09 November 2013

Adjusting history: Jesse Owens and Nazi race theories

In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. The choice signalled Germany's inclusion in the democratic world community after the horrors of World War I.

It was only after Hitler was appointed chancellor in Jan 1933 that Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where all aspects of life were controlled by Nazi policies. German sports imagery from 1933-on promoted the ideal of Aryan racial superiority and physical power. Artists idealised athletes' well-developed muscle tone and heroic strength, and depicted athletes with blue eyes and blond hair.

Many democrats warned that Hitler and the Nazis would use the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin for propaganda purposes and that the USA team, at least, should boycott the Berlin Olympics. But Avery Brundage, President of the United States Olympic Committee, opposed the boycott. He believed that a] Jews were not discriminated against in Germany and b] politics and sport should never be mixed. Surprisingly I cannot find what Brundage thought about black athletes.

As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the USA out of the Games. In the end, Team Boycott lost the argument in the USA.

In August 1936, 49 teams from around the world competed in the Berlin Games, more than in any previous Olympics. Germany had the largest team at the Berlin Games with 348 athletes. The USA had the second largest team with 312 members. 18 African Americans (16 men and 2 women) went to Berlin, triple the number who had competed for the USA in the 1932 Los Angeles Games.

The most notable athlete arriving in Berlin to compete was the American athlete Jesse Owens (1913–1980). Sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, the only two Jews on the USA Olympic team, were withdrawn from the 4 × 100 ms relay team on the very day of the competition, probably because Avery Brundage did not want to embarrass Hitler by having two Jews win gold medals. Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe replaced the Jewish runners, but nobody suggested that Owens, a black man, also needed protection.

Adolf Hitler and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories, thus displaying to the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. Nazi propaganda had been promoting concepts of Aryan racial superiority and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior. So it was excellent news for Americans that Owens won four gold medals. He won the 100m sprint, the long jump, the 200m sprint and was one of four men in the 4 x 100 metre sprint relay, setting a world record in the event.

American sporting hero Jesse Owens taking gold at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. 
Photo credit: Daily Mail, August 2009 

The Daily Mail stated that the treatment of Owens’ victories has always been regarded as the greatest sporting snub in history - Adolf Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, leaving the black athlete’s hand extended in mid air. Hitler was furious because Germany had been humiliated; his Aryan supermen had been beaten by their racial inferior, a sub-human.

Now a slightly different story is emerging. On the first day of compet­ition, Hitler did indeed shake hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium. In response, Olympic committee officials from all over the world insisted Hitler greet every medal winner, or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal pres­ent­ations.

On reports that Hitler had deliberately snubbed Owens’ victories, and had refused to shake his hand, the American athlete said in 1936: "Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticise the Man of the Hour in another country."

Two independent sources support Owens’ equanimous view. Firstly Albert Speer wrote that Hitler was indeed infuriated by the triumphs by the marvellous coloured American runner, but not unduly surprised. Hitler "knew" that people whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive; their physiques were stronger than those of civilised whites. Secondly the long-jump victory was well documented in the clever 1938 film, Olympia, by Leni Riefenstahl. The long jump would have been lying on the cutting room floor, had Owens’ victory truly horrified the Germans.

There was an irony in the 1936 Games for Owens, whichever version of events was true. He was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels in Germany as whites, even though African Americans in many parts of the USA had to stay in segregated hotels while travelling. And Owens' reception by the German spectators in the Olympic stadium was warm. He became a true celebrity in Berlin, mobbed by autograph seekers. He later claimed that his reception in Berlin was greater than any other he had ever experienced at home.

So did Jesse Owens' four gold medals humiliate Hitler by proving to the world that Nazi claims of Aryan superiority were a lie? Not at all. Hitler and the Nazis were delighted with the Olympic results - not only did Germany win far more medals than any other country at the 1936 Olympics, but the Nazis had pulled off the huge public relations coup that Team Boycott had predicted. Owens' four brilliant victories turned out to be only a fleeting embarrassment for Nazi Germany. In 1936, Germany had enchanted foreign spectators, athletes and journalists with an image of a peaceful, tolerant nation.

Statue to honour Ohio's most famous athlete
Cleveland, 1982.

There have been many honours created in Jesse Owens' name; my favourite is in Ohio. This memorial, which was sculpted by William McVey (1904–1995) and installed in 1982, is located in Fort Huntington Park in Cleveland. If only Owens had lived long enough to see it - he died in 1980.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Regardless of the exact facts in the Hitler-Owens affair, the Nazis left little doubt of what people and situations they did not approve. Still, it is important to get these stories right, if only not to allow an entering crack for rewriters of history. Even if Hitler did not directly insult Owens, that only raises him from the worst person in history to...the worst person in history.

By the way, I am pleased to see another mention of Cleveland, Ohio. The Owens statue is right downtown in Fort Huntington (not Washington) Park. McVey is a well-known Cleveland sculptor, here is a link that tells more about him and his work:


Andrew said...

Popular myth versus facts. I thought the myth was the true story and now it is spoilt by facts. Actually it is interesting to learn that Owen was popular in Berlin.

Hels said...


thank you for the reference. William McVey must have been a wonderful sculptor. Even in 1982, when he was almost 80 years old, he created a young, brave and very athletic Jesse Owens.

Hels said...


Jessie Owens was amazing. Born in a large, struggling family, Owens was not allowed to live at his uni because they did not have housing for black students. Ditto no scholarship for black students. When he travelled with the Ohio State team to competitions, he had to live and eat in separate hotels.

No wonder he loved his time in Berlin. He was warmly accepted as a winning athlete, not a black man to be hidden away. How ironic is that?

sila mahmud said...

The mural are awesome looking.

Hels said...


good to hear from you. And thanks.

By mural, did you mean the Silk Road sarcophagus 592 AD?

Mandy Southgate said...

That is a very interesting observation about Owens being able to stay in the same hotels as whites. The Nazis really were in full swing with the propaganda machine.

Hels said...


Re the propaganda machine, that is true for the Nazi era in general and for the 1936 Olympic Games in particular.

The political leaders in Berlin were acutely aware of the importance of sporting successes, Olympic architecture, massive crowd support, clean and organised cities, cultural performances and cinematic productions. They spent a _fortune_ on the fortnight!

Hels said...

The blog called "Sunny Nash - Race Relations in America" has a fine post on Jesse Owens. It appeared yesterday 16th Feb 2014.


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