My grandmother Margaret Bergmann was a born athlete. Self-taught and hyper-talented, she excelled at every sport she tried. She loved the German countryside town of Laupheim, where she grew up, and her interests were attuned to the youth movements of the time, which focussed on local nature and individual freedom. She played every sport available, and shone in track-and-field events. As the only girl in her class, she played sports with the boys, and they accepted her because she was by far the best athlete among them. The high jump became her calling card. This was decades before the backward-diving Fosbury Flop technique was invented, and Bergmann simply jumped huge, impossible heights, sailing over the bar. In pictures, she appears to float gracefully, without strain. Her family was secular, and she did not think much about her Jewish identity until she was in her late teens, when the Nazis began their rise to power. Suddenly signs reading “NO JEWS OR DOGS” were openly posted in windows. She was banned from athletic-training facilities she’d formerly had access to, and the kids at school began to beat up her younger brother for being Jewish. She was accepted at the University of Berlin, but they told her to wait until this thing that was happening blew over. She deferred acceptance and moved to London, where she began competing again.
The modern Olympics had been created a few decades prior, in 1896, as a modern multinational competition, based on descriptions of ancient Greece’s Panhellenic games. They were shopped around as a sporting World’s Fair, a tourist attraction that cities could pay to host. The 1936 Games were awarded to Weimar Germany, in 1931. Five years later, the National Socialist Party had seized full control of the German government, and Adolf Hitler inherited the ceremony. He was not initially sold on the Olympics—he thought that it was “an invention of Jews and Freemasons,” and that it was vulgar to let inferior races compete with the superior white one. But the German sports administrator Carl Diem convinced Hitler that the Olympics were a grand opportunity to showcase Nazi propaganda and demonstrate Germany’s growing power. The modern Olympics’ mythologizing of the Western empire, a world that begins not with the Egyptians or the Mayans but the ancient Greeks, fell right in line with the Nazis’ fantasized return to an older and supposedly racially purer era; for the Nazis, ancient Greece was a mythical locus of their Aryan origins. The marketing image of the Olympic Games as timeless ritual fit squarely with the Nazis’ desire to portray Aryanism as an ancient bloodline, connected to old esoteric traditions, unstoppably dominant and irreplaceable.
The 1928 Olympics, in Amsterdam, had revived a torch-lighting ceremony from the ancient games, which appealed to the Nazis’ taste for giant pagan flames that could inspire fear and awe. For the Berlin Games, the Nazis conceived the most emblematic image of the modern Olympics: the torch relay. Later, with her movie “Olympia,” the director Leni Riefenstahl would give the Berlin Games the same valorizing, Hollywood treatment that she gave the Nazi Party with “Triumph of the Will.” Riefenstahl is sometimes wrongly trotted out for reconsideration as a pioneering woman in film, but the critical censure aimed at her is not born of sexism. For all their pomp, Fascist images are boring, reducing human beings to pure physical bodies lacking interiority. The opening ceremony became tied irrevocably to Fascism, with images of thousands of people falling in line.
Bergmann was called back to Germany by the government. They made threats about her parents. German officials were not sure whether excluding Jews from their Olympic team would spark a world boycott; they were depending on an enormous audience for the Games to broadcast their new identity. And so my grandmother was forced to train for the Games at a German athletic camp. She thought constantly about what she would do when she won, how she could never heil Hitler. She wanted to demonstrate that Jews were not inferior, and she wanted to win because she was the best high jumper alive. But, shortly before the Games, the Nazis dropped my grandmother from the roster, convinced that they no longer needed token Jewish athletes. Bergmann received a letter from the Nazis, telling her that she was being cut because she was not up to par—a lie, as scores from the time demonstrate. The letter was signed “Heil Hitler.” Bergmann was furious that she would not be able to prove that she was the superior Jewish body that the Nazis did not believe existed. She was also glad to get out of Germany immediately.
She returned to London, eventually immigrating to New York with the ten dollars allowed her by the German government. (She dropped the second “N” in her name after arriving in the U.S.) She worked as a maid while trying to get her parents safely to New York, and she was thrilled when Jesse Owens won gold in Berlin: a black athlete, from her newly adopted country of America, proving that the Nazi ideology and all white supremacy are built on bullshit. She competed in America for a few years, winning American titles in the high jump and shot put. She wanted to train for the 1940 Olympics, but she chose to stop competing after the outbreak of the Second World War. My grandfather Bruno Lambert returned to Germany, as an army medic; his unit at one point made its way through his home town of Andernach, and he saw that his parents were gone. Later, at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, he found out that they had been taken to the death camps. When my grandparents’ New York neighborhood integrated, some of the Jewish neighbors expressed concern about the type of people who’d be moving in next door. My grandmother found this attitude disgusting. How could Jews, of all people, show such ugly prejudice?
Margaret Bergman Lambert lived to a hundred and three years old, which is a great way to say “Fuck you” to Nazis. She was an avid watcher of sports throughout her life, and she excelled at bowling, the only sport she continued to play, into her eighties. She was sharp and witty until she reached a hundred and one, at which point she finally began to show signs of senility.
Two of my grandmother’s favorite athletes were Venus and Serena Williams, who grew up in South Los Angeles in the nineteen-eighties. The Williams sisters have lately been named by Los Angeles’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, as the poster children for the benefits of the Olympics, because they played in tennis programs funded with money for youth sports that came from the 1984 Games, hosted by L.A. While people in other cities have lately lobbied to defeat Olympic bids, after taking stock of the financial and human-rights costs that the Games have incurred elsewhere, Garcetti has been fixated on bringing the Games back to L.A., where I live. The city tried unsuccessfully to get the 2016 Games, which eventually went to Rio de Janeiro, and came under consideration for 2024 after Boston, under pressure from its own citizens, dropped out. Donald Trump tweeted excitedly in July about bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles. Paris was also angling for the Games, and officials there made it clear that they were willing to walk away from any offer other than 2024; L.A. made a deal with the International Olympic Committee to take 2028, instead. Public forums promised by the bid committee never materialized. Instead, officials allowed only a few public-comment periods during the city council’s sub-committee meetings, including one where a councilman told the crowd, “I’m tired of hearing these people coming to us and questioning our decision-making.”
Garcetti will not be in office when the 2028 Olympics take place, and there is a sense that the bid has more to do with his national political ambitions than a conviction that the Games will actually help the city. During the 1984 Games, after all, the Los Angeles Police Department, led by Chief Daryl Gates, swept neighborhoods and arrested hundreds of black and brown youth, “ostensibly to minimize gang crime during the Games.” This was a landmark moment in the militarization of American police, in which Los Angeles led the way. Four years after the Games, Gates led Operation Hammer, during which the L.A.P.D., relying on racial profiling, conducted enormous raids in South Los Angeles. As Venus and Serena Williams developed their tennis skills with ’84 Olympics subsidies, their neighborhood and its residents were being terrorized by the police. Eventually, department-wide corruption and racism were exposed, in connection with Gates’s anti-gang effort CRASH. The seeds for this, or some of them, at least, were planted in 1984.
Now ICE is conducting raids in Los Angeles. These raids began before Trump became President, but they have become bolder, more aggressively public. Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez was dropping off his daughter at her Lincoln Heights school in February when he was picked up by ICE, who claimed to have targeted him over old misdemeanors, a D.U.I. and using stolen car tags. (After six months in a detention center, he was finally released in September, after pleading guilty to lesser vehicle-code violations.) A designation of L.A. as a sanctuary city would help prevent local law enforcement, including the sheriff’s department, L.A.P.D., and prison officials, from collaborating with ICE. But Trump has threatened to deny federal funds to cities that claim sanctuary status, and Los Angeles needs those federal funds for the Olympics. In January, Garcetti said that the Olympics could “be a template for the Trump Administration if it really wants to see infrastructure investments throughout the country.” He added, of the Administration, “We’re their ideal partner.” Garcetti has refused to call L.A. a sanctuary city. There is a climate of fear now in Los Angeles: people are encouraged to snitch on their neighbors, families are separated by police in front of a school in broad daylight. I think of the stories my grandmother told of being exiled in her own home town, a place she’d truly loved.
The Germans visited Los Angeles to observe the 1932 Games. They were inspired by the Coliseum, a giant, tacky arena with the monumental scale of a Cecil B. DeMille film. The 1932 Summer Games were held during the Great Depression; Los Angeles was the only city to bid on those Games, too. The massive spectacle was perhaps meant to serve as a comforting fantasy for the stricken nation, a fun distraction, like Busby Berkeley musicals. President Herbert Hoover did not attend, possibly realizing that celebrating the Olympics’ false abundance in a time of abject national suffering was a bad look. As L.A. spent lavishly on the Games, the streets were lined with “Hoovervilles,” the Depression-era shanty towns constructed and occupied by the city’s homeless and named mockingly after the President.
In 2017, encampments for the homeless again line the streets of L.A. There are tent cities all over downtown, as Skid Row, the historic neighborhood for the homeless, cannot support the size of its growing population. In the last year alone, homelessness in Los Angeles County spiked twenty-three per cent. Homelessness among Latinos in L.A. shot up more than sixty per cent.
Skid Row isn’t just under threat because of the expansion of the homeless population. Those blocks are also a major target for gentrification and real-estate speculation. Downtown Los Angeles has been redeveloped into a luxury zone for the wealthy during the last fifteen years, even as homelessness has risen just outside its limits. In August, Garcetti and other city politicians voted to spend billions of dollars on a sporting event, then mugged for cameras in front of a giant “LA2028” sign on the steps of City Hall. It was a private event; the public could view from afar but not attend. Outside, there were more than a dozen homeless people living on the City Hall lawn.