The Third Reich and the World Cup

2010-05-05 00:00

THE other day, I was asked to do a presentation to the Museums Services, on how we have achieved a legacy from the Football World Cup. It was in Stellenbosch. I battled to find the venue, which was part of the Stellenbosch Museum. And the reason I battled to find it, I discovered later, was that the sign had fallen down, and no one had bothered to put it up again.

I thought I was pretty much on time — but discovered that the speaker before me was still in full flight, giving a talk on the way in which the Nazis had tried to use the 1936 Olympics to benefit Adolf Hitler and the Reich. It was sobering stuff indeed­.

The presenter was illustrating her talk with various athletes, who had been sidelined or excluded, either because they were not Aryan enough, or because they were too dark. She spoke of a contestant from the United States, Jesse Owens, who was (what would now be called) African-American. He won four gold medals and became a nightmare for the Nazis because he was besieged by autograph hunters and was cheered every time he entered the stadium. Rather than acknowledge him, as he had done for all other athletes, Hitler left the stadium early.

She told the story of Jewish athletes who were excluded from participation. She spoke of one young Jewish athlete, Helene Mayer, who was used for publicity (unbeknown to her) and because of extreme pressure from the U.S. on the Reich to include Jewish athletes in the German team. She was used as a kind of window-dressing. She was chosen because she was “half Aryan” — and generally had physical features which the Nazis found vaguely acceptable. And so pleased was she to have been included in the German team, that, like everyone else, there she was lifting her arm in the Nazi salute.

The presenter spoke of how Berlin was “sanitised” before the games. How vagrants, the indigent, street people, the poor, were all gathered together and moved out of Berlin. What was presented to the world was life under the Reich as being something very close to paradise.

I could not help looking for parallels with what it is we are doing here. Every so often, one hears of plans to take street people, beggars and street children elsewhere, so that the overseas visitors will not be unduly bothered by them. I do not know of any actual plans to do that, I have to say. But the rumours­ persist.

So, at the last Technical Steering Committee for the Province, I made the following suggestion: I proposed, in the light of the kind of Constitution we enjoy, and the kind of rights every citizen in this country holds under it, that we enable this category of citizen — the street people, the homeless and the street children — with a chance to “Touch the World Cup”. Because it will be things like that (tokenistic though they may be), which will distinguish us, in the end, from the kind of event that was held in 1936.

There is, at this moment, a “tour” beginning of the actual World Cup. The “Trophy Tour” it is called. The trophy is made, I hear, of 18-carat gold. It has its own security detail. It travels the world under high security and individuals are allowed to be photographed next to it. It will be in Cape Town in a few days’ time. And the poor will love it and be pleased to be photographed next to it. It is Sepp Blatter’s “let them eat cake”.

I want just one occasion, which is not used for any other purpose, other than for them to be recognised as the people they are. Just one occasion, amidst the hype, the money, the glitz and the show. And I want the ambassadors of the participating countries to be there when they are. Let’s see if it will happen.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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