Revisiting Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Games

ESPN is polling the wisdom of the crowds right now to find out who is the greatest Olympian of all time. I voted for Jesse Owens because as impressive as Michael Phelps’ achievements are, I love the story of an African American raining on Hitler’s parade with four Olympic gold medals at the Munich 1936 games. So I went over to the Wikipedia to read more about Owens’ achievements and discovered there was more to the story.

On the first day, Hitler shook hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials then insisted Hitler greet each and every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens recounted:

“When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.”

He also stated:

“Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor bestowed any honors by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) or Harry S. Truman during their terms. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged Owens’ accomplishments, naming him an “Ambassador of Sports.”

Wow. So while we love to remember Owens’ triumph over Nazi racism, we neglect to remember how racism continued to thrive in the United States. Owens gave up his amateur status after those Olympics in hopes of commercial opportunities that would never materialize for him. After years of financial troubles he became a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. He was criticized in 1968 for supporting the athletes who gave the black power salute and tried to convince Jimmy Carter not to boycott the Moscow games shortly before his death in 1980. He died of lung cancer – the Olympic sprinter had become a heavy smoker. Just another reminder that the truth is always more interesting than the legends.

Update: I also just found this nice piece from ESPN’s SportsCentury series on Jesse Owens.