Art competitions were part of each Olympic program between 1912 to 1948. In 1949 the IOC made the decision to hole art exhibitions instead of contests with prizes based on the reasoning that only amateurs could compete in the athletic events while professional artists were winning the medals in the art categories.

For the 1936 games in Berlin, the German government sponsored an “International Dance Tournament” to precede the games. The United States and several Western European countries did not compete. (Source: The Journal of Health and Physical Education Volume 7, Issue 9, 1936)

Martha Graham was invited by German officials to represent the United States at the tournament.

She aligned herself with other artists, like John Heartfield, and did not want to dignify German Nazism or risk her dance troupe. She declined the invitation:

Olympic Protest

Martha GrahamIn accord with a growing move of protest in the arts against the current political regime in Germany, Martha Graham in a recent press interview revealed that she had declined an invitation to represent the United States at the International Dance Festival to be held in Berlin this Summer in connection with the Olympic Games.

Miss Graham’s invitation was issued by the dance division of the German Ministry of Culture, over the signatures of the Deutsche Tanzbuehne, of the president of the organization committee of the Eleventh Olympic Games and of the Reichminister of Volksaufklarung un Propadanda.

In her letter declining the invitation, Miss Graham said: “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting your invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible. In addition, some of my concert group would not be welcomed in Germany.”

In Dance Observer, April 1936

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Olympic Protest

Graham had several Jewish members in her dance group at that time. German authorities replied promising that all of her dancers would be treated with respect, but Graham did not want to take that risk, despite the massive amount of attention dancing at the event would bring.