Friday, August 5, 2016

Race and the Olympics

The Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, opens today in Rio de Janeiro. There have been many challenges with Brazil’s hosting of these Games, but none as momentous as those surrounding the Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, 80 years ago this month. 
Many of you likely remember hearing about the 1936 Olympics, mainly because of the outstanding feats of Jesse Owens from the United States.
Last month June and I watched “Jesse Owens,” the DVD of the 2012 “American Experience” PBS documentary about the great African American athlete. The next night we watched “Race,” the 2016 movie about Owens’s life and achievements. 
In the latter, the winsome Stephan James plays Owens, and while the actor may be more handsome than Owens was, he is no more winsome. It was a joy to watch the actual movie clips of Owens in the PBS program. 
For those of you haven’t seen either film, I recommend both—and viewing them close together, if possible.
You can easily find biographical information about Owens (1913-80), so I won’t give much of that here. In addition to the Wikipedia article, for an informative, easy-to-read book I recommend Tom Streissguth’s Jesse Owens (2006).
Because of his athletic feats, Jesse was able to go to Ohio State University. Not unexpectedly, he faced much racism there as well as when going to and participating in Big Ten track meets. Still, partly due to Larry Snyder, his outstanding coach and mentor, he also excelled on the college level, setting four world records on one May day in 1935. 
It was no surprise that Jesse made the U.S. Olympic Team chosen to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Because of Hitler’s policies, however, there was a move in the U.S. to boycott those Games. Largely due to the efforts of Avery Brundage, the U.S. ended up not boycotting the Berlin Olympics.
Even then, an official of the NAACP tried to get Jesse to back out of going to Berlin. However, according to Streissguth, many black athletes “didn’t believe the United States should boycott the games. African Americans experienced racial discrimination every day. Why should the United States have the right to protest the same thing in a foreign country?” (p. 44). 
Thus, Jesse Owens went to Berlin—and sprinted and jumped magnificently. On August 9 he won his fourth gold metal—much to the consternation of Hitler and other top Nazi leaders, who were expounding the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of all other races as well as the Jews. 
Owens was snubbed by Hitler in Berlin and then, sadly, after he returned to the U.S. even by President Roosevelt. Partly for that reason, Owens became a Republican and campaigned for Alf Landon in 1940.
Many years later, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, U.S. sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash. On the winners’ podium, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in protest of Apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the United States. 
In his book Blackthink (1970), Owens tells how he was very negative about what Smith and Carlos did (see pp. 75-80). Harry Edwards calling him a “bootlicking Uncle Tom” (ibid., p. 13), though, caused him to do a lot of soul-searching, which he narrates in his intriguing last book, I Have Changed (1972).
While race may not be an issue for the black U.S. athletes in Rio this month, it is sad that some still in 2016 have to insist that Black Lives Matter.


  1. If you watch the sprints and the long jump in this month's Olympics, as I plan to do, I hope you will remember, and honor the memory of, Jesse Owens as you do so.

  2. Here are pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Although this is the 31st Olympiad for the summer games of the modern era, the games held in Rio constitute only the 28th time the summer Olympics have actually been held. The games were cancelled in 1916, on account of WWI, and again in 1940 and 1944, on account of WWII. Ironically, the 1916 games had been scheduled to be held in Berlin.

    "Jesse Owens put a poke in the eyes of the Aryan supermen and I can only say, 'Good for him!' He acted bravely and helped to advance the fight against racism. Even so, we still have a long way to go."

    1. Thanks for the helpful information and your comments, Eric.

      Yes, Summer Olympics VI, XII, and XIII were cancelled as you pointed out. I find it also interesting that the first scheduled venue for the 1940 Olympics was Tokyo. It was 20 years after the cancelled Berlin Olympics of 1916 that they were held in Berlin and 24 years after the first-scheduled Tokyo Olympics that they were held there.

  3. Here are short comments about this article by two Thinking Friends who are older than I (both are in their 80s):

    "A reminder of a moment of social evil and of the courage of an athlete running for sport, running for right."

    "A poignant reminder both of these two Olympics and of our serious problem of prejudice. We whites have much soul-searching to do."

  4. Jesse Owens in my opinion will always be one of the greatest unsung heroes of black Americans. No one gave him any special advantage. He took the field as one who could stand among equals and he showed his superiority. I would guess his college coach was white. I see this as a prime example of two races working together. Snyder looked at Owens and saw a talented young man. He encouraged him to do his best and earn the acclaim he deserved. Snyder was there to help him all the way, but Owens had to earn those gold medals. Color should always be of no consequence. Give a man (or woman) what they need, stand by them, and let them receive what they have earned and deserve.

    1. Thanks, Tom, for reading and responding to this blog article.

      Yes, Coach Snyder was white--as was Coach Riley, whom Jesse praises even more in his book "Blackthink." Both of those men befriended a young black boy/man when it was not popular to do so--and Jesse's great success was due both to the help from his coaches and his own hard work.

      Still, Jesse, as well as most African-Americans, experienced much discrimination, humiliation, and injustice even after his great Olympic victories. And while things are a lot better now in a lot of ways for African-Americans in the U.S., there is still much to be done.

      One of the outstanding leaders for greater racial justice in the nation is Rev. William Barber II who lives in North Carolina. I wonder what you have heard of him there and how he is regarded by white Baptists that you have the most contact with.

    2. Along with Jesse Owens we need to include in some measure Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali. Local memory is that after winning the Olympic gold medal in heavy weight boxing, he returned to Louisville, KY his home town only to be snubbed by local society and the city fathers because he was black. The story goes he was so angered he threw his medal into the Ohio River. Only later did he receive from the city the recognition he deserved including a street named for him.

      As for Barber, well, let's just say North Carolina still carries a lot of prejudice, Obama has not done a lot for race relations in this state, and the KKK is finding a fresh breath in some areas. Barber has not been received in my area as well as a state leader should have been. Part of it is his image, and part of it may be his style of non violent confrontation.

      No doubt he is a great supporter of justice and equality. Our state capital news media, which no one can say is overly conservative, still projects him often in an image that is more antagonistic and self-seeking than as one seeking improvement for the citizenry looking to him for leadership. Perhaps this is my own prejudice in remembering MLK, Jr at work in comparison to Barber. That may be just a bit unfair.

    3. Yesterday I listened again to the speech Barber gave at the DNC, and I thought (again) he sounded good.

      I am looking forward to hearing him in person when he comes to Kansas City next month.

  5. One of the poignant scenes from the movies that we saw was when Jesse and his wife went looking so beautiful and happy as they walked up to the place where they were to be honored for his great feats at the Olympics. I believe they were walking with the coach and his wife. When they got to the door, the doorman stopped them and said he was sorry, but they must enter by the back door. (How I cringed.) They went around and walked through the kitchen of the hotel where of course they were congratulated by many of the help there who were also black. They carried the entire event off with dignity and beauty, even after the slight at their own event.