The Sporting Life: You Can't Eat Gold

By David Flin

The Olympic philosophy is that good sportsmanship, fair play, and respect for fellow athletes developed through sport brings together men and women of different races, religions, and nationalities to work peacefully together in competition toward common goals. So successful has this philosophy been put into practise that not once has the faintest hint of scandal or corruption or unsporting practise ever been associated with the Olympics since the first modern games started in 1896. Every four years, the world comes together in a simple celebration of sporting endeavour, and shows humanity what is possible.

Look, this is a website for alternate history. In our timeline, the Olympic Games have seen corruption, cheating, terrorism, political protests, civil protests, drug scandals, and countless cases of misbehaviour that would have appalled Pierre de Coubertin.

Some Olympic Games have many different memories and events associated with them. One of the Olympiads, however, is forever associated with one name and one name only. Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

He very nearly didn’t go to the Games. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had tried to persuade him not to participate on the grounds that an African-American should not promote a racist regime after the treatment of coloured people by white racists in America. In the build-up to the Games, pressure grew for a boycott of the Games by African-Americans. Owens declared: “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.”

He, and others, were only persuaded to take part after Avery Brundage, President of the American Olympic Committee, branded those proposing a boycott of the games as “un-American agitators.”

As a curious digression, when the athletes had arrived at the Olympic village, and before the competitions started, Adi Dassler, founder of Adidas, visited Owens, and persuaded him to wear his running shoes.

Jesse Owens, long jump Gold Medal, 1936. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

His performance in the Games became legendary. On 3 August, he won the 100m. On 4 August, he won gold in the long-jump; on 5 August, he won the 200m; and on 9 August, he won gold in the 4 x 100m relay.

Four gold medals for an American athlete in the track and field events of a single Olympics. It was a record, and it wasn’t equalled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

This was the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Hitler was in power of a Nazi Germany, keen to put forward racist views regarding the innate superiority of the Aryan race. The success of Owens was a publicity nightmare for the Nazi propaganda machine. Hitler was furious and refused to shake Owens’ hand, and Owens returned to America as a hero.

Like many histories, some is true, some is debatable, and some is just plain wrong. The area most debated is whether or not Hitler snubbed Owens for upstaging the Aryan athletes. On 1 August, Hitler shook hands only with German victors, and then left the stadium. Henri de Baillet-Latour, President of the International Olympic Committee, insisted that Hitler had to greet every medallist, or none. Hitler opted for the latter, and did not publicly congratulate anyone after the first day of competition.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-033-17 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hitler was later accused of failing to acknowledge Owens or shake his hand. Owens himself responded to this: “Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium, and a certain time to leave. It happened that he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100m. But before he left, I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me, and I waved back.”

Reports are mixed. It was obvious that Hitler had been annoyed. Albert Speer wrote that Hitler: “Was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvellous coloured American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug. Their physiques were stronger than those of civilised whites, and hence should be excluded from future games.”

It’s certainly the case that Hitler didn’t shake Owens’ hand, and it’s certainly the case that Hitler was not at all happy that Owens did so well. As to whether it was a specific snub to Owens, to coloured athletes in general, or to any non-German athlete, that’s a contested point.

Hitler certainly wasn’t happy with the outcome, and it’s that which is remembered. Owens didn’t halt the Nazi regime, but he undoubtedly stole the spotlight.

There was an issue, one that came to light when Owens and the rest of the American Olympic competitors returned to the US. In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as the white athletes in the team. In many parts of the USA at this time, African Americans had to stay in segregated hotels.

Owens received a mixed reception on his return to America. He was greeted in New York City by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and a ticker-tape parade was held in his honour. During the parade, someone handed Owens a paper bag. He later found out that the bag contained $10,000 in cash.

After the parade, he went to the Waldorf Astoria New York, where a reception was being held in his honour. The hotel didn’t permit him to enter by the main doors, and he had to enter by a back entrance and use a freight elevator (lift) to reach the reception honouring him.

President Roosevelt invited athletes from the Olympic squad to come to the White House and meet him. To be specific, he invited the white athletes. The African American athletes, such as Owens, were not invited. It was this that caused Owens to say: “Hitler didn’t snub me. It was Roosevelt who snubbed me. The President didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Owens had returned home with four gold medals and international fame. However, he had difficulty finding work. US athletics officials withdrew his amateur status when they learned Owens had accepted endorsements, thus ending his athletics career. He took on jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and working for a dry-cleaning firm. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash. Unsurprisingly, Owens became bitter over the racism he faced. He said: “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

Despite this, he had shown that a person of colour could thrive with the eyes of the world on them. This hadn’t been acknowledged previously. He helped to pave the way for future African-American sporting stars, and pushed the door open a little wider for the civil rights movement to eventually emerge.

After the death of Owens in 1980, President Carter issued a tribute: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolised the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry.”

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow