The Olympics have always been controversial: Rio’s infrastructure problems and the zika virus in 2016; political boycotts of Los Angeles in 1984 and Moscow in 1980; apartheid South Africa being banned from participation from 1964 to 1992; and, perhaps the most famous of all, the 1936 Berlin games, held under Hitler’s Nazi government and chock full of drama and controversy. We’re going to look at a famous myth from those games — Hitler’s snub of Jesse Owens and other African-American Olympic champions. But we going to use this myth as a way to talk about some of the broader historical issues and controversies surrounding those summer games in Berlin 80 years ago.
It’s an upsetting subject, Buzzkillers. Partly because it means I have to talk about vile and inhumane Nazi ideology, but also because the full story reveals a lot about bigotry and discrimination in the United States in the 20th century. But maybe it will help us all think about the ways we treat people we think of as different.
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee granted the upcoming 1936 Summer Olympic games to Berlin. Hitler wouldn’t come to power until January 1933, so it’s not as if the IOC knowingly granted Nazi Germany the games. But controversy wasn’t long in coming. In April 1933, the official Nazi party newspaper called for excluding Jews and blacks from participation in the games. Other nations threatened to boycott the Berlin games in reaction to this, so Hitler backed off and quashed plans to have a “racially pure” Olympics.
There was talk in the Fuhrer’s cabinet of cancelling the games, but he was convinced by Nazi propagandists that, if presented in the right ways, the Berlin games could become a showcase for Hitler’s ideals, German modernization, and Nazi visions of the future. The planning and construction of the Olympic infrastructure in Berlin was impressive. They built a 100,000 seat stadium (the largest in the world at the time), six new gymnasiums, a fancy Olympic village, and lots of other new facilities. These were the first games to be televised, the now-famous torch relay all the way from Greece was invented, and the games were elaborately and artistically filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, the famous German auteur.
The stage, therefore, was set for a very dramatic international sporting event. Enter Jesse Owens, the fabulous African-American sprinter and long jumper, from Ohio State University. The American track and field team was very impressive and contained a number of other stars, and they were expected to do very well at the games (and they did).
If you watch a number of newsreel clips from the time (many of which have been incorporated into history documentaries), you see Jesse Owens running the hundred meter dash and winning. The films then cut to Hitler “storming” out of the stadium, presumably in reaction to someone (that is, Owens) from an animalistic race defeating actual humans (meaning German athletes).
Documentary scripts and voice-overs from the period then talk about Hitler snubbing Owens and the other non-German victors at the medal ceremony. Often, these documentaries were edited so that they showed Owens crossing the finishing line in the 100-meter dash, and then show Hitler storming out of the stands in disgust.
The problem is, this didn’t happen. Here’s what did. Hitler attended the first day of athletic competition in the glorious new stadium. Fitting with his desire to privilege German athletic prowess and superiority, Hitler only congratulated German medal winners on that first day. Olympic officials told him later that he could not discriminate against medal winners from other countries. He must congratulate winners from all nations, they said, in keeping with Olympic ideals. The Fuhrer didn’t like this, and refused to congratulate any medal winners at all from then on. Either in a fit of pique over this, or because it looked like it was about to rain (reasonable accounts differ), Hitler left the stadium well before Jesse Owens ran his first race.
But, according to Owens himself:
“…before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.” (Pittsburgh Press, 24 August 1936)
Owens, of course, went on to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics: the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 meter relay, and the long jump. It was an absolute triumph, and any of you who have seen films or videos of Owens’ performances know that he defeated his fellow runners easily, sometimes by impressive distances. Hitler didn’t publicly congratulate him on any of these triumphs because, as we’ve stated, Hitler didn’t attend any events after the first half-day. And, after the IOC told him not to discriminate against non-German medal winners, he didn’t congratulate anyone.
Here’s where things get complicated. There are at least two reputable sources that state that Hitler did indeed congratulate Owens, and that Owens had a picture of the two shaking hands after the 100-meter dash, but before the Fuhrer left the stadium. German journalist Siegfried Mischner said that he met Jesse Owens during the 1960s and that Owens showed him a photograph of the handshake. Mischner said that he tried to get his editors interested in the story, but that the political climate in Germany in the 1960s was such that any photograph or news story that might have added complexity to the general perception of Hitler as an inveterate racist was spiked.
The second source is famous British test pilot, Eric Brown who, when he was 17, was taken by his father to see the Berlin Olympics. He told the BBC in 1970 that he saw Hitler shake hands with Owens behind the honor stand, out of public view. Since Brown went on to be a highly decorated and respected Royal Navy pilot, many people have taken this as confirmation (from an honest source) of Siegfried Mischner’s story about Owens and photograph with Hitler. Further, The Baltimore Sun reported in 1936 that Hitler gave Owens a framed photograph of himself.
Buzzkill Institute researchers do not find these somewhat indirect pieces of evidence as convincing enough to verify the handshake account. But they certainly make the overall story less cut and dried than is usually portrayed.
Owens repeatedly tried to convince people back in the United States that the Hitler snub never took place, but the newsreels and other reports had already planted that “fact” in people’s minds. Given that Hitler was almost universally considered evil, it was hard for even Owens himself to correct the myth. He started almost immediately after he got back. In at least one speech after he returned, Owens said, “Hitler did not snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
This brings me to one of the most troubling aspects of this story, and one that is often over-looked — the way Jesse Owens was treated back in his own country (the one that he represented so brilliantly) after the Olympics. A ticker-tape parade was held for him in Manhattan in his honor, but when he went to his hotel that evening, he had to enter through a side door and ride up to his room in a freight elevator. The hotel didn’t allow African-Americans to use the front door or the guest elevators. This, unfortunately, was the status quo for African-Americans in the United States.
That would have been bad enough, but when compared to the way he had been treated on a daily basis in Germany, it’s especially shameful. Hitler, Himmler, and Speer tried to claim that athletes of African descent were closer to animals than whites, and had an unfair advantage in an open Olympic games. This was undeniably reprehensible. The Nazi regime was viciously racist, and we all know the depravity and evil of the Holocaust. So I want to stress to all of you that we are in no way comparing the morality of Hitler’s Germany with the morality of the United States, even during the height of the Jim Crow era, with all its lynchings and discrimination.
But while in Germany in 1936, Owens stayed in the same hotels as white athletes, lived in the Olympic Village under no restrictions, and dined in the same restaurants as his white team-mates. Indeed, he was often cheered and praised while traveling between the Olympic Village and the Olympic stadium. Other American athletes reported that Owens was greeted by throngs of German fans, chanting his name, and some even snipping off pieces of his clothing with scissors.
The myth of the Hitler snub aside, it’s very clear from the way Owens was treated on a general basis during his stay in Germany that there were enough Germans who did not believe fully in Nazi ideology. In 1936, Owens and his black teammates did not suffer the daily indignities that he, and all African-Americans, endured in the United States at that time.