By Joel Sronce
In the monumental Olympiastadion in Berlin, where Hitler once bristled at the unanticipated triumphs of African-American athletes, something happened eighty years later that Trump, too, did not intend.
Someone in our group tapped me on the shoulder and gestured toward the stark concrete balcony on our right.
“That’s where Hitler watched,” he said.
Suddenly I felt its shadow.
It was a clear, breezy day in the early summer of 2012. Sunlight soaked through the transparent panels in the roof of Berlin’s Olympiastadion, gilding the verdant pitch and the bright blue track surrounding it.
But a chill ran through me as I stared at the austere platform protruding from the stands.
The balcony itself has surely changed since the 1936 Olympics — whether pockmarked from Soviet machine guns during an attack at the end of the Second World War, or altered under the years of British control, or polished in the stadium’s 21st century renovations to represent a reunified Berlin.
Yet regardless of its changes, the rostrum remains a trace of what, and who, the entire “Reichssportfeld” was once constructed to honor. A terrible past maintains the structure’s former command, demanding remembrance of its consequence — a trace directly stenciled off a hell that was.
Shadows of the Third Reich stalk the city of Berlin, as does the troubled past of any place: unhealed wounds of prejudice and hate that have not fully been pried from our world. Of late, in fact, such wounds have been renamed, salted, and sponsored.
Berlin is haunted by those ghosts, not as shockingly commemoratory as our Confederate monuments, but eerie in their proximity to the present day. One of my living grandmothers was already twelve when Hitler stood here upon his balcony and nearly all the one-hundred thousand in attendance joined him, believed him, raised their arm in his salute.
Enlivening this image now is the rise of fascism found not only in the United States — in Charlottesville, in Portland, in Richard Spencer’s ‘Hail Trump’ speech that followed the November election — but throughout Europe as well.
Yet where there is prejudice there is a resistance, one that spans history and continents — one that includes the world of sports. On grounds that once belonged to evil, solidarity can conquer.
I spent the spring and summer of 2012 in Berlin, studying at the Freie Universität — or Free University (imagine that!) — where I made friends from all across the Continent.
Surprisingly, Sebastian Bommell, a roommate for my four months in the city, became my only lasting German companion — at least the only friendship that continues to this day. Apart from our trip to watch Berlin’s Hertha BSC in the Olympiastadion, we enjoyed a summer of great soccer. Our friends and I followed Bommell to watch-parties for Germany’s UEFA European Championship run — once even deep in the woods of a park — each time joining hundreds of rabid viewers and consuming Berliner Weissbier by the kiloliter. Germany shut out its group competition, only to be bested by Mario Balotelli and the Italians in the semi-finals in late June.
Back in the United States, Obama and Romney had begun their billion-dollar dance. The country rumbled with social unrest in the year between the murder of Trayvon Martin and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, rising in the wake of the acquittal of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman.
That summer Colin Kaepernick trained during the offseason, the one preceding his move into the starting role in which he would lead the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl.
The balcony in Berlin’s Olympiastadion was an intentional part of the building’s original design for the coming 1936 Olympics, perhaps the most famous sporting event in history.
When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, they chose to use the Games as both a pulpit for Nazism and a dazzling veil to cloak their growing crimes of Aryan supremacy.
Author Jeremy Schaap describes the ‘36 Games as “a fascist fantasy come true.” Well before the Olympics began, the Nazis used them as a chance to send propaganda throughout Europe, including one poster that depicted Hitler’s face, along with the harrowing words, “I summon the youth of the world.”
In his book A People’s History of Sports in the United States, political sportswriter Dave Zirin notes, “The Nazi pomp and circumstance launched the kind of over-the-top nationalism associated with the Olympics today. The Nazi Olympics also saw the birth of the kind of stark repression associated with the Olympics, as governments have attempted to cleanse cities for an international audience.”
Zirin describes how Berlin police detained hundreds of Gypsies and put them in internment camps, a process not unlike the Olympic cleansing that has continued to this day in host cities such as Atlanta, London and Rio de Janeiro.
But as for the Games themselves, a hero emerged that Hitler did not expect.
African-American track star Jesse Owens dominated in the Olympiastadion, winning gold medals in the 100, the 200, the long jump and the relay. Such success had never been seen before, nor would it be again until Carl Lewis in 1984.
According to Zirin, “This infuriated Hitler. He refused to be photographed with Owens or even acknowledge the existence of the man who stole the games. The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes, he said. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.”
Indeed, before Owens received any of his medals — in fact before African-American high-jumper Cornelius Johnson received his gold medal on the Olympics’ first day — Hitler had left the stadium.
… The only thing you could do better is if you see [players protest], even if it’s one player, leave the stadium, I guarantee things will stop… – Donald Trump, Sept. 22, 2017.
The snubbing of Owens’ achievements shines a light not only on Hitler’s racist fury, but on the racism consuming the lives of even successful American athletes of color when they returned home.
Owens, whose own political history raises some eyebrows, once noted:
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!” — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017.
More than eighty years after Owens’ triumph, a few seasons after Kaepernick’s Super Bowl loss, the quarterback sat during the playing of the national anthem during a 2016 preseason game. No one noticed. He sat again the follow week, and no one noticed. Finally, during his third week of protest, the act gained national attention. Kaepernick addressed the media in the days that followed:
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” his statements included. “To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
The next week, after talking to a former Green Beret, Kaepernick decided to kneel. “… as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee,” Kaepernick said. “Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”
That week, Kaepernick was joined by 49ers teammate Eric Reed.
After the game, Kaepernick unveiled a plan to donate $1 million to charities that focus on racial issues. Later that afternoon, Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks — the first non-teammate of Kaepernick — sat during the national anthem.
“I wasn’t trying to say anything. Just standing behind Kaepernick,” Lane said after the game.
Three days later, US Women’s Soccer star Megan Rapinoe knelt, expressing both solidarity with Kaepernick and frustration with a country that doesn’t protect all her liberties as a member of the LGBT community.
In the weeks that followed, NFL players on many teams began to kneel or raise a fist in the air during the anthem. The protest spread to high-school teams and coaching staffs, cheerleaders, marching bands and more.
After the 2016 season ended, Kaepernick became a free agent. As the weeks and months into his free agency went by, the quarterback wasn’t picked up.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Kaepernick belongs in the NFL — coming off the 2016 season with 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions — he has been denied employment. It’s clear that this isn’t because of talent or work ethic, but because he began to express the political truths that threaten the NFL owners and their exploitative game.
Evidence of the deliberate shutting-out of Kaepernick abounds, such as seen in Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman’s tweet, “144 quarterbacks have thrown 200 or more passes in the year when they turned 29. 143 were on NFL rosters when they turned 30. Kaepernick is the only one not.”
The NFL owners, conservative 1-percenters to be sure, colluded against Kaepernick in a move that might one day be brought to court. Not only has Kaepernick’s career been taken away, but the meaning of his protest has been severely threatened.
The desire of the owners and the Trump administration to stamp out the players’ ability to draw attention to political issues — hoping to tug the protest’s meaning away from state violence and into a conversation about patriotism — is a form of racialized social control. Just like the police brutality that sparked the first NFL protest. Just like mass incarceration: the locking out of millions of African Americans from opportunity, public benefit and achievement.
Colin Kaepernick has been kept out of the NFL, but protest has not. Players continue to kneel, raise their fists, organize, and demand concessions from the teams’ owners, even after the NFL’s nearly $90 million pledge to social justice projects.
As athlete-activists have expressed, there is an enduring, intentionally constructed schism between the ideals the flag is supposed to represent and the devastating experience of police brutality and oppression that plague millions in this country — particularly, of course, people of color. Even as the owners’ contribution to such causes exceeds chump-change, these issues will persist.
As Trump, Pence and others attempt their own collusion over their approach to the protest, it’s clear that the right-wing’s attempt is one of age-old political exploitation — using a fear of social disorder and civil disobedience to mobilize a conservative agenda, scapegoating, and white racial resentment.
For the fascist regime that revelled at the opportunity to host the 1936 Olympics, the surrounding (and momentarily suppressed) agenda was much of the same.
But in the monumental Olympiastadion in Berlin, where Hitler once bristled at the unanticipated triumphs of African-American athletes, something happened eighty years later that Trump, too, did not intend.
In the weeks following Trump’s racist comments toward the NFL protesters — “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” — in which he attempted to mobilize the ill-will of a largely white audience against protest executed almost entirely by African-American players, the momentum of the resistance against him went international.
Just before their October 14 home match against Schalke, the players for Hertha BSC gathered on the pitch at the Olympiastadion. They linked arms with one another, and, to the surprise of everyone watching, they knelt in solidarity with the NFL protest.
“Berlin is colourful,” the stadium announcer called out to the 50,000 fans in attendance, according to ESPN FC. “Hertha BSC stands for diversity and against violence. For this reason, we are joining forces with the protest of our fellow American athletes to take a stand against discrimination. For a tolerant Berlin, both now and forevermore.”
My old friend Sebastian Bommell first heard about the kneeling that evening on “Sportschau,” a German SportsCenter of sorts, as I understand it.
Though he didn’t know the context, Bommell was thrilled to see it.
“I didn’t know who started the protest,” he told me later. “But as a leftist I do support the message, especially since the right wing becomes stronger in Germany during the past few years — all over europe it does. Some people seem to not remember what happened during the Second World War.
“So I welcomed the Hertha team to kneel, because everybody watches soccer in Germany. Even the right-winged idiots.”
Hertha BSC steht für Vielfalt, Toleranz und Verantwortung! Für ein Berlin, dass auch in Zukunft weltoffen ist! #TakeAKnee #hahohe, the team tweeted with a picture of the players kneeling.
(Hertha BSC stands for tolerance and responsibility! For a tolerant Berlin and an open-minded world, now and forevermore! #TakeAKnee #hahohe).
It wasn’t the only time in the recent months that protest has worked its way into the world of German soccer, Bommell said.
He told me about a game between China’s under-20 men’s soccer team and the German club TSV Schott Mainz. It was one of 16 friendlies the young Chinese team had scheduled against lower clubs in Germany.
According to the Guardian, four Tibetan refugees and two Germans — part of the Tibet-Initiative Germany group — unfurled Tibetan flags while attending the match, protesting the Chinese occupation and oppression of their homeland.
The Chinese team refused to continue the match, which was broadcasted live in China, and walked off the pitch for 25 minutes. The remaining games have been postponed.
The Hertha BSC act of solidarity was brief, and under-reported. In the most negative light it was irrelevant, even a marketing push — saving face against potential critics.
But no, this matters.
Bommell and thousands more might now take a look at who Kaepernick is, at his protest, at where he has donated $1 million, and at the reaction to it all. These are entry points into a fight for a better world.
When our correspondence left politics, Bommell said, “I always enjoyed playing basketball with you, Simon and the [bigger] Sebastian from Berlin. This is still one of the best examples for me: why sport is a good way to learn about each other.”
He’s right; sports are. And so is protest.
Since Bommell told me about the Tibetan flags at the match, I’ve learned more about their history than I’ve ever done before. Not for an article, but in order to know which side I’m on.
Hertha BSC forward Salomon Kalou, who hails from the Ivory Coast, said that their collective action was a stand against the presence of racism, white supremacy and discrimination surrounding any sport.
“Taking a knee has nothing to do with the [American] flag, but rather showing that we are one as people and that we going to rise together,” Kalou told ESPN FC. “A human heart is too tiny to have a place for hate, because hate is such a horrible thing to put in your heart.”
In the minds of those exiting the stadium, perhaps their struggle was legitimized, or their worldview challenged, or lengthened.
Perhaps they walked contemplatively down one of the main streets outside the stadium, one renamed in 1984 to a more-worthy recognition, a more-fitting commemoration:
Jesse Owens Allee.
Joel Sronce is a sportswriter in Greensboro and a contributor to PLR.