Owens in Berlin

Jesse Owens won the 100-meter dash at the Berlin Olympics on this day in 1936. Over the next few days he added victories in the 200 meters, the 4×100 relay, and the long jump, the achievement of four gold medals in track events matched only by Carl Lewis in 1984 (in the same four events).

History has also credited Owens with a qualified victory in the racial-political arena. The Nazi attempt to appropriate the Games as a demonstration of Aryan superiority was mathematically successful — Germany won eighty-nine medals, thirty-three more than second-place United States — but the four victories by Owens defied Hitler’s racism and inspired even the German crowds:

Owens walked to the start of lane two and removed his tracksuit. He tucked his vest into his shorts, partially obscuring the large black “733” stuck to the front of his vest. And then the crowd began to shout. It was a shout he had heard in Hamburg, and now he was hearing it again. Far from being racially-abused, the African-American was being lionized. “Yess-ay! Yess-ay! Yess-ay! Ovens! Ovens! Ovens!…”

The above is excerpted from Guy Walters’s Berlin Games (2006), both an event-by-event account and an analysis of “How the Nazis Stole the Olympic Dream.” In 1936, no one could have felt a shuddering chill at “Ovens,” but Walters makes clear that too few, Owens included, took the opportunity to denounce the clear signs of impending disaster. The Nazi marketing machine had not been able to sanitize all city streets and political speeches of anti-Semitic signs and slogans, but they had clearly won the day:

I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the Games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen. (William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, in a diary entry for August 16, closing day of the Games)

The Gestapo intercepted one fan letter sent to Owens, imploring him to use his podium moment as an opportunity to speak out, but Walters and others describe Owens as apolitical by temperament, a man unlikely to have made a scene or to have seen what other athletes saw. In one letter home, Charles Leonard, American silver medalist in the pentathlon, notes the mass demonstrations of boys and girls performing their calisthenics in strict discipline, of kids and soldiers marching about town in columns, singing patriotic tunes: “In summary, NATIONALISM sticks out — even to the ends of their noses.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.