The real story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Nazi Olympics

There’s been a lot of talk of late of what a “great example” it was for African-American long-jumper Jesse Owen to participate in the 1936 Nazi Olympics. Owens, the theory goes, showed the Nazis that their racial inferiority theories were hogwash, and more generally showed why it’s important to have the Olympics in “bad” countries.

As Martin Belam points out, that’s all a load of hogwash.


Jesse Owens: “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

The story of how Jesse Owens smashed Hitler’s theories of racial superiority on the track and field, which led to the Nazi leader refusing to present him with his medal or shake his hand have been an enduring myth about the 1936 Olympics, oft-repeated even in recent documentaries about the games.

Unfortunately, despite there being a lovely ring of poetic justice about it, the myth isn’t true.

Hitler had congratulated German athletes on the first day of the 1936 Olympics, only to be informed by IOC officials that he should congratulate all athletes or none, in order to show neutrality as the presiding head of state. Hitler opted to congratulate no-one, and was not even in the stadium when Jesse Owens was securing his medals.

It was Owens’ treatment back home in the USA that tends to get glossed over in any re-telling of the tale. He was never invited to the White House to be congratulated by an American President at the time of his triumph, and he ended up racing horses as a novelty act, and at one point was a bankrupt petrol attendant.

There was a ticker-tape parade in New York in his honour, but to attend the reception, as an African-American, he had to use the back elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where it was held. The front one was reserved for white people. Later in his life he earned more official recognition, and made a living as an ambassador for sport, and by doing corporate motivational talks.

Nancy Goldstein weighs in about the myth of the “Jesse Owens miracle”:

Think long and hard before you evoke the spectacle of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—thus far the model for the West’s approach to Putin—or argue that winning LGBT athletes will “show ’em” in Sochi. In 1935—as in 2013—the International Olympics Committee was keen to pretend that sporting events could wash a clearly politicized setting of its politics, or wipe a dirty city clean. IOC chair Count Henri Baillet-Latour was content with Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s promise that anti-Semitic placards would be taken down during the Olympic games the next year.

In this Faustian bargain, Hitler hid the most obvious signs of what would later become his Final Solution. Jesse Owens, the allegedly “inferior” Negro, kicked Aryan butt on the track and came home with four gold medals (to a country where FDR refused to host him at the White House for fear of losing the Southern vote in the upcoming election). And then, once the international community had left, Hitler and his willing minions invaded neighboring countries and incinerated every f’g Jew, queer, or dissenter they could get their hands on.

And as Harvey Fierstein noted in the NYT the other day, while some look back at that era and remember Jesse Owens, more people look back and remember the ensuing Holocaust:

In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance.

Finally, if you haven’t already, take a look at the NYT article, from 1935, that I posted earlier today. It talks about the great changes Hitler made for the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, and how the International Olympic Committee labeled those calling for a boycott of Berlin “political” and “liars.”

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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10 Responses to “The real story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Nazi Olympics”

  1. Lira Kemp says:

    Jesse Owen is just an example of many talented people who are taken for granted because of their race, sexual preference or cultural identity.

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  2. ArthurH says:

    One addendum to the article. Jesse Owens did recover from his past setbacks. When WCIU (Channel 26) in Chicago first hit the air in 1962, they contracted to show reruns of the “Amos and Andy” TV program but pulled the show after a large complaint from Chicago’s black community. But this got the station thinking that they coud establish a niche in the Chicago TV market by offering locally produced programs for the black community. Owens assisted in this effort, even hosting for several years a sports program.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sadly so many parallels to gay people today. No matter where you go, they don’t seem fully accepted. They are the new Jews, blacks, etc. – “separate but equal.”

  4. Naja pallida says:

    The same Avery Brundage who went to Mexico City in October 1968 while their government was actively violently suppressing student protests, rolling tanks in the city streets, and racking up a casualty count in the hundreds, literally days before the Games… and then reported back to the world that all was well to go ahead with the Olympics.

    The same Avery Brundage who decried the blocking of South Africa and Rhodesia from participating in the Games because of their national racist policies as entirely political and beyond the purview of the IOC, because sports transcends politics.

    The same Avery Brundage who remarked the murder of 11 Israeli athletes as the politicization of sport, and that the incident in Munich should not change the Games in any way. By the end of his tenure as the head of the IOC, people hated him, and reporters remarked: “The fastest way to become unpopular in America is to suggest that Avery Brundage, after all, may be reasonably human.”

    How the IOC is behaving now should be absolutely no surprise to anyone. They’ve been international enablers of atrocities time and time again. Pretending to be apolitical, while wading hip deep in politics. Skipping along hand in hand with dictators, murderers, and criminals, all in the name of “sport”.

  5. FLL says:

    The premise of the Jesse Owens myth is that his victory showed the Nazis in Germany the error of their ways. What an insane premise when you think about it. The Nazis must have laughed when they watched Owens bring his gold medals home to a segregated country that treated him like dirt. Those who support holding the Olympics in Sochi are offering a very bad example with the Owens story. The only thing that will make Russia take notice is a loss of revenue, in whatever form that might take.

  6. BeccaM says:

    Yeah, well, many people don’t remember that one of the key components of ‘traditional’ fascism is the supremacy of corporations and capital, working hand-in-hand with an authoritarian government.

  7. nicho says:

    There was a substantial movement in the US for a boycott in 1936. The movement was vehemently opposed by Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee and later head of the IOC. In fact, he went to Germany to meet with the Nazis to get assurances from them. He was strongly suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer, as were many corporatists in the US at the time.

  8. mirror says:

    Another nice piece. I’m sharing this one.

  9. BeccaM says:

    There is a price for tolerating intolerance.

    This ^^^.

    The price in this instance, as it inevitably is when the excuses go on for too long, is always paid in blood.

    Do we wait until Russia starts sending its gays and lesbians off to die doing heavy labor in Siberian gulags before we say, “This is wrong and must stop”?

  10. clarknt67 says:

    It’s so much easier to appreciate our heroes in hindsight than in real-time, unfortunately. If LGBT people and their allies stand up to the bullying going on in Sochi, we can expect they will be remembered fondly in history, but probably demonized this year.

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