Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Haunting lesson of Nazi Olympics

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
August 9, 2013 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Protesters rally against Russia's anti-gay laws and President Vladimir Putin's stand on gay rights last week in New York.
Protesters rally against Russia's anti-gay laws and President Vladimir Putin's stand on gay rights last week in New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two Jewish sprinters from U.S. kept from running in Nazi Germany in 1936 Olympics
  • LZ Granderson: The 2014 Olympics taking place in Russia with its extreme anti-gay laws
  • In Russia, LGBT teens reportedly being kidnapped, bullied, even killed, he says
  • All of Congress should sign letter for Russia to ensure LGBT Americans' safety, he says

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute Fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is also a senior writer for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Usually when we talk about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin we focus on two men -- Adolf Hitler and Jesse Owens -- and rightfully so. They are the two with an undeniable impact on history, albeit in vastly different ways.

But in light of President Barack Obama's recent remarks on "The Tonight Show" denouncing Russia's new anti-gay laws, laws that have led to bloodshed in the streets, it is important that we remember Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller.

They too were at those games. They too left a mark.

You see, the day before they were scheduled to run in the 400-meter relay, their coach, Dean Cromwell, replaced them.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

They were not injured.

They did not break any team rules nor were they disqualified for any violations.

They were, however, Jewish, and this was Nazi Germany, which had adopted the Nuremberg laws limiting Jewish citizens' rights a year earlier. Apparently, Cromwell, along with leaders from the U.S. Olympic Committee, decided it would be best if Glickman and Stoller did not compete.

At the time I'm sure it seemed like a decision that would only hurt the two men. After all, the 400, led by Owens, still won gold.

Today we know better.

Athletes: Sochi boycott not the answer
Obama: Russia must respect gay rights
Olympians jeer Russia's anti-gay law

Today we look at that decision and lower our heads in shame, understanding that it made us complicit with something that evolved into a far worse crime than unjustly replacing a pair of sprinters. In the moment when we should have spoken up, we remained silent.

And so here we are again: an Olympics on the horizon, another host country with recently legislated laws persecuting a group of people, and for a while, we were silent. And then Tuesday happened.

"I've been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people's basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country," Obama said, going on to talk about how Russia's treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people goes against the spirit of the Olympics.

He did not call for a boycott.

But on Wednesday he canceled a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin planned for September. The White House cited Russia's decision to grant asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and "lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control" among other reasons. But it also mentioned human rights issues.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 88 members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats -- urging him to do something to guarantee the safety of LGBT Americans visiting Russia during that time. That leaves 447 lawmakers we should be asking why they did not sign that letter.

Last month Buzzfeed provided the world photos of LGBT people being violently beaten by anti-gay protesters and police in Russia.

There are reports of LGBT teens being kidnapped, bullied, tortured and killed.

Russian officials have said they don't condone the attacks, but police have stood by while they happened and then arrested the battered victims for being gay. And because it is unclear whether or not the anti-gay laws will be enforced during the Olympics, the safety of all Americans -- because you can be arrested if police think you look gay or even if you support gays -- is in question.

Which brings me to: Why aren't the names of all 535 members of Congress on that letter?

In talking about the 1936 Olympics, I do not equate what is happening in Russia to what happened to Jewish people during World War II. I just want to remind you that the Holocaust did not happen overnight. It was subtle.

Surgical.

In silence.

These new anti-gay laws are disturbingly similar to the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws Hitler passed before the 1936 Olympics. And with the Pew Institute finding 84% of Russians believe society should reject gay people, perhaps some saying they object to gays for fear of arrest, the world should question how far Russia intends to go.

We should question how far Russia, our lukewarm ally, intends to go and what our participation in the 2014 Olympic Games will look like generations from now.

In one of his final interviews before passing away in 2001, Glickman told the San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage that there had been some talk of boycotting the 1936 Olympics because of Hitler, but no one foresaw what would happen to the Jews a short time later.

"There is no way in the world that I would think of going to Nazi Germany," he said. "The Holocaust and those things around Nazi Germany which we all loathe weren't in existence in 1936."

No one can predict the future. But this week Obama showed he learned an important lesson from our Olympic past -- offering silence to appease evil is a senseless endeavor because evil will never be satisfied. Now it's our turn to speak up. There are 447 members of Congress who have yet to sign that letter to Kerry -- we need to be asking why.

Photos: Wrecking homes for an Olympic highway

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT