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.