The 1936 Summer Olympic Games were held in Berlin, a propaganda coup for the Hitler's regime. Hitler famously expected to prove the superiority of his Aryan race, and if the final medal tally were to be taken as a sign, then surely he succeeded.
Or not. Jesse Owen's record-setting four gold medals is remembered for rebutting both the assumed superiority of Aryans and the presumed inferiority of African-Americans. Nor was he the only African-American to shine in those games. The first African-American to win a gold (on Day One of the Games) was Cornelius Johnson, who was in fact snubbed by Hitler (Jesse Owens was not; by the time he started winning, Hitler had given up personally meeting and congratulating winners). In the 200-meter dash, when Jesse won his third gold medal, two other African-Americans, Matthew Robinson (Jackie Robinson's younger brother) and Martinus Osendarp, came in second and third respectively.
But Jesse was special. And because of that he was the first African-American Olympian to gain a sponsor and wear the shoes, provided by the sponsor, that would become the Adidas brand we know today. The crowd in Berlin adored Jesse, chanting his name ("Yesseh Oh-vens!") in the stands. A more humiliating (for Hitler) repudiation of ideology and demonstration of true superiority could scarcely be imagined. One can take pleasure in the fact that in 1984 Berlin renamed a street south of the Olympic Stadium Jesse-Owens-Allee. Repudiation complete.
What does any of this have to do with The Hunger Games, you ask? More than a few rest stops on the road to Panem are sporting and other competitive venues. Bear with me, dear reader, as we explore what the Hunger Games really are and how they surfaced in 1936.
In Suzanne Collins' trilogy, the Hunger Games are a vehicle used by a minority population to suppress the majority. It is surely effective because the behavior of the majority population demonstrates their abject submission to the will of the ruling Capitol. There can be no greater submission to the will of others than to surrender your own children to near-certain death in the Games.
Jesse Owens was to Adolf Hitler as Katniss Everdeen is to President Snow; an intended victim of the "superior" group (call it a race or political division; it doesn't matter because the intent is the same) who simply declines to be the victim and instead becomes the victor. Like Snow, Hitler intended the Games to demonstrate his superior position for the benefit of both Germany and the rest of the world; to manipulate the values and perceptions of Germans and to reinforce the perception of inferiority among everyone else. Like Katniss, Jesse gained sponsors and not only won his competitions, he won the hearts of the spectators, the very population Hitler needed to convince of Aryan superiority and the rightness of his cause. Even though the Games largely came out as Hitler desired, the symbolism of Jesse Owens triumph persisted (as the symbolism of Katniss and Peeta's victory in The Hunger Games persists and grows in Catching Fire and Mockingjay), was reflected in the 1938 film Olympia made by Leni Riefenstahl and arguably contributed to the ultimate defeat of Nazism. Today, Jesse Owens is who we remember from the 1936 Olympic Games.
What can we learn from this intersection of fiction and history?
Katniss Everdeen's act of self-sacrifice changed everything in Panem. There had been other "volunteers" in other Districts over the years, but those were self-serving acts; young people who had prepared for the Games with the intention of winning; the "careers," a conceptual oxymoron given their statistical likelihood of failure. Katniss was under no illusion that this was a career choice; her sole motive was to spare her sister the consequences of her unexpected selection at the reaping. It then became Katniss' task to endure and "win" in some way; to come to a greater understanding of the real nature of the Games and win in an undeniable--and perhaps humiliating to the Capitol--way. Like many real-world athletes, her journey is a personal quest whose contours are discovered only through the trial of the Games.
Like all corrupt empires, from late imperial Rome to Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to (dare I say it?) contemporary China, the problem Panem's Capitol faces is not just control of a subservient population, but also maintaining pacification of its own (usually more privileged) people. While the rulers have plenty of sticks to use against the Capitol population, such an approach is fraught with the risk of inciting rebellion. So they adopted the panem et circenses (Latin for bread and circuses) method of pacification. Since the subservient population of the Districts is doomed to supply all the resources needed for the good life in the Capitol along with the child victims for the Games, the lives of Capitol denizens are sufficiently pleasant and entertaining to maintain obedience. An elaborate justification for the whole system, memorialized in the Treaty of Treason, affords a fig leaf permitting Capitol citizens to ignore the depravity of their complicit behavior. Katniss tells us that there is "support" for the Capitol in a few of the more privileged Districts; however, in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, that support largely crumbles revealing itself to be nothing more than Stockholm Syndrome afflicting whole populations.
Tyrants love athletic competitions, especially when used to demonstrate and reinforce a set of divergent norms that conflict with intuitive values. What does that mean? Most of us understand intuitively, for example, that it is generally wrong to kill another human, either through action or negligence (a concept that is explicitly derived from a notion of having a "duty" to others): those who do not share that core value are a dangerous anomaly that we normally label as psychopathic or sociopathic. Yet killing is commonplace in our world because we introduce divergent norms within our societies that justify killing under any of a number of circumstances. We employ professional killers, offering them the fig leaf of manipulated values encapsulated in law; and are strangely surprised when these people are psychologically damaged by the cognitive dissonance between their core values and the acts we pay them to perform.
We call the process of values manipulation politics. In this era, politics seems almost entirely devoted to manipulation of the values of voters to induce them to think, do and vote against their core values. Panem's Hunger Games takes that principle to an extreme by virtue of its purpose, methods and message.
It would be wrong to say that the modern Olympic Games are free from politics; one of its most important purposes is to promote world peace through sport. If anything, the Games are all about politics, in some years more overtly than others. If you watched the Olympics during the Cold War, you saw geopolitics played out in many ways including the selection of judges in key competitions (to keep warring factions in balance) and how judges reflexively (perhaps out of fear) would skew their judgements based on the competitors nationality. By all appearances, Soviet bloc nations were especially eager to use the Olympics as a platform to assert their power and superiority, using trained military personnel as "amateur" athletes, experimenting in doping to enhance performance, and so on. Though I could never prove it, I have little doubt that cheating or unethical behaviors were present among other competitors given the pressures created by the Cold War; clean hands from that era are hard to find. Add external forces that intrude on the Games, such as the massacre at the 1972 Munich games, or the bombing in Atlanta in 1996, and what you have is a quadrennial (now biennial) stew of politics, power, ambition and emotion.
Nevertheless, in most years and under most circumstances the Hunger Games are an inapt analogy for the Olympics. The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin are an exception because the Nazi regime made it so.
Berlin had been chosen as the site for the 1936 Summer Olympics almost two years prior to Hitler's rise to power. We will never know if the IOC would have selected Berlin (the 1936 Winter Games were also in Germany) under different circumstances [it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider whether the IOC was otherwise burdened with fascist leanings then - frankly I consider this a red herring since many views we associate with fascism were distressingly common at the time.].
The Nazis inherited a world-class propaganda opportunity, and spared no effort to take advantage of it. A new 100,000 seat track and field stadium (now a modern multi-purpose sports venue), six gymnasiums and many other small arenas and venues were constructed, along with a closed circuit television system [a new and revolutionary technology then] and a radio network that reached an unprecedented 41 countries. Along with Germany's industrial prowess, Hitler sought to promote his racial views through the German Olympic Committee which banned Jews, Roma (who, in an effort to "clean up" Berlin for the Games, were rounded up and placed in the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp) and blacks from participation. The ban as applied to non-German athletes crumpled under international pressure, but several notable German athletes (save the single token German Jew allowed, Helene Mayer) were denied participation because of the rules. The initial commandant of the Olympic Village was abruptly replaced, likely because of his part-Jewish heritage; sadly he committed suicide after the Games when he learned that the Nuremberg Laws classified him as a Jew with the attendant consequences for his life and career. It seems fair to observe that in the end, Hitler's men succeeded only in showing the world the illness that had beset them; that the world had trouble recognizing the reality of Hitler's Germany is a topic for another essay.
Competitive activities are a staple of human life; the opportunity to measure ourselves against others as we seek our place within our societies. In competition we have the potential to display our greatest strengths and the possibility of succumbing to our greatest failings. The desire to achieve creates the motive for abuse both on the individual and institutional level whenever the ends are perceived to justify the means. When the individual desire to win overcomes core ethical values, then cheating is the likely outcome. When people in power decide that they need to prove the superiority of a favored group over other groups, no competitive event is safe from manipulation to achieve those ends. This is especially true when the competition emphasizes divisions (such as race, religion or nationality) that have no bearing on individual competitive performance.
Both Jesse Owens and Katniss Everdeen teach us that notwithstanding a hostile environment, stacked odds and manipulated rules, it is still the individual competitor who matters most. Jesse Owens brought his talent, drive and determination to Berlin, proving to those who would not see that mastery and superiority come from how and why you do something, not because you were born into a "superior" order. Likewise Katniss Everdeen, though surely the consequences of failure in her world are far more dire. Most importantly, as spectators we have the capacity to discard and ignore propaganda intended to distort our perceptions and values; instead to recognize and honor those who show the true core values of honesty, integrity and sportsmanship that most of us hold dear. We owe that to both ourselves and the competitors. In Panem, and perhaps elsewhere, therein lie the seeds of revolution.
I happened to visit Berlin in September 1972 as a member of the DC Youth Orchestra to participate in an International Festival of Youth Orchestras. It was a memorable trip for many reasons. Being only weeks after the Munich Massacre, it should not surprise you that armed guards greeted our chartered airplane after landing at Tempelhof Airport. This was unsettling to a bunch teens (some of them inner city kids who would never have dreamed of traveling abroad) and came on top of having been shadowed by East German fighter aircraft as we transited the air corridor from West Germany to Berlin. The Youth Orchestra from Finland had the misfortune of being forced down over East Germany while making the same transit; thankfully they arrived at the competition unharmed if somewhat shaken by the experience.
My first two nights in Berlin were spent in the athletes' dorms inside the Berlin Olympic Stadium which, so far as I know, had not changed much from 1936 (these facilities were separate from the Olympic Village). I remember West Berlin of 1972 as a vibrant and defiantly cheerful place; peering over the Wall, in spite of menacing sharpshooter towers, tank traps and land mine fields, the East seemed dark, dreary and unspeakably sad.
My strangest memory is of the night of the performance by the Soviet Youth Orchestra. I remember entering the concert hall and noticing right away that the first two rows of seats were empty and blocked off. This was not the case at any performance before or after. We took our seats and waited as the Orchestra came on stage and prepared to perform. Minutes before the concert was to begin, several dozen Soviet army soldiers and officers trooped into the hall in full uniform, marching down to take the seats in front. Let me assure you that under stage lights an orchestra member can only see a couple of rows out into the audience. The message was unmistakable, even to a naive American teen.
This the fourth installment of an occasional series inspired by The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins' devastatingly brilliant Young Adult trilogy about a fictional place not far in our future. Ms. Collins has reminded me, and I hope others, that the difference between freedom and tyranny is more than just a matter of form. I hope in this series to try to detect the telltale signs showing where our path is taking us and talk about why we should be afraid if we cannot find the way or the will to change course. Here are links to the prior installments in this series:
- On the Road to Panem: Part 1, Medicine and Greed
- On the Road to Panem: Part 2 - Avox Populi
- On the Road to Panem: Part 3 - Surveillance and Submission
All references are to the books not the movie which this writer has not yet seen (but surely will just as soon as it comes to my pay-per-view).