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Aug 26, 2004 7:45 am

The Olympic Idea

NBC's coverage of the Olympics has included a few touching human interest stories, allowing us to glimpse a spiritual subtext to the physically demanding competitions on the field. Some of these stories are of an historical nature. In one feature, Tom Brokaw detailed the Olympic games of 1944. 1944? History records that there were no games during World War II. But these games were unique.

On the 60th anniversary of a very special Olympiad, Brokaw told us of Polish officers who, after valiantly fighting the Nazis, were captured and detained at a prison camp in Woldenberg. Four of these officers are still alive, in their 80s and 90s, and testified to their remarkable experiences.

The Poles had been captured in 1939, many of their comrades slaughtered. Understanding the intimate tie between mind and body, the survivors focused on their physical fitness as a means of bolstering the mental strength they required to deal with the nightmarish conditions of Nazi internment. By July 1944, with Germany in internal turmoil, these men were granted permission, miraculously, to stage a prisoner Olympics. (Interestingly, other POWs staged Olympic games in camps close to Nuremberg in 1940.) Some 6000 individuals assembled in the camps and raised a makeshift Olympic flag, one made from bed sheets and other cloth. Even the German prison guards saluted the flag, treating it with solemnity. Men on both sides of this lethal divide, were moved to tears. Brokaw explains:

The games continued for 22 days, including soccer, track & field, and volleyball. There were tickets issued, a detailed program, commemorative stamps, diplomas for the winners. Some concessions were necessary. Boxing was reduced to 2-minute rounds, and due to repeated injuries, soon canceled. Not surprisingly, the Germans would not permit the javelin or the pole vault.

The survivors testified to the psychological value of participating in these games within the confines of their prison. They reveled in their individual achievements as athletes, gaining a respite from the horrors of a war that had consumed tens of millions of people throughout the world.

Eventually, the Germans were driven out of Poland; many of the Woldenberg prisoners were marched 300 miles back into Germany in the winter of 1945, resettled in camps there, where they were saved from liquidation by the advancing US 12th armored division. Some of the prisoners, however, remained behind, where they soon found themselves in a new prison of Stalin's making.

Those Woldenberg Olympians who outlasted the Nazis and the Communists built monuments to the"the Olympic idea transcending war." As Brokaw concludes:"They are the last ones left, men who survived on will and imagination, and a determination that the day would come when the world would not be at war, but together in peace. The Olympic flame may never have burned brighter than it did in a prison camp in 1944."

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