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The Olympic Torch is run though Berlin, on its way to the Olympic Stadium
August 1, 1936.

U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169

The Berlin Olympic Organizing Committee invented many of the traditions associated with the Olympics today, including the torch relay from Mt. Olympus. Live, world-wide broadcasting of Olympic events began in Berlin, and NBC covered the torch relay with regular updates to promote the games in the United States.

Adolf Hitler Opens the Games, August 1, 1936
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169

The Nazis opposed the Olympics when they first seized power. However, they eventually understood the propaganda opportunity and used the games to promote the “new” Germany to tourists and international visitors in large numbers. The games were exploited to demonstrate the technical sophistication of the German broadcasting (including television) systems, and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia,” remains one of the most brilliant sport documentaries ever produced.

Hear Michael J. Socolow speak about radio coverage and the Berlin Olympic Games on WBUR’s “Only a Game”

The Grunau Racecourse (aerial).
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169.

In this picture taken before the Olympic regatta began, you can clearly see the floating grandstand, which held 25,000 spectators, in the lower left. The start line is at the top of the photograph, and floating buoys marking the lanes can just barely be seen running from the top to the bottom. For the regatta final, spectators lined both sides of the river (loudspeakers called out the race along the course) and attendance was estimated at 75,000 (by the New York Times). The boathouses can be seen in the lower right of the photograph.


The German “Viking” Crew at the start line, August 14, 1936.
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169.

Most of the German crew graduated from High School in 1933 and had been training seriously for three years. The emphasis on German Olympic success, spurred by the Nazis, improved their speed significantly in 1935-6. Until the preliminary heat on August 12, 1936, when they lost to an excellent Swiss crew by one-tenth of a second, this crew had been undefeated in the eight races they rowed together in 1936. In the background the Italian crew can be seen; minutes later they would win the silver medal. The Italian crew contained four oarsmen who won silver medals in Los Angeles in 1932; it was both the biggest and most experienced crew in the Olympic regatta.

The Italian Crew
Cigaretten – Bilderdienst Hamburg-Bahrenfeld GmbH

The Italian crew was the biggest and most experienced squad in Grunau. For coxswain Cesare Milani, stroke Enrico Garzelli, Dino Barsotti, and Guglielmo Del Bimbo, this would be the second time an American crew beat them by less than a second in Olympic competition.

The race begins: The First 20 strokes
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169.

The American boat is in lane 6, closest to the buoys on the right. Next to them in Lane 5 is Great Britain, with Hungary, the European champions, in lane 4. The Swiss are in Lane 3, with the Italians in Lane 2 and Germans in Lane 1 not pictured. The Americans were in last place at 500 meters, and fifth place at 1,000 meters. A small hillock that blocked a quartering headwind (thereby sheltering the German and Italian crews) can be seen on the horizon to the left. Once the race passed the hill with about 400 meters to go, the Germans and Italians slowed when hit by the wind, just as the American crew charged.

The last 100 meters, as seen from the promenade across from the grandstand.
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169

The Americans can just barely be seen, leading, under the grandstand opposite this crowded promenade. The German shell is closest to the camera, with the Italian boat directly next to it. In the last 100 meters the three boats matched each other stroke-for-stroke in a furious drive for the gold. The chants of “Deutsch-Land! Deutsch-Land!” at the finish line were deafening.

UW Crew Team Crossing Finish Line First at Berlin Olympics, 1936
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW1705.

The American boat beats the Italians by .6 seconds, and the Germans by 1 second, to secure the Olympic gold medal. “How I struggled through that last 20 I don’t know, but the tanks were running on vapor.” Jim McMillin said. “We didn’t know who won. I heard Bob say, when we stopped rowing, in a very faint voice, ‘I think we won.’ But he didn’t know whether we did or not. The only thing I saw was on the shoreline was one of the fellows from the University… he was right on the finish line and he was jumping ten feet in the air. So we saw him and figured maybe we did win.”

German photograph of the finish line
Die Olympischen spiele 1936 in Berlin und Garmisch-Partenkirchen … Cigaretten – Bilderdienst Hamburg-Bahrenfeld GmbH

This photo, published in a German cigarette company’s Olympic review program, was taken at the same moment as the official finish line photo above, but from a slightly different angle. It appears to show the Germans victorious: “Truly, the bronze medal has a golden glow!”

Watch the final (mostly re-created with pre-recorded film and audio) in Leni Riefenstahl’s classic, Olympia below:

After the Race, August 14, 1936
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 242, NWDNS-242-HD- A50-169

After recuperating, the rowers waited for the Germans, then Italians, to be greeted by the assembled officials. Then they rowed to the dock to receive the victor’s laurels. They were awarded their gold medals at the Olympic Stadium the following afternoon. From left: coxswain Bob Moch (obscured), stroke Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George Hunt, James B. McMillin, John White, Gordon Adam, Charles Day, and Roger Morris (bow).