight. In Hamburg, the team listened as the city’s Bürgermeister (mayor) delivered a welcome address in German—a language none of them could understand. They arrived in Berlin by train that afternoon, and were stunned to find a lavish reception awaiting them. A bus carried the athletes toward the city hall. There, Avery Brundage accepted the keys to the city of Berlin and made a speech to the athletes. He declared, “No nation since ancient Greece has captured the true Olympic spirit as has Germany!”
Avery Brundage’s statement about the glory of the Nazis’ Olympics clearly reflected his own anti-Semitism, or at least his willingness to overlook “politics” in the name of “pure sport” (something arguably impossible in reality). However, the truth is that many visitors, including those who opposed the Nazis’ policies, were bowled over by the Olympic proceedings in Berlin. The Nazis saw themselves as the rightful heirs to the classical Western tradition of the Greeks and the Romans, so they must have been overjoyed by Brundage’s words of praise. Tragically, there were far too many powerful people who ignored Hitler’s brutal policies because they were distracted by the pomp and pageantry of the Olympics.
The Olympic team was to stay in the police cadet training academy, a beautiful, perfectly clean, modern building. Later that evening, Joe took a walk and passed by a Jewish synagogue, a Prussian mansion, and, finally, the regatta course at Grünau, where he’d be competing in a few days. Joe had no way of knowing Berlin’s “bloody secret”—indeed, he thought the neighborhood to be the most peaceful place he’d ever visited.
Evidently, Germany had allowed some Jewish synagogues to remain standing, in order to reassure international visitors that its policies against the Jews were less repressive than some had claimed. Because the Nazis took great care with the Olympic proceedings, they succeeded in fooling people like Joe into underestimating the danger of the Third Reich.
The next morning, the rowing team began training. Ulbrickson noticed that the Germany rowing team was highly disciplined. As the American team was preparing to practice, a photographer accidentally broke the Husky Clipper. Pocock worked to repair the shell while the team practiced in a less aerodynamic boat. Their form was sloppy—Ulbrickson hadn’t seen his team row so poorly in months. For the next few days, the team performed badly, and then spent afternoons exploring Berlin. When Germans greeted them by saying, “Heil, Hitler!”, they answered, “Heil, Roosevelt!” Then, Gordy Adam and Don Hume fell ill. Meanwhile, George Pocock studied the competition. The Italian and German teams were impressive, but the biggest threat was the British team.
In the era before commercial aviation, having to travel across the ocean to attend the Olympics was a major disadvantage—and here, it’s easy enough to see why. The American team was overweight and out of shape, while the German team had been training rigorously for months without interruption. However, the Americans didn’t allow their competitors to intimidate them—instead, they proudly stood up for their country. Pocock, an Englishman himself, recognized that the British team would be America’s main competitors. The modern sport of rowing was an English invention, and the British crew was still the most respected in the world.
On August 1, the Olympic Opening Ceremony took place—“perhaps the most spectacular public ceremony the world had yet seen.” Inside the Olympic stadium, Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels were, as usual, arguing. Riefenstahl wanted to place cameras in certain areas of the stage, while Goebbels thought that the cameras would be distracting and unsafe. Reifenstahl refused to move until Goebbels allowed her to place her camera close to Hitler; the conflict only ended when Hermann Göring, the Marshal of the Reichstag (and Hitler’s second-in-command), allowed the camera to remain in place. For the rest of the Olympics, however, Goebbels and Riefenstahl would continue to argue.
The Olympic Opening Ceremony was designed to impress Berlin’s international visitors, and by all accounts, it did. The Nazis were masters of ceremony and political pageantry—every public event was carefully choreographed, to the point where even a single unaccounted for camera could upset Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels and Riefenstahl quarreled behind the scenes of the Olympic ceremony but in public the Nazis projected an image of perfect unity.
In the afternoon, Adolf Hitler made his way to the stadium. He arrived at the stadium at exactly 4 pm, at which time over one hundred thousand Germans rose to their feet and cried his name. A little girl sang the German national anthem, and then the bell from the bell tower began to ring. The Olympic teams were invited to the stage, one by one, to raise their countries’ flags and listen to their national anthems. When the American team came to the stage, there were cheers but also whistling and stamped feet (the European counterpart to booing and catcalling). George Pocock remembers that the American athletes deliberately marched out of step with the music to sabotage the formality of the proceedings. Some of the Americans began singing “The gang’s all here,” even as the orchestra played Wagner and Strauss music.
At least on paper, the purpose of the Olympic opening ceremony was to celebrate international cooperation and the participating countries’ mutual respect. However, as the largely German audience’s whistles and foot stamps would indicate, the Olympics did not conceal (and in some ways enhanced) the rivalries between countries. By the same token, the Americans showed their subtle defiance for Germany by marching out of sync with the music and singing American songs that clashed with the formality of the orchestra’s classical (and German) music.
When all the athletes were assembled on the stage, the president of the German Olympic Committee read a long, boring speech, and then introduced Hitler, who promptly announced the games open. The orchestra swelled, and the Olympic flag was raised high. The ceremony was stunning—almost nobody in the audience had seen anything like it. Roger Morris and Johnny White agreed that it was “Grand” and “impressive.” In effect, Nazi Germany used the Olympic ceremony to send a message: “Welcome to the Third Reich. We are not what they say we are.”
The Nazis succeeded in fooling many of the Olympians in Berlin into believing that their state was trustworthy and benevolent. In retrospect, it is easy enough to see evidence of Germany’s nationalistic pride and aggressiveness in the grandiose scale and strictly regimented format of the Olympic opening ceremony, but at the time, few saw anything sinister about it.