At the start of the summer Olympics in 1936, the focus of news coverage was the imposing perfection of it all: The masterpiece Olympic village designed by Wolfgang Furstner, a Wehrmacht captain; the new 100,000-seat track and field stadium, built to outshine the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that hosted the Olympics four years earlier; and the 326-acre sports complex in Grunewald named the “Reichssportfeld,” built under the direction of the nation’s 47-year-old head of state, Adolf Hitler, who was determined to use the Olympics for propaganda purposes.
“Every vista suggested coiled might,” author Lauren Hillenbrand wrote in “Unbroken,” the biography of Louis Zamperini, who competed in the games.
“Nazi banners papered over everything. As much as a third of the male population was in uniform, as were many children. … The only visible wisp of discord was the broken glass in the windows of Jewish businesses.”
Eighty years later, the coverage leading up to the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janiero was quite the opposite.
Those of us in the media wrote extensively about the threat of the Zika virus. We wrote about Brazil’s problems with finances, crime and construction delays. And we wrote about open-water risks ranging in size from bacteria to floating couches.
The Rio Games were supposed to be as much a disaster as the 1936 Berlin games were to be a showcase of power and Hitler’s warped belief in racial supremacy.
But in both cases, the outcome has been something very different. The stories of the athletes have prevailed.
In 1936, it was tales of people like Zamperini, who became a crowd favorite by laying down one of the fastest final laps in the history of the 5000-meter run and went go on to become an American war hero. It was people like Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson Schwartz who was so severely injured in a plane crash in 1931 that she was mistaken for dead and placed in the trunk of a car. Despite 11 weeks in a hospital and four months in a wheelchair and crutches, she managed to make it on the legendary U.S. women’s 4×100 meter relay team that defeated a heavily favored German foursome for gold. Most of all it was about Jesse Owens, the Ohio State star who took home four gold medals in sprint and long jump events, severely dampening the Führer’s hopes of making it an Olympics remembered for Aryan supremacy.
We are only halfway through the 2016 Rio Games but, once again, the stories of the athletes — not nations or viruses — are capturing the world’s attention.
These games are about people like Simone Manuel, 20, from Texas who became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in swimming Thursday with her stunning victory in the 100-meter freestyle. Her tear-filled celebration has earned a place among the great moments in sports history.
It’s about Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, 18, who while in a small sinking boat bound for Lesbos off the coast of Greece a year ago, jumped in the water and, with the help of her sister, pushed and pulled the boat to shore, saving 20 lives. Last week, she jumped in the water again, finishing out of the running in the 100-meter butterfly, but making history nonetheless as a member of the first refugee team to ever compete in the Games.