The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was an event with several firsts: it was the first Olympics to be broadcast live on television, it was the first Olympics with a torch relay, and it was the first Olympics for five participating countries—Afghanistan, Bermuda, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Liechtenstein.
This Olympics is probably best known, however, for taking place in Nazi Germany three years after Hitler took power. It was the second time women were invited to participate in gymnastics, the first being the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, and it would be the first time the United States sent a team to the Olympics for the women’s gymnastics competition.
Interestingly, women were not invited to participate in gymnastics at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. The reasoning behind this decision is complex. It was decided at a July 1929 International Olympic Committee meeting in Vittel, France that women would be allowed to compete in gymnastics, swimming, tennis, and skating in 1932, after years of heated debate over whether women should be allowed to compete at the Olympics at all. However, in a July 1931 meeting, the FIG (the International Federation of Gymnastics) voted to not have women’s gymnastics at the 1932 Games, and so, while women ended up being able to compete in a total of 14 events in 1932, gymnastics was not one of them.
The reason for this decision was that gymnastics was primarily a European sport, and it was decided that flying athletes to Los Angeles to compete in a country where gymnastics had little appeal would not be worth the expense, especially as the Great Depression was forcing many athletes and countries to stay home. Gymnastics was being dropped from school programs in the United States, and the lack of interest of the United States in gymnastics fueled the belief that the event would be futile. Also, in 1932, there was no women’s organization to organize and promote the women’s competition – in fact, some sources say that the 1928 team competition was an event that was thrown together at the last minute. It was only after the 1932 Olympics that it was decided that women’s gymnastics would be included in all future Games, and a women’s technical committee was created.
In the interim between the 1932 and 1936 games, however, the FIG decided to begin including women in the World Gymnastics Championships. The first World Championships in which women competed took place in 1934 in Budapest, Hungary, and the women’s events included a team final and an all-around final. Only three countries sent women’s teams – Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland – and they finished in that order in both events. Vlasta Děkanová of Czechoslovakia became the very first women’s all-around world champion.
Vlasta Děkanová at the 1936 Olympic Games
Unfortunately, while Děkanová, along with the silver and bronze medalists Margit Koloczy and Janina Skyrlinska, would attend the 1936 Olympics, she would not be able to defend her crown by becoming the Olympic all-around champion, as, just as in 1928, women were only permitted to participate in a team final. A total of 64 women competed in this event, which took place at the Dietrich Eckart Freilichtbühne on August 12, 1936. The women formed eight teams of eight members each. There were eight portions of the competition, six of which were individual apparatus exercises (bars, horse, and beam, each of which were split between compulsory and voluntary exercises) and two of which were group exercises (with and without portable apparatuses). All team members competed, with the bottom two scores being dropped for each team on each event.
The group events consisted of a synchronized team exercise, as well as a team exercise using “portable apparatuses” such as rings, bows, or clubs. The exercises were up to five minutes long and teams had the option to include music. There were four judges that each scored the exercise by “difficulty” (up to 20 points), “beauty” (20 points), and “execution” (30 points). For each of these three criteria, the high and low scores were dropped and the remaining two scores were averaged, and then the three average scores were totaled, meaning each team could get up to 70 points for a group exercise.
The apparatus compulsories are well documented due to an increased interest on the part of the FIG to ensure that every gymnast completed the same routine without variation. The description of each compulsory exercise is quite detailed, and it includes long dashes to indicate where a gymnast should pause. The compulsories were clearly meant to demonstrate a gymnast’s control and strength throughout the exercise by maintaining and holding poses. For these routines, a gymnast could be awarded up to ten points, and for the voluntary exercises on beam, bars, and vault, she could be awarded up to fifteen points (five for difficulty and ten for execution).
Just as in Amsterdam, the home team was the decisive winner in 1936. Germany won the team final with 506.50 points, followed by Czechoslovakia with 503.60 and Hungary with 499.00. The remaining teams, in order of points earned, were Yugoslavia, USA, Poland, Italy, and Great Britain.
A far cry from today’s dominance, Team USA did not medal in its first outing, but they did manage to finish ahead of Poland, which had won the bronze medal at the 1934 World Championships. Moreover, due to an injury to gymnast Marie Kibler, Team USA competed in most of the exercises with only seven gymnasts and without the safety net of getting to drop their bottom two scores.
They were also competing without their first national champion, Roberta Ranck. Ranck had won the all-around in 1931, at the first U.S. National Championships in which women were allowed to compete. However, she tore cartilage in her left knee while training for Berlin. Also absent was Thera Steppich, who became the national all-around champion in 1935. Nevertheless, the team was bolstered by Consetta Caruccio, the 1933 and 1934 champion who would carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies, and the reigning US champion Jennie Caputo. Rounding out the team were Margaret Duff, Irma Haubold, Marie Kibler, Ada Lunardoni, Adelaide Meyer, and Mary Wright. These women, like the rest of the teams competing, ranged in age from their late teens to late twenties.
The women competing at the 1936 Olympic Games
Sadly, none of the women from the 1936 Olympics would be able to defend their Olympic status by competing in 1940 or 1944, as those Olympics were not held due to World War II. They also nearly avoided being kept home due to a potential boycott by the United States, whose Olympic Committee was reluctant to participate due to Hitler’s fascist regime and his anti-semitic policies (Berlin was given the Olympics in 1931, two years before Hitler’s rise to power). They ultimately decided to participate, along with many other countries, after they were assured that Jewish athletes would be allowed to compete on the German team. Hitler’s regime had no intention of allowing Jews to compete for Germany, but when faced with a potential boycott, they allowed Helene Mayer, a fencer with a Jewish father, to compete.
The Olympics was largely considered by the Nazis to be a method for them to promote Nazi supremacy and their anti-semitic ideals. Before the Olympics began, the Nazis cleared Berlin of any anti-Jewish signage and sent many Romani to concentration camps in an attempt to make the city look ideal. Hitler’s regime also instituted the torch relay, which has become a tradition used in every Olympics since. The torch relay began in Greece and ended in Berlin, where the final runner passed through rows of flags bearing swastikas, and it was primarily meant as a way to propagate the Nazi belief that they were a superior race by associating them with ancient Greece. New roads were specifically built for the torch relay, and film director Leni Riefenstahl filmed portions of it as a part of a Nazi propaganda documentary about the Olympics, Olympia. (Interestingly, Riefenstahl was one of the first directors to use a wheeled platform to track moving action with a camera, and this is how we follow a vaulter sprinting to the horse today.)
In retrospect, the photos and videos of the 1936 Berlin Olympics might be unsettling, knowing that the world was on the brink of a war caused by the same racist ideals that underscored the Games. It may be easy to forget where the torch relay originated, and that the United States participated in what turned out to be a blatant effort on the part of the Nazis to express their racial supremacy. One could argue that sports should be completely separated from politics, and that we should remember the 1936 Olympics as the one where Team USA first got to compete in women’s gymnastics. However, politics and sports are intertwined, whether in Berlin in 1936 or in Sochi in 2014, and it is important that we think critically about the ways in which international relations creep into the world of sport.
Article by Jessica Taylor Price