Tuesday 25 June 2019

Hitler and the Irish hammer throwersAfter Pat O'Callaghan won Ireland's first ever gold medal in 1928, it seems Hitler became obsessed with copying his hammer-throwing techniques for Nazi Olympic glory. By Ronan Abayawickrema

Berlin, 1936. Adolf Hitler's Nazi party is ruthlessly using the 11th Olympiad, which is taking place in the German capital, for propaganda purposes. Although Hitler's crackpot theories of racial superiority were disproved after African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four golds and Korean runner Son Ki-chong secured victory in the marathon, German competitors won the most medals overall.

Among these were gold and silver in the hammer throw, an event won by Ireland in the previous Olympics at Los Angeles in 1932.

Irish athletes didn't compete in Berlin, due to a spat about whether Irish sporting bodies had jurisdiction over the Six Counties.

But did Ireland's hammer throwers unwittingly aid Hitler's competitors in the sport in their propaganda coup?

It might sound far-fetched, but the one-two Olympic victory for Germany's hammer throwers in 1936 was the culmination of one of the most bizarre stories arising from the notorious Berlin Olympics: how Hitler sent a camera crew to film Ireland's world-class hammer throw team at a training session in the run-up to the games.

The story emerged following a piece of detective work by Brian Walsh, curator of the County Museum, Dundalk, as he was preparing its exhibition, 'Patriot Games: Ireland and the Olympics 1896-2010'.

"The Irish and the Irish-Americans were very proficient in the hammer throw in the early games, from 1896 to up 1932," said Mr Walsh. "First-generation Irish and second-generation Irish athletes (were) dominating this event to the extent that they won medals in eight of nine Olympics."

Indeed, although Irish athletes had won medals for Britain and other nations in earlier games, hammer-thrower Dr Pat O'Callaghan became the first athlete representing Ireland to win gold -- at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam -- and came first again in the event at the LA Games in 1932.

Ireland's prowess in the event caught the attention of the Nazis, who were well aware of how sport could be used for political gain.

"Hitler had a definite political agenda," says Mr Walsh, adding that the Nazis' thinking at the time was along the lines of, 'If the Irish are so good at this, what are they doing right, and what can we replicate . . . how can we improve on our own technique, so that German athletes will dominate the event in 1936?'.

As he was putting together the exhibition on Irish involvement in the Olympics, Mr Walsh discovered a brief article from the Irish Independent, which confirmed that the Germans had brought Dr O'Callaghan to Hamburg in 1934 to film his hammer-throwing technique -- and had also X-rayed his shoulders and legs to study his physical make-up.

Yet it seems that the Nazi attempts to analyse the techniques of Ireland's hammer throwers didn't stop there. Maurice Coyle, whose father Dan represented Ireland in the event at the 1948 games in London, told Mr Walsh about an intriguing reference in a letter to his father from Dan's brother.

"The story goes that Hitler sent over (to Ireland) a camera crew to basically study and record Irish hammer throwers in practice and competition, and brought it back to Germany for analysis," says Mr Walsh.

The letter also suggested that Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who shot the infamous propaganda movie 'Triumph of the Will' about the 1934 Nuremburg rally, may have been involved in filming the Irish hammer team. However, Mr Walsh said that he was unable to verify this and suggested this reference may have been confusing the Irish footage with Riefenstahl's film of the actual Berlin Olympics.

An appeal to the public for further information about the footage has been unsuccessful so far, but Mr Walsh says he would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows anything about it.

He also contacted German sporting bodies in search of the film but to no avail.

However, he said it would not be surprising if it no longer exists, adding: "We have to factor in that there's been a World War, the Cold War as well, and, I suppose, just basically 60 years of degradation."

Nevertheless, the story fits in with the documented evidence that the Nazis did film Dr O'Callaghan's technique in Hamburg in 1934 and, as Mr Walsh notes, recording footage of successful athletes in action for later analysis is a common practice that continues today.

What is certain is that Dr O'Callaghan did attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but as a spectator and not a competitor.

According to the Irish Independent article, he "watched glumly from the stands" as the German hammer thrower Karl Hein took gold with a throw of 185ft, 4ins -- more than 10 feet shy of a competitive throw Dr O'Callaghan made a year before.

Yet perhaps the Irish champion's glum demeanour was also due to the fact that he found Hein's hammer-throwing technique strangely familiar?

'Patriot Games: Ireland and the Olympics 1896-2010' will run at the County Museum, Dundalk until October 31, 2012. Tel: (042) 9327056, www.dundalkmuseum.ie. To see a vast archive of 1936 Olympics footage and stills, visit: www.britishpathe.com

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