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.
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.