Sunday 29 January 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Previously I mentioned briefly Danish gymnast Niels Bukh, who would have been the first identified lgbt Olympian had his national team decided his strong physique didn’t fit in with the team’s image. He turned to training and developed his own techniques. Even though he wasn’t chosen to compete in 1908 he was the Danish team coach at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 which won the team silver medal.

Niels Bukh’s homosexuality was an open secret which was overlooked by the Nazis because he was a foreigner and a willing supporter of Hitler. But one German, Otto Peltzer, was denied the chance to compete for his home nation on home soil in 1936 because of his homosexuality. I told his story on Holocaust Memorial Day two days ago.

In 1920 Niels Bukh opened the first of his gymnastic schools which were to become famous and influential in world gymnastics. Forming a touring display team he went around the world, his gymnasts astonishing spectators with new routines and their musculature, strength and suppleness not seen before. It was a style that has become the standard.

Bukh filled his schools and teams with young farm lads, turning their work-hardened bodies into defined, sculpted hunks who performed shirtless in skin-tight leotards that hid nothing. It was controversial and almost obscene – but it was popular with spectators. It must have been an erotic dream come true for Bukh, but they also attracted the attention of someone else who saw these young studs as perfect examples of the Aryan race – Hitler.

Bukh’s gymnasts were to become an integral part of Hitler’s propaganda machine at the Berlin Olympics. Known to be anti-Semitic and anti-Communist Bukh welcomed the invitation to take part with his gymnastic team at the opening ceremony, and the famous photos of the massed ranks of Bukh’s young men marching into the stadium with swastika flags is testimony to his willing participation in the propaganda. Afterwards Bukh was awarded one of the Nazi’s highest civilian honours, the Service Cross of the Order of the German Eagle (equivalent to KBE in the UK). Even though he became a hero of the Nazi regime, in his Danish homeland he was considered a collaborator and traitor.

To finish on a brighter note, the 1936 Olympics introduced one of the most popular and iconic elements of any Olympic Games – the torch relay. At the ancient Olympics the flame was already on site and didn’t need to be lit. In the modern Olympics the flame was originally (at the 1928 Amsterdam games) just a ceremonial cauldron at the stadium. Hitler’s advisers decided to put emphasise on the propaganda that the ancient gods of Olympus approved of the Berlin games by lighting a torch at Olympia itself and carrying it in a relay to the host city.

The torch relay was a common part of ancient celebrations, and the most famous of these was the relay at the Great Panathenean Games (the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece), but the Berlin Olympics turned it into a ceremonial event that has been enjoyed by millions ever since. It has now come to be a symbol of freedom and diversity with many thousands of relay runners from all sections of society taking part.

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