Shattering Hitler’s theories

A snub to racism: Jesse Owens

It is not a surprise that many athletes and athletics fans have heard about Jesse Owens. They may not know the details of his accomplishments or his life, but many have heard the name. In the build-up to the Olympic Games, that name is likely to be heard even more and would undoubtedly be mentioned by commentators of the sport. It is also very probable that documentaries would be aired about the triumph of the man who was once ranked the greatest North American athlete of his sport.

In the space of 45 minutes, Owens set three world records and equalled a fourth at the Big Ten Championships in Ferry Field, Ann Arbor, Michigan, on an afternoon in 1935. This was an impressive feat for one man to accomplish; To make it sink in, I repeat, three world records, not new meeting records. It would seem that Owens only knew how to set records. Even more well known and regarded is what Owens went on to do a year later at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games.

1n 1933, Adolf Hitler went ahead with plans which intended to use the 1936 Olympics as a showcase for his regime. He sanctioned the construction of a new stadium in Berlin in which displays of athletic prominence would showcase Aryan supremacy. The plan seemed to come at the right time for his regime, a time when international television broadcasts of sporting events were becoming mainstream. His ideas to showcase German sporting excellence, however, did not include the contributions of Jewish athletes. He made sure that they were not allowed to participate or even join athletic clubs.

There were debates on whether the games should be boycotted in the US because of Hitler’s discriminatory policies. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) fought to see that participation of US athletes was not encouraged in such a racist regime as Hitler’s. 

Eventually, the games were not boycotted by the US after Avery Brundage of the American Olympic Committee insisted that the games were not for the politicians but the athletes and that those who wanted a boycott were ‘un-American’ agitators. Owens, initially torn about competing in a racist environment, eventually expressed his desire to compete. African American publications, however, condemned his stance.

By the time Owens arrived in Germany, he was already known by locals. Remember, he had set world records before. Fans were shouting and calling his name when the team arrived. Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, capitalised on this opportunity to get Owens to wear one of his shoes. Who wouldn’t want a piece of the fame? It was a smart move, as Owens went on to win the 100m race in 10.3 seconds, ahead of African American teammate Ralph Metcalfe, who was the silver medallist in the event from the previous Olympic Games. Owens also won his heat and semifinal races before this and had equalled the world record in his heat. The next day, he followed this up with a win in the long jump over German Champion Luz Long (Luz will become incredibly one of Owens' closest friends). Despite being the world record holder in this event prior to the games, this victory was highly publicised in the media. Owens did not stop here. The next day, he won the 200m in an Olympic record time of 20.7 seconds, defeating his other African American teammate Mack Robinson, who, by the way, also ran faster than the Olympic record. This was supposed to be the end of Owens’ campaign at the Berlin Games, and what a glorious story it would have been had it even ended like this. Four days later, he led off the US 4x100 relay team to a gold medal and thus became the first American athlete to win four gold medals in track and field in a single Olympic Games, and yes, it was a new world record too. 

In all of this glory, there were undertones of control and discrimination. Jesse Owens had not really trained with the relay team going into the games and had no intention to participate in the relay. Two Jewish American sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, had gone to Berlin as members of the relay squad. At the last minute, they were pulled out of the team and replaced with Owens and Metcalfe. Even though Owens protested this change, saying he was tired and satisfied with his three gold medals, he was pretty much told to shut up and get on with it. Even though there may not be any obvious tangible evidence that this change was done to pacify Germany’s anti-Semitism, it is difficult to look at the situation without that thought.

It was widely reported that Hitler had specifically snubbed the black athletes, refusing to shake his hands with them. This, however, may have been twisted out of proportion at the time; Hitler only shook hands with the German victors on the very first day of the games and declined to take part in further medal presentations. Owens went on to acknowledge several times that Hitler waved at him after his 100m victory, which was later confirmed by other witnesses. The success of the African American athletes at the Berlin Games nonetheless disturbed Hitler. His showcase of German supremacy was not as smooth as he would have wanted. It is not too far-fetched to assume that if he had the power and foresight to know what was going to happen at the games, he would have restricted their performances. Some reports say that German officials complained that the US let “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes,” compete. The games did, however, deceptively help to show the Nazi regime as somewhat welcoming, even as the future was to reveal a horror that many could not have imagined. Even though Germany won the most medals overall, Owens’ success showed that frankly, the regime’s talk of supremacy could be put in the bin. 

Owens' success at the games would not have come as a surprise to some. He had shown athletic talent even as a youngster in high school and already made a name for himself before getting to university. As a collegiate athlete for Ohio State University, Owens won 8 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles between 1935 and 1936. Just in case you are wondering, these were all individual titles. Only one other athlete in history has equalled this record, and that was Xavier Carter in 2006. While it is still possible for an athlete to equal this record today, it wouldn’t be in exactly the same events as Owens did. Owen’s won the 100m, 200m, 220-yard hurdles races and the broad jump. The 220-yard hurdles and 100-yard dash races are no longer run at the NCAAs. Owens did win the 100m, 200m and the Broad Jump in 1936 and that record was only equalled eighty years later in 2016 by Jarrion Lawson.

Owens gave up on amateur athletics and tried to pursue endorsement deals in the United States after the Olympic Games. The US Olympic team had been invited to compete in Sweden, but Owens preferred to go after what he thought would keep him going financially. His decision led to the withdrawal of his amateur status, which meant he would not have been able to compete in future Olympic Games. Unlike some of today’s collegiate athletes, Owens had not received a scholarship for his excellence in sports. He had to work odd jobs to pay his way through school. It is no surprise then that he made the choice he did after the Olympic Games. He also had to live off-campus and eat at “blacks-only” restaurants as such segregation was still prevalent in parts of the United States. This meant that when the college team travelled around the US, he had to stay in hotels separate from his white teammates. The thought of this seriously makes one shake the head. He did not have to do this in Germany during the games, but returning home after the games, he was forced back into reality. 

While it would be convenient to talk about his triumphs in track and field without mentioning these realities, it could make for an incomplete picture. We must not shy away from the discussions surrounding the prejudice and discrimination that he must have faced because of his skin colour. 

He returned home with fame and four gold medals, but finding work still wasn’t easy. He was not allowed to attend some amateur sporting events as that was perceived as personal profile promotion. He did menial jobs as they came along. He worked as a fuel station attendant, dry-cleaner and also raced people and horses for cash. As Owens said, “...You can’t eat four gold medals,” and that isn’t a lie. Other Olympic and World Championships medallists have been known to struggle financially, to varying degrees, after the initial ceremony and attention they got during the games. Owen’s choice to race people also reminds one of Baseball’s The Freeze, which the Atlanta Braves have used to positive effect. Just like with The Freeze, Owens would give his opponents a head start and still run them down. In 1942, he began work at Ford Motor Company and later grew to become a director at the company after his years of struggles. He was also appointed as a government goodwill ambassador for the United States.

Owens passed away on March 31 1980, after being hospitalised for lung cancer. His story in all its dimensions will never be forgotten. A street in Berlin was renamed in his honour four years after his death. Owens did not stop the war or the horrors that the Nazi regime had in plans, but he did prove that their notions were wrong. His success encouraged and paved the way for minorities to chase after their sporting dreams. In this delayed Olympic year, as we all get the Olympic fever, many of us fans and athletes will find some strength from his story of struggle and triumph.


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