Sunday, 13 August 2006

The Jesse Owens story

On 19 August 2008, T.V.R. Shenoy wrote the following in the Indian newspaper, The Rediff Special:

"Every four years, when the Summer Olympics hit the headlines, some media outlet or the other mentions the great Jesse Owens and his victories at the 1936 Berlin Games. Inevitably, the story of his famous snubbing by Adolf Hitler, when the murderous Nazi dictator refused to shake Owens by the hand, is brought up.

There is just one thing about the story, it is pure hogwash from beginning to end. And digging up the truth reveals some interesting facts about the United States...

Hitler was at the stadium on the first day of the track and field competition on August 2, 1936. When the German athlete Hans Woellke won the shotput gold medal, the delighted dictator called him into the presidential box to congratulate him in person.

Henri de Baillet-Latour, then president of the International Olympic Committee, politely informed the German dictator that he could either receive all the athletes or none at all; congratulating only German athletes, he said, violated the Olympic spirit. Hitler, who was at his charming best, actually apologised for breaking tradition, and said he would refrain from singling out athletes of any nation.

This was the origin of the famous 'snub'. Did Adolf Hitler actually insult the famed American athlete? The answer comes from the man best qualified to answer that, Jesse Owens himself.

'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 criticising the man of the hour in Germany.'

Interestingly, Owens did not say that in 1936, he wrote that in 1970, in the book The Jesse Owens Story...

Yet his concern for the truth was great enough that he acknowledged that it was Hitler who arose first to acknowledge the athlete.

So who did 'snub' Jesse Owens? Once again, Owens speaks for himself:

'Hitler didn't snub me, it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.'

The 'FDR' mentioned in the quote is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then president of the United States. 1936 was an election year, and Roosevelt, who was running for re-election, simply did not want to be seen shaking a black man's hand. That might have cost him valuable votes in the southern states.

I am sure American journalists knew the truth. But they did not acknowledge that President Roosevelt, an icon of the liberal media, was such a racist that he could not spend a few minutes in the company of a black man. It made a better story to pin the story on Hitler, who, ironically, had publicly acknowledged Owens.

Owens also said that he was treated far better in Germany than in his own country. At a dinner held for all the victorious American athletes in New York, Owens and the other black athletes were ordered to ride in the freight elevator, used for transporting luggage, because the elevator for guests could not be used by blacks!

He was denied all recognition by the American system, and reduced to stunts like running against horses; when he got too old for that, the great athlete worked as a janitor.

In 1966 he had to endure the pain of filing for bankruptcy.

The story of Jesse Owens is hardly unique in American sport. A young Muhammad Ali was reputedly refused service in a whites-only restaurant; humiliated, he threw away the gold medal he had won at the Rome Olympics. Later, he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War, famously declaring: 'I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong, they never called me a nigger'.

I cannot help reflecting that his athletes achieved one of the aims that Hitler set for them. Germany won 33 gold medals and 89 in all, handily beating the 24 gold medals that fell to the United States (56 in all)."
Germany also won the most medals in the 1936 Winter Olympics.

In a letter of 14 March 1984 to the Director of West German ZDF TV, the former German athlete, Walther Tripps, (a relay runner in the 1936 Games) confirmed the information in V.R. Shenoy's essay thus:

"Re: 'Heute' news broadcast of 10 March 1984:

Your announcer made an absolutely untrue statement. He repeated the stupid lie that in 1936 Adolf Hitler refused to meet the incomparable, four-time Olympic winner Jesse Owens because of his skin color and Negro ancestry. It seems that the announcer sought to clearly emphasize the so-called race hatred indoctrination.

This story is not just a fairy tale. It is a wretched lie. Today the truth is suppressed for presumably political reasons. But it will not die. There are too many contemporary witnesses. I am one of them.

In fact, Adolf Hitler received and congratulated the German Olympic winners of the 1936 Games in the place of honor at the Olympic stadium. The 800,000 daily spectators, including many foreign visitors, enthusiastically applauded this...

It was also arranged to honor the outstanding and unforgettable Jesse Owens in this way as well. But at this point the President of the International Olympic Committee, Count Baillet-Latour, stopped Hitler's plan by pointing out that this practice conflicted with the Committee rules. The Count, however, had no objection to holding this kind of congratulatory reception in the Reich Chancellory.

Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt, then President of the German National Olympic Committee and head of the German athletic association, later confirmed these facts at a meeting of the former members of the German team. I was one of those present at this meeting in Stuttgart with the unforgettable Ritter von Halt, which took place shortly after his release from the Soviet-run Sachsenhausen concentration camp...

The facts will be published in the magazine of the 'Former German Winners' Sports Club'."
Lutz Long gave some invaluable advice to Jesse Owens during the long jump final. Jesse fouled on his first two jumps and, with just one left, still needed to qualify for the finals in the afternoon.

Long believed that his chief adversary would be able to safely advance to the next round, without risking another foul, if he jumped from several inches behind the line and he advised Jesse to do this.

He took off with about six inches of clearance in his ultimate first round leap and went on to win the gold medal with Long, who had broken the world record in the preliminary rounds, taking the silver only as a result.

After the event both athletes posed together for photos and walked away arm-in-arm towards their dressing room. Jesse said this of that moment:

"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment."
Long died in a British military hospital following the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.

In the commemorative two-volume album devoted to the Games produced by Germany, Hitler was seen six times and Jesse Owens seven times. The chapter covering athletics opens with the title line, The fastest man in the world: Jesse Owens-USA. On the opening page of the second volume, a portrait of Theodor Lewald, President of the German Olympic organizing committee, is featured.

Lewald was Jewish.

The German Jewess Helene Mayer won the fencing silver medal at the Berlin Olympics. The Jew, Rudi Ball, was a member of Germany's ice-hockey team at the Winter Games of 1932 and he was on the team in the 1936 as well.

Victor Klemperer, cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer and the son of a Rabbi, spent the entire National-Socialist period, including the war years, in Dresden. He was only forced to leave after the Allied bombings in February 1945. Klemperer's diary entry of 13 August 1936 in noteworthy:

"I find the Olympic Games, which will soon be over, doubly repulsive... It's a nigger from the United States who has jumped the highest and the silver medal in fencing for Germany has been taken by the Jewess Helene Mayer. I don't know what is more indecent, her participation as a German of the 3rd Reich or the fact that her performance should be claimed as a victory for the 3rd Reich."
Jesse Owens also said these things:

"When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."
"After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job."
"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. There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway."
The things we take for granted, the things we learn at Big Brother's knee, are often at at a considerable variance to the facts of the matter, aren't they?