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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