Berlin 1936

The Berlin 1936 Olympics occurred at the time of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. It is the Games that most attracts the interests of scholars, researchers and academics, and it does so because it acted as a meeting point of many things: of sport and politics, good and evil, integrity and propaganda, individual skill and national fervour. 

Two men dominate the memory of the 1936 Games: Hitler, because it provided the world with a disturbing vision of the Nazi-controlled society he was creating in Germany, and Jesse Owens, the outstanding American athlete many believe is the greatest Olympian of all time. Owens, an African-American, won four gold medals: the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump. In doing so, he destroyed Hitler’s hopes that the Games would prove the superiority of the Germanic races. Germany, with a record number of athletes in its team, did lead the medal table with 33 gold.

Basketball and canoe/kayak were both introduced to the Olympic program in Berlin, as was outdoor handball, which would next appear at the Games as an indoor sport in 1972. Doctor James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1881, was in Berlin to see his sport’s Olympic debut. Marjorie Gestring, a 13-year-old American, won the women’s springboard diving event. She remains the youngest women’s gold medallist in Olympic history.

An innovation of the 1936 Games was the Torch Relay, now a popular Olympic tradition. The torch was lit in Olympia, Greece, and travelled through seven countries in less than a fortnight before reaching Berlin for the Opening Ceremony.

Australia at these Games

Berlin was a lean Games for Australia. Except for the St Louis Games of 1904, where Australia won no medals, it remains the most modest medal haul ever. The only medallist was athlete John ‘Jack’ Metcalfe, who won a bronze medal in the triple jump. A team of 33, including four women, represented Australia, with 1932 cycling gold medallist Edgar ‘Dunc’ Gray carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremony. 

Metcalfe was from Sydney and held the world record in the triple jump entering the Olympics. Naoto Tajima, the Japanese gold medallist, had to set a new world record to win the event. Metcalfe also competed in the high jump, placing 12th. 

Doris Carter became our first women’s field athlete when she placed sixth in the high jump. Other strong performances came from 800m runner Gerald Backhouse (8th), rowers William Dixon and Herbert Turner (6th in the double sculls), and swimmer Percy Oliver (7th in the 100m backstroke). 

Australia competed in the same five sports it had contested at the two previous Olympic Games to Berlin: aquatics (swimming and diving), athletics, cycling, rowing and wrestling. It would be the last time Australia sent a team of less than 50 athletes to the Games.