Islington theatre to shine light on Hitler’s controversial Olympics

10:57 12 July 2012

Cornelius Macarthy in 1936 at Sadler

Cornelius Macarthy in 1936 at Sadler's Wells. Photo by Sheila Burnett


The story of the 1936 Berlin Games hits the stage next week

»This summer has seen London overflowing with theatre and arts projects that are loosely tied to the Olympics, via that all-too-nebulous concept, the Cultural Olympiad.

From the immersive outdoor experience that was Babel in Caledonian Park, Holloway, to Wah! Wah! Girls in the West End’s Peacock Theatre, a very British Bollywood musical, the productions have been as varied as they are plentiful.

But one thing they all seem to share, aside from a vague celebration of the cultural-diversity of London, is having barely anything to do with the Games. Cultural Olympiad they may be, but they are decidedly not about the Olympics.

So when the writer of 1936, former long-jumper and Olympic coach Tom McNab, claims it’s the only play in town that’s actually about the Olympics, he might not be far off.

Opening at Sadler’s Wells on Wednesday, it tells the story of one of the most controversial sporting events in history – the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Mr McNab, 78, said: “The play is about the attempt by the American Amateur Athletic Union to boycott the 1936 Games. It’s about the issues that arose the moment the Nazis got into power, when they were simply handed the Olympics, which had already been given to Germany.”

By 1936, Jews had already been cast out of society, banned from joining sports clubs, let alone competing. Anyone feeling aggrieved at the prospect of walking to work come the end of this month might reflect that things won’t be so bad.

Mr McNab continued: “The Olympics are about human rights, equal opportunities and human values – fairness, justice and honesty.

“But despite these being trampled on everyday by the Nazis with their treatment of the Jews, the sporting nations and governing bodies did pretty much nothing about it.

“They were run by people with no principles.”

As well as focusing on the ultimately futile boycott attempts, 1936 highlights the stories of the athletes involved, particularly Jesse Owens, whose four golds were so symbolic after Hitler’s attempts to make the Games about Aryan superiority.

Mr McNab, 78, is well placed to dramatise the notorious tournament. He has achieved great success not only in sport – coaching triple jumper Fred Alsop to fourth in the 1964 Games – but also in literature, with his first novel, Flanagan’s Run, a bestseller in the 1980s.

But perhaps his most cherished success was working on the classic Oscar-winning sports film Chariots of Fire, as its technical director. He added: “It was a great experience and it taught me a great deal about film, drama and telling stories.”

n 1936 is at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Rosebery Avenue, EC1, from Wednesday, July 18, until August 5. A discussion chaired by Tom McNab follows each performance. Tickets from £25, call 0844 412 2300 or visit


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