As the 2020 Summer Olympics open in Tokyo, we will be remembering a number of athletes who were victims of Nazi persecution. Many former Olympians from many different countries who did not conform to the Nazis’ racist worldview had cause to fear for their lives. 

When the Nazis seized power, it did not take long for Jewish athletes in Germany to feel the consequences. Following the decision to exclude Jews from the civil service in April 1933, many gymnastics and sports associations reacted in anticipatory obedience and excluded Jewish members too. They were stripped of their titles and banned from competitive events. Local governments forbade Jewish athletes to use playing fields and gymnasiums.

Jesse Owens at the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936. Copyright: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R96374

Three years later, in August 1936, the Olympic Games would be held in Berlin without Jewish athletes from Germany being able to take part, despite the fact that some of them were among the country’s most successful sportspersons. Efforts to boycott the Olympics in Nazi Germany surfaced in many countries, but ultimately the Games took place as planned. The athletes from other countries who took part in the Games included a large number of black and Jewish athletes, many of whom succeeded in winning a medal – much to the Nazis’ chagrin.

Seven life stories

To help Germany present a cosmopolitan image to the world, the National Socialists brought Helene Mayer onto the German team shortly before the Games. She was categorized as a “half-Jew” and won the silver medal in the individual foil event. By contrast, Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann was not allowed to compete, despite having set the German record of 1.60 meters shortly before

Johann "Rukeli" Trollmann

Rukeli (3rd from the right) with other members of his Club „Sparta“ from Hannover.

However, Jews were not the only ones to be excluded from sporting activities. Members of other persecuted groups, such as the Sinti and Roma, were no longer allowed to engage in sporting activities either. One of them was the Sinti boxer Johann (Rukeli) Trollmann, one of the most famous boxers of the period.

Three years after the Olympic Games in Berlin, the Second World War began, as did Germany’s occupation of much of continental Europe. Now German athletes were not the only ones threatened by the Nazis, former Olympians from many different countries who did not conform to the Nazis’ racist worldview had cause to fear for their lives.

During the Olympics, we will be presenting the following sports personalities:


  • Austrian swimmer Otto Herschmann
  • German track and field athlete Lilli Henoch
  • Dutch gymnast Stella Blits-Agsteribbe
  • American rugby player Allan Muhr
  • German basketball player Ralph Klein
  • German boxers Johann Trollmann and Johnny Bamberger
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