Olympic champion Jesse Owens salutes the American flag at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
One of the Gold medals won by Jesse Owens in Berlin, 1936.
American track champion, Jesse Owens broke three records in Berlin.
Editor’s note: As the 31st Games of the Olympiad approaches, August 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, I thought it would be interesting to resurrect stories of former Olympics as written in Coconut Times in the summer of 1992, year of the Games in Barcelona, Spain
(July 3 issue)
The 1936 Olympics - was this just another Olympic Games, or was it the mother of all of the Olympics? Allow me a couple minutes of your time, and I will share with you some of the highlights from the 1936 Olympic Games. Then you decide!
Just prior to the 1936 games, the world, especially in Europe, was experiencing turmoil in every direction. But the stage was being prepared for one of the most memorable Olympic Games ever. It was memorable for many reasons, but the most memorable to me is the performance of one African American participant.
In 1935, Benito Mussolini had announced the annexation of Ethiopia and promptly unleashed his Italian Army against this ancient land, which drove Emperor Haile Selassie into exile. Adolf Hitler moved his army into the previously demilitarized Rhineland, causing serious havoc in the already unstable French government. King Edward VIII abdicated his throne to wed an American divorcée named Wallis Warfield Simpson. Everywhere one looked, there was chaos; but as the old saying goes, “The show must go on,” and go on it did!
The year leading up to the 1936 Olympic Games provoked some heart wrenching and deep, deep emotional feelings. This worldwide event was scheduled to take place in Germany, a country ruled by a Nazi tyrant and white supremacist. Many Americans, as well as members of other countries were opposed to participating due to the presence of Adolf Hitler as ruler of Germany.
In the United States, there was a major movement to refrain from sending any participants from the U.S.; a movement supported by such honorables as former New York State Supreme Court Justice and leader of the Amateur Athletic Union, Honorable Jeremiah T. Mahoney; then Senators Peter G. Gerry (Rhode Island), and David I. Walsh (Massachusetts); members of the National Council of Methodist Youth; and Walter White of the NAACP, to name only a few. On the other side of this fight to preserve the Olympic locale was the American Goodwill Athletic Union.
Three universities simply refused to play in the Olympic basketball trials. The colleges were Long Island University, New University and Notre Dame.
Despite this tremendous struggle to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games, we did send a contingency to the Games, and as Judith Holes stated, “Not only did the United States sweep through the Games in more than adequate fashion, but we managed to give Hitler’s Aryan superiority theories a black eye in the process.”
Before I brag about our performances at the 1936 Olympics, I must mention Hitler’s goals at the Games. Hitler set out to show the world that his Aryan nation was wealthy, battle ready, clean, strong and superior to all people in all areas, including sports. Hitler was successful at showing the world that he had created spectacular arenas to house the Olympic Games. He provided Mercedes Benz cars for all Olympic officials and his bodyguard, and he provided spectacular light shows. But he was not so successful in destroying the other nations in competition, as he desired.
During the Games, 16 Olympic records were smashed, one equaled, and five new world’s records were set. Of the 16 Olympic records, Jesse Owens was involved in three; and he was involved in three of the world records set at the 1936 Games. This, to me, is the story of these Games: the success of Jesse Cleveland Owens.
Sure, there were many Americans who won medals, such as Cornelius Johnson, winner of the high jump at 6 feet 8 inches and Jack Medica, winner of the 400 meter freestyle swim at 4.45.5 minutes. Ralph Flanagan, John Macionis, Paul Wolf, and Jack Medica won the Silver medal for the 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay swim in 9.03 minutes; and in the springboard diving competition, Richard Degener took the Gold, Marshall Wayne took the Silver and Albert Greene took the Bronze. These are but a few of the many medals won by the U.S. As a matter of fact, the U.S., much to the dismay of Adolf Hitler, won a total of 32 medals - 15 Gold, 11 Silver and 6 Bronze. But Jesse is the story!
This gets us back to the story of an African American who accomplished a task that not many others were able to do. Jesse Owens created some discomfort for Adolf Hitler in his own little haven. Jesse provided a spectacular performance winning a Gold medal in the 100-meter dash, setting an Olympic and world record of 10.3 seconds. He won a gold medal in the long jump at 26 feet, 5 1/4 inches, setting an Olympic record. He won a Gold medal in the 200-meter race at 20.7 (one-tenth of a second slower than the world record) setting an Olympic record. He finally hooked up with Ralph Metcalfe, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff and won a Gold medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay race, setting a new world and Olympic record at 39.8 seconds - equaling less than an average of 10.0 seconds per 100 meters. This tremendous performance was repeated again at the 1984 Olympic Games by Carl Lewis.
During three of the above events, there was a story within the story. In the 100-meter dash, Jesse was beaten by another African American, Metcalfe, in a qualifying race; but fortunately, Jesse recovered and beat him in the finals. In the long jump qualifications, Jesse committed two foot fouls and was down to his last jump, when a German jumper made a suggestion to him. Lutz Long, of the Nazi team, suggested that Jesse place a towel a short distance before the strike pad so he would jump at the towel. Jesse made the adjustment and ended up setting another world record. In the 4 x 100 meter race, Jesse was not slated to run, but due to the pressure of the crowd and popularity of Jesse, he did run. There were two Jewish Americans slated to run, but the American coaches replaced them with Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who went on to win in record time.
The 1936 Olympics was a very political Olympics, but we, as Americans, went, sought and conquered. Jesse Cleveland Owens, ironically, paved the way for a very memorable Olympic Games which will never be duplicated. Hats off to you, Jesse Owens and the contingency of Jewish Americans and African Americans who traveled to a hostile land and came away with the Gold.
Note: Because of WWII, there were no Olympic games until the year 1948 when they were held in London, England. It was a time of rebuilding world unification.
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