Home > Uncategorized > February 23 – Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics

February 23 – Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Yesterday, I briefly mentioned Avery Brundage, the President of the International Olympic Committee who expelled Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Olympic Games after their Black Power Salute. It is an interesting point of comparison that Brundage was also IOC president during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, but raised no objections when the hosting Germans all presented the Nazi salute. His explanation for the disparity: the Olympics are a competition between nations, and the Nazi salute, being the German National salute of the time, was therefore acceptable whereas the Black Power Salute was neither a national salute nor appropriate.

While we’re on the subject of contradictions at the 1936 Berlin Games, I’d also like to point out a few more, all of which involve US Olympic runner James Cleveland “Jesse”Owens, who won four Gold medals there for the 100m, 200m, long jump, and 4x100m men’s relay:

1) Hitler was not shy about promoting the virtues of “the superior Aryan race,” nor was it any secret that he harbored a deep contempt for what he deemed the “inferior races” such as Blacks and Jews. And yet, it was in Berlin that Owens was able to freely use public transportation, dine at restaurants and bars, and enter public facilities without having to deal with the segregation or racism that all Blacks endured in the US at the time.

2) History has often criticized Hitler for not personally congratulating Owens on his victories. In truth, Hitler opted not to personally congratulate any of the victors, including his own German athletes. However, Owens’s own president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and Harry Truman after him), never bestowed honors or recognition on him for his accomplishments, never invited him to the White House… they didn’t even do so much as send a telegram or a telephone call, as was customary. Owens would later say, “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me.”

3) Owens credits his long-jump victory to helpful advice he received from his German competitor, Luz Long. The two later became long-term friends. Also, Adi Dassler, founder of Adidas, persuaded Owens to wear his shoes in competition, the first sponsorship of its kind for an African-American athlete. Post-Olympics, Owens decided to return to the US and pursue lucrative commercial offers, only to be stripped of his amateur status by American athletic officials, thus ending his career and resulting in the dissolution of his commercial offers.

4) In Germany, Owens was cheered by all 110,000 in attendance at the Olympic Stadium. On the streets, everyday German citizens recognized him and asked for his autograph. Back in New York, he was forced to ride the freight elevator en route to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

When a national hero is treated worse at home than he is in Nazi Germany simply because of the color of his skin, it’s shameful. And while I have no intention of championing or glorifying any aspect of Nazi Germany’s political or racial views, I believe the ironies listed above do help to show just how far behind America was on the path to racial equality and Civil Rights. Fortunately, for everyone, we’ve come a long way since 1936… though we’re not entirely there yet.

thanks for reading,

francis

One final irony: Jesse Owens actually did NOT support Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power Salute we discussed yesterday, telling them, “The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.”

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