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From The Socialist newspaper, 21 April 2010

Attic Theatre Co

1936 - A play about the Olympics

written by Tom McNab, directed by Jenny Lee
reviewed by Arti Dillon

ROUND THE corner from the London 2012 Olympics site, the play "1936" opened at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston. It looks back to the 1936 Olympic games, hosted by Germany under Hitler and how Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' chief propaganda minister used it to raise the international profile of Nazi Germany and the 'morale' of its citizens.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had awarded Germany the games in 1931 two years before Hitler was handed the reigns of power by the German capitalist class. And despite the Nazi regime executing and expelling Jewish people, socialists, communists, and gypsies, a fascist sympathising IOC allowed Berlin to continue to host the games.

The newly elected (January 1936) left-wing popular front government in Spain boycotted the Berlin games and organised a parallel People's Olympiad in Barcelona, only for the event to be cancelled with the outbreak of civil war in the country.


Through the play it's well argued that Goebbels used the games for Nazi propaganda. With one of the largest government investments into the games (an estimated $30 million in 1936 prices), Goebbels knew the value of using a variety of tools and events to raise and maintain the Nazis' profile.

The US Olympic Committee authority narrowly voted to attend the games, despite widespread calls for a boycott, including from the Amateur Athletic Union. The US government of the day didn't overrule the committee but in 1980 US president Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow games because of the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979.

With a layered approach to the story, "1936" exposes the role of the IOC in bribing key figures into accepting and lobbying for attendance to the games.

It also expresses the segregation faced by black people in the US through Jesse Owens' character. (Black US athlete Owens won four gold medals in Berlin. One biography of Owens quotes the athlete as saying afterwards: "The president [Franklin D Roosevelt] didn't even send me a telegram.")


The play with its simple set, includes two key items which are powerfully used. The first is a three tier podium for 'winners' made up of shoes and items, remnants of those killed by the Nazis (similar to the holocaust exhibition at the imperial war museum). It shows that it was over the bones and blood of ordinary people that these games had gone on.

The second well-used set piece uses two flags, one in the forefront of the Olympic rings and one of a swastika at the back.

By the end of the play, as the Olympics are held and provide Hitler with a worldwide gaze and profile, the swastika becomes dominant.

The journalist who narrates, intermittently throughout, asks, looking back now, 'what else could I or should I have done?' A reflection for the audience to join in with.

It's quite a powerful piece that is occasionally overplayed but still worth a watch, written by former Olympic coach Tom McNab and directed by Jenny Lee.

In the questions after the show, Mcnab noted that the 1936 Berlin games would not have happened if governments had intervened, but also if there had not been a civil war in Spain that stopped the plan to put on a workers' olympics.

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