Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forget Hitler - it was America that snubbed black Olympian Jesse Owens

Throughout the tortured history of sports and politics, one moment has always stood above the others: Jesse Owens's performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

A black man entered Hitler's Coliseum and destroyed the theory of Aryan physical supremacy by winning four gold medals in track and field.

The Fuhrer, according to legend, was so horrified by Owens's triumph, he stormed from the Olympic stadium rather than shaking his hand, as he had with every other medalist.

Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Nazi Youth movement at the time, supposedly suggested to Hitler that he let himself be photographed with Owens. Hitler replied: 'The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.'

However, 73 years later, the veracity of these accounts is being challenged. It is particularly timely, for on Saturday memories of Owens will be rekindled at the athletics World Championships in Berlin.

As a mark of respect to Owens, who won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay, the U.S. team will have the initials JO embroidered on their vests.

One of Owens's grand-daughters will walk with the U.S. team at the opening ceremony. She and the son of Luz Long, Owens' German rival in the long jump, will jointly present the long jump medals.

But, returning to the 1936 Games, a moment of seeming moral clarity, of good versus evil, is now starting to look more complex. A German sports reporter, Siegfried Mischner, has claimed Owens carried a photograph of himself shaking hands with Hitler and called it 'one of my most beautiful moments'.

Mischner, 83, says he and several other reporters saw the handshake behind the stands at the Olympic stadium but never mentioned it. Owens and other eyewitnesses always maintained that the story of Hitler's snub was exaggerated.

Owens said he thought Hitler waved at him at one point. But he never corroborated Mischner's story before his death from lung cancer in 1980, at the age of 66.

Whatever the truth, Owens always resisted his role as a political symbol. Having grown up in the segregated American South, the grandson of slaves, he was impatient with American claims of moral superiority over the Nazis.

'After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus,' Owens recalled. 'I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?'

Owens was given a tickertape parade in New York. But when he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a reception in his honour, he was instructed to take the service lift rather than the normal guest lift, which was reserved for whites.
Owens powering his way at the start of the 200m event, which he won, during the Olympic Games in Berlin where he captured four gold medals

Owens powering his way at the start of the 200m event, which he won, during the Olympic Games in Berlin where he captured four gold medals

President Franklin Roosevelt never congratulated Owens or invited him to the White House. 'Hitler didn't snub me - it was FDR who snubbed me,' Owens said.

And Owens had his own memories of Berlin which differed starkly from the propaganda version. While the Nazis vilified the black American athletes, the German people cheered on Owens and his team-mates, clamouring for photos and autographs.

Owens later said that his greatest memory of the Games was not the races, the medal ceremonies or the politics. It was of his German rival in the long jump, Luz Long. On the surface, Long was the embodiment of the Aryan dream: tall, blue-eyed and blond.

The American was struggling in the early rounds of the long jump contest and risked going out before the final. Long introduced himself. He said he had been watching Owens's jumps and made a mark a few inches before the take-off board and suggested Owens jump from there, to ensure he qualified.

Owens took his advice and made it to the finals, which he won. The first person to congratulate him was Long.

The two men exchanged letters after the Games. 'It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,' Owens said. 'You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.

'Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.'

Owens was also witness to the U.S. Olympic team's decision to replace two Jews on its relay squad with two African-American runners. The Americans were accused of acquiescing to Nazi demands not to humiliate them by letting Jews beat them as well as blacks.

Instead of the endorsements or acclaim a modern athlete might expect, Owens was expelled from the American Amateur Athletics Union after he went home to try to cash in on his post-Olympic fame rather than star for his country in a tournament in Sweden.

He was reduced to becoming a kind of circus act to support his family. Owens had married his high school girlfriend, Ruth, and had a daughter, Gloria.

After the Olympics, the couple had two more girls. Owens would run sprints against athletes from other sports, even against cars, motorbikes, dogs and horses. He worked as a janitor at a children's playground and petrol pump attendant.

'People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?' he said. 'I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals.' 'Sure it bothered me,' he said later in life. 'But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat.'

He became a partner in a dry-cleaning business in his native Cleveland, but the other two partners were conmen and Owens was forced to declare bankruptcy three years after his Olympic triumph. He was also charged with tax evasion. For a while, he was the front man for a travelling band.

'After I came home with my four medals,' he said, 'everyone wanted to slap me on the back, shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.'

He wrote: 'For a while I was one of the most famous people on earth, but I soon discovered how empty fame can be and how easily it could be exploited by those who would use it, and me, for gain.'

It took several years for him to find his footing as a public speaker and public relations man, which eventually turned into a comfortable career. He also became a jazz DJ.

His post-Olympics experience, and the reality of being hailed as a hero in public, yet treated poorly in private, made him deeply suspicious of politics. Yet he was constantly being solicited for his opinions.

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, two black American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, used the moment after receiving their medals to give the black power salute. 'The black fist is a meaningless symbol,' said Owens. 'When you open it, you have nothing but fingers - weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there's money inside. There's where the power lies.'

Later, he retracted his criticism and said that militancy was the only option for American blacks. 'Any black man who wasn't a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.'

By the time he died, Owens was financially comfortable. Presidents and governments in America and beyond were competing to honour him as a symbol of athletic wonder and of opposition to fascism.

In reality, his life and the way his myth has been exploited is not nearly so straightforward.

1 comment:

Ethan said...

It’s nice to know that finally the presidents and governments in America and beyond were competing to honour him as a symbol of athletic wonder and of opposition to fascism. Owens seems had made lots of difference on the way we see fascism. He was a great person.