Sports as Politics - Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics

Sports as Politics - Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics

Stickin' it to the man. That's always been the story of the 1936 Olympics. Jesse Owens chose to compete in the belly of the beast - Hitler's Berlin games that were set to feature the victorious and fictitious Aryan race. Owens destroyed the German competition at the event, but little mention is made of the athletes who were his biggest competition at the games - his African American teammates.

Owens had emerged as a track and field sensation in the States. He tied the world record in the 100-yard dash while still in high school, and his performance at the 1935 Big Ten Championships as an Ohio State athlete, in which he established three world records and matched a fourth over a span of 45 minutes, remains one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in collegiate sports history.

Nothing had been easy for Owens or any of his black teammates, however. These athletes didn't have to look any farther than their assistant track coach, Dean Cromwell for ignorant takes on their athletic skill. “It was not that long ago,” Cromwell said of the black athlete, “that his ability to spring and jump was a life-and-death matter to him in the jungle.” Imagine how supportive a coach he would have been...

Louis Lyons was one of the few white journalists who had the skill to put into words what Cromwell and Hitler had in common. “The best the Nazis have been able to do with the racial problem created by Jesse Owens & Co. is to theorize that these represent a race of American helots, more nearly akin to the panther and the jack rabbit than to their Aryan competitors,” he wrote. “This is a view that conveniently disregards the fact that one of these colored athletes is a Phi Beta Kappa scholarship man, one is in medical school, one a law student and the others are meeting the requirements of American college life.”

Owens & Co. referred, again, to Jesse's best competition throughout the games. In the 100, black teammate Ralph Metcalfe finished just one-tenth of a second behind him to win the silver medal. In the 200, black teammate Mack Robinson won the silver, four-tenths of a second behind Owens. Metcalfe joined Owens on the 4×100 relay team. In all, the 18 African American members of the U.S. team earned 14 medals in Berlin, eight of them gold, one-fourth of the U.S. medal count. 

In addition to all of this success was the U.S.'s decision to sub out Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller in the 4x100m relay. Why? Common perception of the evidence is American officials sought to relieve Hitler of the embarrassment of two Jewish athletes winning the gold for the U.S.

Perhaps the best argument of all for LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and countless other athletes who have begun using their platforms to do good in the U.S. is to look at history. Sports, entertainment, and politics are forever entwined. Athletes and their coaches should be judged based on words and action intended for the fair treatment of all people. If their words offend a few but their actions help countless individuals, the offended few ought to be examining their personal principles. Here's to Jesse Owens, Mack Robinson, Ralph Metcalfe, Marty Glickman, Sam Stoller, and the rest of the history-making 1936 Olympic team.

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