Vast sums have been spent on state-of-the-art infrastructure sparking widespread fears that the host nation will milk the competition for propaganda purposes.

Calls for a boycott and the creation of an alternative event grow in volume.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a reference to Vladimir Putin’s Russia hosting the World Cup this summer but it was also the situation that prevailed more than 80 years ago in the run-up to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin – only on that occasion one country had the moral courage to boycott Adolf Hitler’s showcase for fascism and set up its own alternative.

It was a noble endeavour but one that was destined to fail in the most dramatic fashion.

By 1936 the Führer had been in power for three years. Anti-Semitic policies had been introduced that banned Jews from marrying non-Jews and nor were they permitted to be employed as civil servants, practise law or occupy public positions.

They released 25,000 pigeons. They circled overhead and then they shot a cannon and they scared the poop out of the pigeons

An “Aryans-only” policy was instituted at all athletic organisations and only one token Jewish competitor was allowed to join the German Olympic team.

Meanwhile, no expense was spared when it came to preparing for the Games.

Hitler commissioned a new 100,000-seater stadium, six gymnasiums and many smaller arenas and gave his favourite film-maker Leni Riefenstahl what was then a massive budget of £5million to record the event for posterity.

Once it became clear that Berlin would be a propaganda pageant, campaigns to boycott the Games surfaced in the US, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands.

But once the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States narrowly voted to participate in December 1935, almost all the other countries fell into line.

Only Spain, which voted in a Left-leaning Popular Front government in February 1936, and the Soviet Union, which refused to participate in the Olympics on ideological grounds until 1952, ended up boycotting Berlin.

Not content with simply withdrawing their athletes from Hitler’s Games, the Spanish decided to attempt to steal the Nazis’ thunder by organising a competition of their own.

Called the Olympiada Popular, or People’s Olympiad, it advertised its liberal credentials via a poster featuring images of three athletes: one white, one black and one mixed race.

The Catalan capital of Barcelona was the ideal city to host the competition as it had already built all of the facilities required for the 1929 International Exposition seven years earlier, including a 56,000-seater stadium.

Spain scheduled its Olympiad for July 22-26, which meant it would end six days before the Nazis’ spectacle got under way.

Given the political character of the Popular Front many of the athletes were sent by trade unions, workers’ clubs and associations, socialist and communist parties and Left-wing groups, rather than by state-sponsored committees.

A UK team was organised by the British Workers’ Sports Association.

In a press release sent out a month before the event, it said: “Arrangements for the British team to compete in the Barcelona Peoples’ Olympiad are fastly [sic] gathering pace; at least 30 participants will travel. Athletes, boxers, cyclists and swimmers are expected to go over, and rowers may possibly be included, along with table-tennis players.”

In the end, a total of 6,000 athletes from 22 nations registered for Barcelona, which brought the start date forward by three days to the 19th to accommodate the surprisingly large turnout.

The largest contingents came from the US, UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Czechoslovakia. There were also some political exiles from Germany and Italy. Even the Soviet Union sent a team.

One of the most high-profile athletes to commit herself to the cause was Canadian high jumper Eva Dawes.

She had won bronze in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 and silver at the British Empire Games two years later but refused to go to Berlin.

Dawes, who later married an Englishman and died in St Helens in 2009 at the age of 96, travelled to Europe on the SS Alaunia but never got further than Toulouse in south-west France.

She was about to board a train for Barcelona when the British consul informed her that the Spanish Civil War had broken out.

On the very day the Olympiad was set to begin, the army began its rebellion against the government, athletes woke to the sound of gunfire and the Games were over before they had begun.

An article from the time laments: “It is impossible for us to calculate our sports prowess before the world because the javelin has had to be exchanged for a rifle, the discus for a hand grenade, hurdles for parapets and trenches, foot races for military marches; likewise, our joy has slipped towards suffering, and outside attraction was derailed by horror, tourism by invasion, and light, love and life by gloom, hatred and death.”

However, not everything went smoothly for Hitler’s jamboree either.

One of the more extravagant elements of the opening ceremony involved a massive flock of birds.

US distance runner Louis Zamperini takes up the story: “They released 25,000 pigeons. They circled overhead and then they shot a cannon and they scared the poop out of the pigeons. We had flat straw hats and you could hear the pitter-patter on them. But we felt sorry for the women – they got it in their hair. There was a mass of droppings – it was so funny.”


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