On Sunday an Olympic spokesperson actually put out a statement explaining that the Games’ flame in the Bird’s Nest stadium hadn’t gone out. “The flame is fine,” they said when approached by USA Today, whose photographer Rob Schumacher published a shot that suggested it was very much not. Somewhere else in the Olympic village, irony keeled over and died.

I’ve had one eye on the vaguely dystopian spectacle of these Games, a hyperreal propaganda-spectacular played out, in part, on phoney snow and against the backdrop of an abandoned steel mill. The other has been reading about what IOC president Thomas Bach calls the “boycott ghosts of the past”, and in particular the story of Rudi Ball.

The Olympic boycott movement really began in 1936, before the infamous summer Games in Berlin, and the less well-known winter Games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria earlier that same year. There was no formal boycott in the end, despite all the many calls for one, because the IOC – and in particular its future president Avery Brundage, who was then running the American Olympic Committee – overrode everyone else’s concerns and accepted the Nazi party’s reassurances that everything was (here’s that word again) fine.

Years later, researchers at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre would prove that Brundage’s construction firm received a contract to build the new German Embassy in Washington because of his “friendly attitude to German sports”. Not that he needed the sweetener, “any more than Bill Clinton would need a bribe to support Hillary”, said Brundage’s biographer, Allen Guttmann.

So the decision about whether or not to boycott those Winter Games became a personal choice. Many, like British skier Peter Lunn, refused to attend the opening procession, while others, such as the two-time Olympic bobsled champion Billy Fiske, refused to go to the Games at all.

Rudi Ball, though, found himself facing an even more difficult decision. Ball, who was born in Berlin in 1911, was the star turn on the Berliner SC ice hockey team that won the German national championship for six years in a row between 1928 and 1933, and was one of the best players on the national side that won the bronze medal at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932. He was also half-Jewish.

Mystery still surrounds Rudi Ball and his decision to play for Germany in the 1936 Olympics
Mystery still surrounds Rudi Ball and his decision to play for Germany in the 1936 Olympics. Photograph: ullstein bild Dtl/Getty Images

Which meant he shouldn’t have been facing a decision at all, since, from 1933 onwards, the Reich Sports Office had introduced an “Aryans only” policy in all German sports organisations. Ball moved to St Moritz after that, in what the papers described as “self-exile”, and then to Milan, where he played for the Diavoli Rossoneri, who won the Italian national championship, and the prestigious Spengler Cup in St Moritz, in 1935. By then, he was playing better than ever. Of course, when it came to whether or not he would be picked to play for the German national team again at their home Olympics, the pressing question wasn’t his form.

Ball died in 1975, and the details of exactly what happened in those few weeks were lost with him. The story goes that the German captain, Gustav Jaenecke, told the authorities that he would refuse to play unless Ball was selected. This is the version presented in Tom McNab’s play 1936: Berlin, and elsewhere.

The Nazis certainly used Ball as part of the PR campaign they ran to ward off the threat of the boycott. “All German athletes who fulfil the Olympic conditions will be welcome,” said the secretary general of the German Olympic Committee, Dr Carl Diem. “We have already included the Jewish sportsman Rudi Ball as a member of the ice hockey team.” Ball’s brilliant performance in Germany’s first match, a 1-0 defeat to the USA, was reported around the world. “Nazis Cheer a Jew” was one headline, “Brilliant Playing of Rudi Ball Moves German Fans to Applause” another.

It was also reported that Ball had been coerced into playing. A “highly reliable source” told a reporter from the Australian Jewish News that Ball “is taking part in the Olympic Games against his own will”. Ball himself hinted that this may have been the case in an interview he gave to the Canadian foreign correspondent Matthew Halton, who asked him how he “could bear” to play for Nazi Germany.

Ball, who always referred to the Germans as “they”, rather than “we”, told Halton that refusing to play wouldn’t have done German Jews any good, “and it might have done them harm”. Halton wrote that he couldn’t repeat some of their conversation, which, his son David Halton later suggested, was “certainly a code that Ball feared to say the worst of what was happening”.

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Ball’s mother and father were still living in Berlin at that point. And here we get a real hint of why Ball made the decision he did. It has been suggested that Ball struck a deal with the Nazi regime in which he agreed to play on the proviso that his parents were allowed out of the country.

And, when you look through the emigration records, there they are, Leonhard and Gertrude Ball, on the passenger list for the SS Windsor Castle, sailing from Southampton to Cape Town on 3 July 1936. They didn’t come back. Ball joined them after the war, which he spent back in Germany, playing for his old club, SC Berlin.

In his last interview, given in 1970, Ball was asked whether he was a forgotten man, and if the sport owed him more recognition, “I am the one who owes hockey,” he replied, “it saved me and my family from the holocaust.”