Henry Kissinger: Scholar, statesman, Olympic fan

May 24, 2012, 1:00 PM UTC

Henry Kissinger

FORTUNE — In 1936, Adolf Hitler watched with dismay as African-American track star Jesse Owens won four gold medals, dominated the Summer Olympics in Berlin, and undermined the Fuhrer’s edict that the Aryan race was the supreme race. Henry Kissinger, at the time a 13-year-old boy living in Bavaria, was enthralled by the events and amazed at how the Nazis behaved when the eyes of the world were on Germany. Now a member of the U.S. Olympic Foundation, the former secretary of state spoke with Fortune about why he is a longtime supporter of the games.

Are you going to London?

Yes, and I’m taking my grandchildren with me.

What are your favorite events?

One of my grandsons, who is 9, is a basketball fanatic, so I will see many basketball games. I’ll also see diving.

What was it like to live through the ’36 Olympics?

The Nazis came to power in 1933, and the persecution and segregation of Jews started almost immediately. Gradually, it escalated. But it slackened off noticeably in the months before the games and continued to ease off until the Olympics were over. Hitler wanted Germany to seem a normal government in the eyes of the outside world.

Now don’t create the impression that Hitler for one second thought that what he had done was wrong, or that the Olympics in any way changed the Nazis. But it was powerful for them to be watched.

Do you think that the heightened attention that is brought to bear on the host country is still that compelling?

Of course. The media of the whole world focuses on a particular country where the games are taking place, for several months before and while the events happen.

So obviously governments want to put their best face forward during the Olympics. And, while I don’t know the details, there were discussions between China and the Olympic movement before the Beijing Games. Certainly China worked very hard to make a good impression going into the Olympics.

For my generation, Greg Louganis winning a gold medal after hitting his head during a dive at the Seoul games is an indelible memory. Everyone I know watched that happen. And we were so inspired by him.

Exactly. Everyone watches. And that is exactly the point.

For more on the London Summer Games, click on the links below

The (very big) bucks behind the 2012 Olympics
Wall Street gets behind the games
Henry Kissinger: Scholar, statesman, Olympic fan
Will NBC’s Olympic investment pay off?
Rich Sport: U.S. Olympic swimmers float on cash
Poor Sport: When Olympic athletes have to moonlight
London locks down for the Olympics
BMW’s ultimate Olympic machine
13 steps to keeping the London Olympics safe
London’s extreme Olympic makeover

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the June 11, 2012 issue of Fortune.