Triumph: Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

This 4th of July weekend I read Jeremy Schaap’s Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics. The subtitle is a bit strange since the story has been told many times, but Schaap’s account has a unique energy to it that makes for exciting reading. This is not something that should surprise us since he gave us the delightful account of Jim Braddock’s life in Cinderella Man.

Here’s a few items of note:

    -At a young age Jesse developed a large fibrous tumor on his chest that almost claimed his life. Living in rural Alabama as the son of a poor sharecropper he could not afford adequate health care, and so his mother removed it with a kitchen knife.

    -In search of a better life the Owenses moved to Cleveland, Ohio where the young James Cleveland Owens got the nickname “Jesse.” His southern accent was laid thick on his words to the teacher at roll call when he tried to say people called him “J.C.”

    -In Junior High, Jesse was discovered by the track coach who saw him run extraordinarily fast on the playground. After an impromptu timing of a 100 yard dash the coach stared down at his stopwatch in disbelief; Jesse had run it in eleven seconds flat. He was 15 years old.

    -Jesse was more or less unrivaled in College setting world records and winning a multitude of competitions. But he met his match in an upstart African American named Eulace Peacock who defeated Owens in four races leading up to the Olympic trials. Tragically, Peacock pulled a hamstring and was not able to go to Berlin, and Owens regained the number one US spot.

    -The US almost boycotted the Berlin games due to the tenacity and foresight of a Catholic Judge who lead a strong protest movement that very nearly succeeded. If it was not for the work of a bigoted, racist, Nazi sympathizing athletic organizer who was in charge of the amateur athletes Owens may not have ever had the chance to compete. Nevertheless, the black athletes argued they should compete in racist Germany, because they have been competing in racist America. Both the Catholic Judge and the black athletes were right, but totally disagreed on what to do.

    -The Berlin games were an orgy of Nazi pageantry. Hitler had a special stadium built, though he flew into a rage when he found out that it was to follow a modern design. Another architect assured Hitler he would revise the plans to fit the Führer’s classical-pagan sensibilities, but the end result was a mish-mash of designs that looked unsightly even to the architecturally ignorant Jesse Owens.

    -Unsurprisingly, Hitler made himself the center of attention at the games as he reveled in the hysterical applause he received from the German crowd. He attended and viewed the games from a private box where he invited the medal winners up for a personal congratulation, yet conveniently left early whenever the black athletes won. The whole narcissistic and discriminatory affair irked the Olympic organizer who scolded Hitler for his behavior. Surprisingly, Hitler backed off his self-aggrandizement and personal honor of the athletes. He later confided to a henchman who wanted his photo taken with Owens that “The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes.” He went one to say he would never shake hands with them.

    -Predictably, Owens dominated the competition winning four gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter dash, the broad jump (or what we call he the long jump) and the 4 x 100 relay. Against the legend that the German crowd received him coldly, the 100,000 strong cheered him exuberantly and sought his autograph. Each time he won Hitler appeared to wave at him, but no one could verify if it was for personal congratulation.

    -Hitler had hired Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker he had used to produce propaganda films of the Nuremburg gatherings, to film the games. Much to the consternation of Joseph Goebbels, who wanted to sleep with her, Riefenstahl’s film highlighted the black American as the star of the games. Throughout the filming process Goebbels berated her often reducing her to tears, but in the end her movie would be a cinematic masterpiece that is still studied by film schools today for its aesthetic qualities. You can watching film here.

    -Owens’ stiffest competition came from an Aryan broad jumper named Luz Long whose chiseled physique made for a menacing presence. The young American became so nervous that he faulted and failed to qualify in his first two jumps. Nerve-racked and afraid he might blow it, Owens found a comforting white arm rest on his shoulder saying, “What has taken your goat Jazzee Owens?” Long encouraged him to relax and reassured him he could make the jump easily, which he ultimately did. The sportsmanship Long displayed was further accentuated when Owens beat him in the finals for the gold, and Long, in true Olympic spirit celebrated the black athlete by grasping his hand and raising his arm into the air in front of Hitler’s box.

    -The friendship between Owen and Long lasted after the Berlin games were over, but would end in 1943 when Long was killed in a battle for Sicily. Long was a reluctant soldier who believed the Nazi regime was corrupt and destine to fail. In a letter to Owens he asked for Jesse visit his son if he died in the war to tell him about his father. Jesse kept his promise in 1951 and said he saw the face of Luz in his son.

    -Owens was particularly classy and an example of a sports role model, but he became increasingly political as he faced the discrimination of Jim Crow back home, the lack of social advancement in the wake of his career, and the charges of being an “Uncle Tom” from black radicals in the 1960s. Much of the lore about the German crowd not receiving Owens came from his own accounts to please his hearers.

The story is an amazing one that I highly recommend. It doesn’t always make me proud to be an American, considering our shameful racist history, but it does demonstrate the American spirit of a true champion worthy of admiration.

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