Ohioan Makes Good: The Story of Jesse Owens

Patrick J. Garrity

April 1, 2007

In 1980, the United States and a number of other nations boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympic Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. President Carter’s decision was highly controversial, especially among the athletes denied perhaps their only chance at international sporting fame. Jim Murray, the distinguished Los Angeles Times columnist, observed that most countries, when faced with a foreign policy crisis, mobilize their armies, navies, and air forces. The United States, by contrast, demobilized its 400 meter relay team.

Many critics of the boycott argued that athletics ought to be insulated from politics. They pointed to another famous “political” Olympics—the 1936 Berlin Summer Games—in which the United States chose to participate. The Nazi regime had hoped that the enduring image of those Olympics would be provided by Adolph Hitler, the triumphant FÜhrer who had led his country from defeat and despair to the pinnacle of world power. The glories of the Third Reich were to be documented by the brilliant filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who had memorably recorded the 1935 Nuremburg Party rally in Triumph des Willes (Triumph of the Will). The Nazi show was stolen, however, by an American track and field star who won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the long jump, and the 400 meter relay. Justice and nature triumphed over politics.

Or so it seemed. Jesse Owens, a black man, performed these marvelous feats in front of a tyrant who based his rule on the belief that non-Aryans, especially Jews and blacks, were untermenschen. Subhuman. But Owens also hailed from an America that practiced legalized and de facto segregation and that was not itself free of the taint of anti-Semitism.

The story of Owens and the Berlin games is told by Jeremy Schaap, an ESPN anchor and national correspondent (and author of Cinderella Man, the story of boxer James J. Braddock, which was made into a popular movie). In Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and the Hitler Olympics, Schaap wants to stress his research into the “unknown”—such as the long-debated question whether Hitler snubbed Owens on the victory stand. I am not sure that Schaap has really shed much light on such behind-the-scenes issues, but he does capture nicely the larger political context. How is the cause of human liberty, in the United States and the world, best served when politics and sports collide at the highest level? This is a particularly apt question at a time when feelings against America, and Americans, apparently run so deeply abroad.

James Cleveland Owens, born the last of ten children of an Alabama sharecropper, was known to his relatives as J.C. When the Owens family later moved to Cleveland, an elementary teacher understood him to pronounce his name as “Jesse.” The rest, as they say, is history. Owens’ success in Berlin was hardly a revelation. He had dominated Ohio high school track and field and was equally successful at Ohio State University. During one famous 45-minute stretch in the 1935 Big Ten Championship, Owens—despite suffering from a bad back—tied the world record in the 100 yard dash and broke the world record in the long jump, the 220 yard dash, and the 220 yard hurdles. The stuff of which legends are made, indeed.

Yet Owens’ Olympic performance the following year was hardly a sure thing. He had to fight off accusations of professionalism from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) because the Ohio state legislature employed him as a page even when not in session, and paid his travel expenses to track meets out of state. To qualify for the games in the American trials, he had to compete against a tougher field than he would face in Germany, including Eulace Peacock, who had defeated him regularly in 1935, and Ralph Metcalf, who had won two sprinting medals in the 1932 games.

The most serious threat to Owens, however, was a widely-supported movement to boycott the Olympics. The national leader of the boycott contingent was an Irish Catholic, Jeremiah Titus Mahoney, prominent New York Democrat and President of the AAU. Mahoney argued that American participation in Hitler’s Olympics would serve only to legitimate a wholly evil regime that was discriminating against its own Jewish citizens as it chose its Olympic teams. The American consul general in Berlin told the State Department that if the pressure of an American-led boycott forced the Olympic Committee to move the games out of Germany, “it would be one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer within an awakening Germany and one of the most effective ways which the world outside has of showing to the youth of Germany its opinion of National Socialist doctrine.”

Of course, the existence of Jim Crow made it difficult for Americans to lecture Germans about their attitude towards an unpopular minority. But the boycott was supported by the NAACP and by leading African-American newspapers, such as the Amsterdam News, which published an editorial urging black athletes to take the initiative and boycott the games themselves: “Humanity demands that Hitlerism be crushed, and yours is the opportunity to strike a blow which may hasten the inevitable end.”

Most of the American athletes, blacks and Jews alike, opposed a boycott. “The black athletes rationalized their decision by pointing to domestic prejudice and, like the Jewish athletes, by suggesting that winning in Berlin would embarrass the Third Reich and repudiate its claims of racial superiority,” Schaap notes. After Owens failed to receive an invitation to a major track meet in New Orleans, he asked his coach at Ohio State, Larry Snyder, “Why should we oppose Germany for doing something that we do right here at home?” He said he had been running all this life to escape American racial discrimination. “All I want is a chance to run.” Owens and other prominent black Olympic candidates signed a letter to Avery Brundage, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which supported U.S. participation (while acknowledging their dissatisfaction with the situation of American blacks). The NAACP’s Secretary, Walter White, asked Owens to reconsider:

I fully realize how great a sacrifice it will be for you to give up the trip to Europe and to forgo the acclaim, which your athletic prowess will unquestionably bring you. I realize equally how hypocritical it is for certain Americans to point the finger of scorn at any other country for racial or other kind of bigotry. On the other hand, it is my conviction that the issue of participation in the 1936 Olympics, if held in Germany under the present regime, transcends all other issues. Participation by American athletes, and especially those of our own race, which has suffered more than any other from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm. If the Hitlers and the Mussolinis of the world are successful it is inevitable that dictatorships based upon prejudice will spread throughout the world, as indeed they are now spreading. Defeat of dictators before they become too deeply entrenched would, on the other hand, deter nations, which through fear or unworthy emotions are tending towards dictatorships.

The decisive vote in favor of participation came from Avery Brundage and his associates on the U.S. Olympic Committee. Schaap describes Brundage as a crypto-fascist and the preeminent American apologist for Nazi Germany. More to the immediate point, Brundage wanted to preserve his power—what role was there for an Olympic Committee without an Olympics?

Owens had an additional motivation for his performance at the Olympics. Six weeks before the games opened, heavyweight champion Joe Louis had unexpectedly lost his title to a German, Max Schmeling. Louis was a hero to American blacks, Owens included; and to not a few whites who otherwise had nothing to do with African-Americans. The Nazis hailed Schmeling as a token of their racial superiority. Owens deeply resented the Nazis for making a propaganda foil of the Brown Bomber.

Nazi Germany went all out to use the summer and winter games (the latter had been held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen) to show off the accomplishments of the Reich. A New York Times foreign correspondent wrote that “there has never been such a setting for the Olympics. Never has there been such organized landscaping, such refurbishing and polishing to show the games at their best… The effect will surely be to send thousands of foreigners home with excellent opinions of the effects of dictatorship and wish that democracy might some time show itself similarly showmanlike.” Thomas Wolfe, the American writer, noted: “They became, day after day, an orderly and overwhelming demonstration in which the whole of Germany had been schooled and disciplined. It was as if the games had been chosen as a symbol of the new collective might, a means of showing to the world in concrete terms what this new power had come to be.”

Then Owens entered the scene. “Everywhere the air was filled with a single voice,” Wolfe wrote, “Owens – Oo Ess Ah!” Whether or not Hitler personally snubbed Owens, the German crowds greeted his victories enthusiastically, contrary to stories then and later. Riefenstahl could not help but make her film celebrate the young man from America. But what sort of a man, or citizen, was he? Der Angriff (The Attack), a Nazi newspaper, complained that the United States wasn’t winning all these medals; its blacks were. The leading American sportswriter, Grantland Rice, agreed: “The American Olympic Committee is still looking for a white man who can even look something like an Olympic athlete… The United States would be below Haiti or China without its darkland parade.” Rice lamented the decline of the white track and field star: “The collapse of the American whites has been terrific… The white man’s burden has broken the white man’s back as far as America is concerned; the United States would be outclassed except for our black-skinned frontal and flanking fire.” Such comments reinforced the notion that blacks were naturally superior in certain athletic endeavors—but also (so racists would claim) intellectually and morally inferior. Hitler and the Nazis, about to go to war, were not about to denigrate physical superiority; but long after the games, the comfortable (for whites) stereotype of blacks endured.

Schaap describes one important footnote to the games. American sprinters were so dominant that the best of them usually were not placed on the sprint relay team, to allow the maximum participation by the other athletes. Owens, having won gold in the 100 and 200 meter dash and the long jump, was not expected to run on the 400 meter relay team. But at the last minute the head U.S. track coach claimed that he had received information that “the Germans have quietly built up a quartet which had been clocked in sensational time,” and that the Dutch too might be a threat. Owens was added to the relay team and in the ensuing shuffle Marty Glickman (later a Hall of Fame sportscaster) and Sam Stoller—both Jewish—were the odd men out. Schaap examines different accounts of whether Owens protested and offered to give up his spot (Owens later said he did, and Glickman agreed). Some thought that Owens and his college coach had lobbied behind the scenes to assure him the unprecedented fourth track medal. Others accused the American coaches and Avery Brundage of anti-Semitism and/or of being unwilling to embarrass Hitler by sending two Jews to the medal stand. In any case, Owens ran the opening leg of the relay and opened up a massive lead. The Americans won easily and the mysteriously fast German and Dutch teams nowhere to be seen.

After the relay race was won, Owens reflected on the meaning of his Olympic performance in an open letter to the African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier: “I am proud that I am an American. I see the sun breaking through the clouds when I realize the millions of Americans will recognize that what I and the boys of my race are trying to do is attempted for the glory of our country and our countrymen. Maybe more people will now realize that the Negro is trying to do his part as an American citizen.”

The path to this more hopeful world proved to be long and difficult. When he returned to the United States, Owens and his wife were refused service in New York hotels. The Hotel Pennsylvania finally gave them rooms on the condition they use the servants’ entrance. Talk of big endorsement money evaporated. Owens established a chain of dry cleaning sores, which failed; as did a barnstorming black baseball team (Owens sometimes raced a horse across the outfield). He eventually took a job with the Illinois state government, as a physical education specialist, and later became an executive for various companies. After World War II, he was much in demand as a banquet speaker. He was careful in his politics, stressing racial conciliation rather than confrontation. He once disputed athlete-actor Paul Robeson, who suggested that blacks would not and should not fight for the United States in the event of war with the Soviet Union. For such attitudes black militants called him an Uncle Tom.

When American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in the black power salute on the medal stand during the 1968 Olympic Games, the powers-that-be, including Avery Brundage, asked Owens to meet with the U.S. track team to discourage any future misbehavior. “The black athletes all but spat in his face,” Schaap says. A few years later, Owens embraced black militancy and published a book, I Have Changed, although he continued to speak at corporate outings and to the Boy Scouts, which suggests that he was hardly radicalized. It was on the lecture circuit, according to Schaap, that Owens played on the false impression that he had been snubbed by Hitler and that German crowds had been hostile to him and his black teammates. “In his mind, he easily justified his dissembling,” Schaap claims. “Denied by white America the opportunities for wealth that he thought he was owed, he exaggerated his story to make a good living. So what?”

Schaap may not do Owens—or America—complete justice in ending his story this way. But the overarching lesson is that there is no way to insulate sports from politics, at home or abroad; and that there is no hard and fast rule how best to use athletics to advance the cause of justice and human liberty. Owens’ triumph in the 1936 Olympic Games gave lie to theories of Aryan racial superiority and created a sense of American pride in the accomplishment of an African American, thus paving the way for Jackie Robinson a decade later. A U.S. boycott would have denied Owens, and America, that opportunity; but there was no necessity that he (or any of the other black athletes) would be so unquestionably dominant. The 1980 Olympic boycott may have played at least a small role in reasserting the moral claims of the West and delegitimizing the Soviet regime in the eyes of its own peoples and those of the captive and neutral nations. But who knows what good might have been done by a spectacular performance by an American athlete in Moscow? Recall the enormous effect on our national morale that resulted from the Miracle on Ice during the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

Athletes must simply do the best one can, on and off the track, to represent the Republic for which they stand.

Patrick J. Garrity is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.