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School of Business and Management

How the Nazis invented the Olympic torch relay and other modern Olympic traditions

In true modern Olympic style, the end of the Rio Olympics was marked with a breath-taking closing ceremony. The carnival-inspired performance celebrated the culture, music and history of the host nation; an extravagant way of letting the world know what Brazil has to offer. The opening and closing ceremonies of the modern Olympic Games are amongst the most anticipated shows in the world, and have the ability to draw in a very large global audience.

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The opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics reached and estimated worldwide television audience of 900 million people, making it a potent communication tool.

In a new documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, Professor of Communications at QMUL’s School of Business and Management, explores the origins of the modern Olympic opening ceremony in one of the world’s most tyrannical regimes. Hitler’s Olympics: How one man invented Olympic ritual, recounts how the Olympic Games, founded on the idea of fostering international good will, became a powerful propaganda tool for Nazi Germany.

When Berlin was awarded the Olympics in 1931, prior to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, it was seen as chance to rehabilitate Germany to the community of nations after a time of great instability, crippling reparations costs, and growing anti-German sentiment after WWI.

However, Hitler and Goebbels were quick to grasp the potential of the Olympics as a means of propagating an image of a wealthy, friendly, powerful and inclusive Germany, and the opening ceremony was to play a crucial part. It was a lavish production, full of spectacle and pageantry, and in an effort to establish Greece as the seed for Germanic civilization, the Nazis invented one of the most iconic of all Olympic rituals, the Olympic torch relay.  

The documentary exposes the ways in which the 1936 Olympics successfully averted the international press’ gaze away from the concentration camps and their anti-Semitic policies, and allowed Germany to advertise itself as a global leader in technology and organisation.

You can watch the full documentary online: Hitler’s Olympics.