Visitors’ Reflections on the Olympics and Politics: Berlin | Barcelona 1936 Exhibition

Csaba Szilágyi, Anikó Kövecsi, Julianna Lendvai

Following a two-week extension, Blinken OSA closed its latest exhibition entitled Olympics and Politics: Berlin | Barcelona 1936 on September 10, 2016. Using archival sources (text documents, posters, photos, newsreel footage, films and artifacts), the exhibition showcased the parallel histories of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics and the Olimpiada Popular of Barcelona (aka Workers’ Olympics), offering a closer look into how these concurrent sport events became arenas for fierce ideological and political battles.

The Berlin Games provided an excellent opportunity for the Nazi regime to whitewash its terrible political reputation by presenting its supremacy and splendor through its magnificent Olympic buildings, art shows, and urban decorations, supported by a propaganda machinery of unheard efficiency. In protest, the third Workers’ Olympics, which would have opened just a fortnight before its Berlin counterpart, was meant to offer an alternative interpretation of international sport competitions and changed, among others, the rules of participation, thus making the Games available for larger masses. Eventually, the Olimpiada Popular was called off one day before the opening, because the Spanish Civil War broke out. Many athletes remained in Spain and formed international workers’ militias, which joined the Republican Army in their fight against General Franco’s troops.

During 12 weeks of running, the exhibition attracted 1700 visitors coming from Hungary and abroad. In what follows, we would like to present some of their reflections and comments as recorded in the visitors’ book, and translated from Hungarian and Spanish by the staff of Blinken OSA.

“Well documented, well presented exhibit which highlights, among other things, that official sports events used for propaganda and business purposes by the political powers can be matched with alternative sports events. The “leftist” perspective of the exhibit was completely unknown to me. It was chilling to see the photos documenting the stadium building in Germany, especially in the light of the present stadium building efforts of the (Hungarian) government. Thanks to all contributors of this exhibit.” (I. B. translated from Hungarian)

“Fantastic exhibit! Perhaps the best OSA exhibit so far. Thank you all for making it possible.” ( J.B. July 10, 2016, translated from Hungarian)

“I liked it a lot! Interesting and interactive exhibit. The photos displayed are UNIQUE!” ( Anonymous, translated from Hungarian)

“Anyone can participate in the Maccabiah Games?!?” (T.Z. August 28, 2016, translated from Hungarian)

“Surprise: I have lived so many years and this is the first time I have heard of the alternative Olympics. It was very interesting and enlightening.” (D. V. July 19, 2016, translated from Hungarian)

“Very privileged to have seen this remarkable collection. Thank you for organizing it.” (L. A. Turkey/London, July 19, 2016, in English)

“It is terrifying how sports can be converted into a political instrument, and hopeful that there are athletes committed to justice and socialism.” (Esther from Spain, July 26, 2016, translated from Spanish)

“Fantastic exhibit, but next time the font size of the captions could be bigger.” ( Anonymous, translated from Hungarian)

“Long live the Republic!” (M. July 26, 2016, translated from Spanish)

“My father never made it to the national team due to the anti-Jewish legislations. He could never forget that his sports career was ended and that he could never go to college. He used to tell me: Participation is what matters, not winning.” (J. R. August 26, 2016, translated from Hungarian)

“I thank the past for teaching me!” (J.K.A. PhD candidate, Budapest, August 18, 2016, translated from Spanish)

“I think we will never learn.” ( Anonymous, translated from Hungarian)

“Thank you for making sure that our collective memory is not lost. Barcelona 1936-2016 Budapest.” ( Anonymous, translated from Spanish)

“The war of ideologies is on. Sometimes with guns, sometimes without. The political decision-makers who decide the location of sports events are not entirely uninfluenced. The investors do their job: they build, invest and if needed they compromise. With whom? Politics? Why? Out of interest, of course. And sports then becomes a mere tool, a bridge that connects the two parties of the deal. For this is what people need. And is there a way out? Hardly any …” (A thinking economist, September 3, 2016, translated from Hungarian)

“We must not do this again! *Refugees welcome*” ( Anonymous, in English)

“A very interesting exhibit. My husband was born on August 1, 1936 during Hitler’s long speech at the opening of the Berlin Games. So his mother could not listen to music during labor because Hitler was on everywhere. I have looked at this exhibit and it had a lot of new information for me as well. I have heard on some US radio that it is a misconception that Hitler did not shake hands with Jesse Owens because he was black. Owens himself said that on the first day Hitler shook hands with all the winners, but the next day he was late and was advised not to shake anyone’s hands if he cannot honor all winners. Owen further said that Hitler still greeted him from his tribune. He had a bad opinion about President Roosevelt, though.” (A. P., translated from Hungarian)