May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin
Hitler attempted to have his cake and eat it too at the 1936 Olympics. Although he did want to demonstrate German superiority, he was also taking a lot of heat for his domestic policies at the time, and therefore also wanted to use the Olympics to counter some of those claims. For this reason, his documentary of the Olympics, Olympia (see below), contains many shots of Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes (much to the dismay of his domestic fascist allies). Hitler also allowed two marginally Jewish athletes on the team. Swastikas were ubiquitous at the Olympics, but besides that, most of the extremes of Hitler's Germany were hidden from the public.
Olympia, a documentary of the 1936 Olympics, is available at most college campuses.
The early 20th century is known in part for its nearly ubiquitous racism; one can therefore be forgiven for thinking that such bigotry applied to Coubertin's Olympics at the time. Coubertin had grown up in France in the years before World War I, where hatred for the Germans was widespread and the aristocracy was longing for war. (This was one of the reasons for the coinciding revival of athletics among the French aristocracy.) While Coubertin's early support for an athletic revival in his home country was rooted in similar beliefs, his involvement in and observation of sport in various countries led him to develop a belief in the religious athlete, or "the religion of sport," replacing his nationalistic motivations with humane ones.
It was this belief in the genuine goodness of all people that inspired his efforts to maintain the international character of the Olympics when he was the only one interested in doing so. During World War I, the general inclination of the IOC had been to refuse Berlin the 1916 Olympics and move them elsewhere. Apparently immune to this popular sentiment, which was causing the British to demand the expulsion of Germans from a variety of scientific and educational organizations, Coubertin insisted that the venue not be changed. As a result of this decision, the international character and unity of the Games was preserved.
Coubertin's inclusiveness also extended beyond the European nations. In 1915, he contacted the Far Eastern Athletic Association, based in the Phillipines, which was interested in being included under the umbrella of the IOC. The FEAA's "Far Eastern Games" also included China, Japan, and Siam. Coubertin was so excited by their enthusiasm that he remarked that if war were to prohibit a European venue in the future, he would like to hold the Games in the Far East instead. Needless to say, Coubertin's willingness to avoid Eurocentrism contributed to the Games and laid the foundation for wider participation in the future.
Coubertin notes in his Olympic Memoirs that Asians had once been considered by others to be "excluded by nature" from athletic competition. He then goes on to remark that he has heard from delegates to the IOC from the same Eastern and Near Eastern nations that the Olympics have in fact contributed to a revival of the youth in those countries and a renewed enthusiasm for sport. Clearly Coubertin recognized and appreciated the advantages Olympism can contribute to all nations, and was eager to encourage them to participate. As he puts it, "It is a strange superiority for an institution that it can spread in this way both in social depth and international surface." In other words, Olympism will be judged both on its improvement of society and its inclusiveness.
Thanks to the extremely large audience that watches the Olympics every two years, the Olympics are also an important vehicle for adressing racism in the modern age. By watching athletes of other races and nationalities compete and win medals, one cannot honestly hold on to any beliefs of racial superiority. This was never more clear than at the 1936 Olympics, held in Hitler's Germany, when Jesse Owens won gold in track and field. Those Olympics were to have been a so-called "display of German superiority," but instead became an example of the futility of Hitler's ideals. (For a related picture, see the 1936 photo gallery.)
In Coubertin's opinion, a world united by sport is one united by an effort at human improvement. Human improvement makes no allowance for discord, and is quick to jump at the chance of collective betterment. This attitude is needed today more than ever! That it was conceived by this French aristocrat at the turn of the century and turned into a unifying event is simply evidence of Coubertin's extraordinary benevolence.