Jesse Owens: 1936 and all that
James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama in September 1913. When he was nine years old J.C. and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. When asked by his new teacher for his name ‘J.C.’ was misheard as ‘Jesse’, due to his strong southern drawl. As such the man born J.C. Owens would be universally known for the rest of his life as Jesse Owens.
The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was Adolf Hitler’s opportunity to showcase Nazi Germany to the world and to promote his ideals of racial supremacy. Perversely, the Olympic motto of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ was just a few tweaks away from the Nazi propaganda being floated around at the time. The German athletes lived up to Hitler’s expectations as they topped the medals table winning a total of 89 medals, 33 of which were gold. However the real star of the Games was not a German but an African-American, Jesse Owens, whose achievements have become the stuff of legend and have elevated him into the realms of myth. However as is always the case history is written, and heavily edited, by the victors.
Jesse Owens set the Berlin Games alight winning four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay and the long jump. However Owens only gained his place in the relay team because the U.S. coaches were pressured into removing two Jewish-American athletes from the team by future IOC president, and then U.S. Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage. Brundage did so to ensure Hitler would not be embarrassed should the relay team succeed. Owens also received some friendly words of advice and encouragement from the German Luz Long, the man he defeated to win the long jump. Long, the archetypal blue-eyed blonde Aryan was also the first to congratulate him upon his victory and even posed arm-in-arm in a photograph with him. Owens later said of Long ‘you can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24 carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.’ And then of course there was that snub.
Hitler did personally snub a black athlete but it wasn’t Jesse Owens. On the first day of the Games an African-American Cornelius Johnson had won the USA’s first gold medal in the high jump. However Hitler had left the stadium early and did not congratulate Johnson. Before his departure he had received and congratulated a number of winners earlier in the day but Hitler was informed by Olympic officials that he must receive every winner in future or none at all. Hitler decided to acknowledge no winners. Therefore Owens was only one of many not to be congratulated by Hitler. Owens was personally snubbed though, surprisingly by his own president.
After his heroics Owens returned to a tickertape parade in New York City but was refused entry through the front door of the Waldorf Hotel where a reception was being held in his honour; Owens had to ride the freight elevator to attend his own party. Owens himself said ‘Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.’ Owens, despite being the United States’ star athlete at the Games, never received an invitation to the White House nor a letter of congratulations from either Franklin D. Roosevelt or his successor Harry S. Truman. After the Berlin Olympics every white American athlete was invited to meet Roosevelt, no such invitation was made to the black athletes. It wasn’t until 1955 that Owens has officially honoured by a U.S. President when he was named an ‘Ambassador of Sports’ by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After the 1936 Olympics the U.S. team were invited to compete in Sweden but Owens decided to return home in order to capitalise upon his success and take up some of the endorsements being thrown his way. This angered U.S. athletic officials, and the scheming Avery Brundage ensured that his amateur status was stripped; Owens’ athletics career was finished. Three years later, after a failed business venture, he filed for bankruptcy and at one stage made a living by racing thoroughbred horses around racetracks.
Owens died in March 1980 aged 66. His exploits at the Berlin Olympics are legendary and inspired future African-American athletes such as Carl Lewis who emulated his successes in the same four events at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Owens was like a great artist; he wasn’t fully appreciated in his lifetime and it wasn’t until he was gone that he garnered the respect and mythical status he truly deserved.
By Eoghan Wallace
Posted by Robert McNamara, Sports Editor on at 12:51 pm.
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