A FiFA football made up of hexagons and black pentagons

24 November 2022


And the Hitler Olympics.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

My cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Maitland Emmet, was a man of many parts. A schoolmaster by way of profession, he is better known as a leading amateur entomologist and the author of seminal works on moths and butterflies. He was also an oarsman, in the somewhat frustrating position of number nine in the Oxford squad which meant that, being spare man for the eight, he often entered the sculling events at the regattas he attended. On one such occasion he came up against the legendary Jack Beresford of Thames, the winner for seven successive years of the Wingfield sculls and a man who took medals (three of them gold) at five successive Olympics. Fascinated, I asked him what it was like to scull against the great man.

Emmet laughed. “Well, Beresford was a nice man and I don’t think he wanted to embarrass me so he won by two lengths. On the other hand he did stop half-way over the course for a brief chat with a friend in the crowd.”

Let us hold our lens for a moment on this man Jack Beresford, the rival to Sir Steven Redgrave for the title of Britain’s finest rower. Among his many victories was the gold medal in the double sculls at the 1936 Hitler Olympics when he and Dick Southwood beat the German favourites in what Beresford, then 37 and known to his opponents as “the Old Fox”, described as “the sweetest race I ever rowed in”. But should he have been there at all? In those days of course the decision as to whether it was appropriate to participate would have been seen as one for the politicians and not one for the athletes and, as with the award of the world cup to Qatar, the decision to allow Germany to act as hosts was made in 1931, some years before the event itself.

The Hitler Olympics were, by any standards, a highly political event. Germany used them as a camouflage, a way of hiding the ugliness of its Nazism and racism behind a respectable and bogus façade. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the games to Germany must have largely been driven by a desire to bring her back into the world community, part of a rehabilitation still going on 12 years after the end of the First World War. By the time of the games themselves this strategy was failing badly but by then there must have been considerable momentum behind them as indeed there was behind appeasement as a whole. With the benefit of hindsight Britain and its friends should have pulled out and yet it is easy to see why at the time they thought they were making the right call.

Traditional teaching on the causes of the Second World War regards the Treaty of Versailles as pivotal. By demanding too much from their prostrate enemy the victorious allies created a seedbed in which dangerous resentments could flourish. That, after all, was why a different course was taken, and indeed taken successfully, in 1945. In retrospect the victors should have been more generous at Versailles and have left the defeated Germany with more of its pride and a viable route to recovery. If that would have been the better route at Versailles, was it necessarily foolish to try to bring Germany back into the international community through sport? Probably not in principle but by then the rise in Nazism had already gone too far to be turned back and no good could be done by it.

Now let us move on to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a country whose Islamic values include views on homosexuality which we find repugnant. Does holding the World Cup there encourage them towards the international mainstream or will it be taken as an endorsement of their rules?

The position, here, is quite different from the background to the Hitler Olympics. The World Cup is not about homosexuality and cannot sensibly be viewed as a celebration of Islamic values. Here the question is simply whether Qatar is too “dirty” a place to play football in and should be treated as an international pariah.

It is just over 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual activities between consenting adults in the UK, so Qatar is more than half a century behind us in such matters. Would a boycott of the World Cup have made it more or less likely that they would catch us up? It’s really very difficult to say. On the one hand, the sporting boycott of South Africa probably hastened the end of apartheid. On the other, the cutting off cultural relations is an odd way of re-educating people. Perhaps, though, there is a broader perspective. Once we have cut off much of Islam for its approach to gender and sex, China for its treatment of the Uighurs, Russia for its aggression in the Ukraine, the USA for its output of greenhouse gases, and just about everyone else who in one respect or another offends against the North London view of proper behaviour, we will be left playing football, and all other sports, with ourselves. That may be a good way of making sure that English teams win but it will hardly leave us as more effective ambassadors for the Western way of life.

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