TRIUMPH: Jesse Owens and Hitler’s OlympicsJEREMY SCHAAP
Head of Zeus, 2014, 272 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
He may have been the world’s greatest athlete at the time, writes Jeremy Schaap in Triumph, but Jesse Owens was also a black American, and Owens, the winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was refused a room at hotel after hotel on his arrival back in New York until one finally agreed on condition that he use the service entrance.
To the grandson of slaves, born into rural poverty in Alabama, racism was part of the deal, not only down south but also in the industrial Midwest where, picked up by Ohio State University as a track star, Owens could not live on their whites-only campus, was refused service in restaurants and coped with the other daily offerings of prejudice only through his outstanding ability to run and jump.
It is little surprise, then, that Owens did not support the movement to boycott the Nazi Olympics on the justifiable grounds that it was hypocritical for the US to oppose discrimination against Jews in Germany whilst blacks at home had to cop it.
It is true, however, that sporting and financial self-interest also played a role in the decision of Owens (who faced a future as a petrol-station attendant) and the other black members of the US Olympic team to welcome a trip to Berlin. Black Americans generally, however, were split on a boycott and many legitimately argued that attending what Hitler planned as a spectacular pageant of Nazi grandeur and power would legitimise the concept of a ‘master race’ that not only persecuted Jews but blacks and other ‘non-Aryans’.
Some black Americans ceded this pro-boycott principle but argued that ‘Black Gold’ (which was almost certain with Owens) would tellingly refute Nazi, and American, claims of white superiority. Hitler was duly embarrassed by the gold medals won by Owens and by other black Americans, pointedly leaving his box before the medal presentations and refusing to press black flesh in private receptions. The Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was also made angrily uncomfortable by the documentary of Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s favourite cinematographer) having a black American, a member of an ‘inferior’ race, as its star performer.
Also irked was the President of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, the reactionary millionaire member of a whites-only club in Chicago, a “crypto-fascist” and future International Olympic Committee head. Team USA wasn’t winning gold, Team Black was, and Brundage vindictively suspended a financially-strapped and physically tired Owens from any future athletics competitions, amateur or professional, ostensibly for refusing one of many unpaid exhibition meets in Europe at the end of the Olympics (earning himself the new name of ‘Slavery Brundage’ for his treatment of his black chattels).
Owens’ gold medals, therefore, could not be monetised and he struggled financially, sometimes selling himself to race against horses. In the depths of the Cold War, however, Owens “found he was useful – to industry and government” as a symbol of the democratic opportunities that Washington liked to boast of when it compared itself to the Soviet Union. The State Department sent an amenable, Republican, anti-Soviet Owens on ‘goodwill’ (propaganda) tours of Asia to promote his example of a poor outsider who made good in America rather than making communist revolution in the poor world.
Unfortunately, Schaap’s writing, unlike Owens’ athleticism, doesn’t take flight. It is mired in sports journalism cliché and his treatment of Owens’ politics is cursory. Owens did not see his Berlin exploits in a political light and he was rejected for his stance that politics and sport don’t mix, and for his role as counter-revolutionary US cultural ambassador, by militant black American athletes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, although he appeared to reconsider his views in his autobiography before his death in 1980. Despite Owens’ lack of political sophistication, however, his symbolic days in Berlin remain as a dramatic rebuttal of the divisive claims of people’s inferiority because of the pigment of their skin.