Saturday, March 20, 2010

Triumph (book)

History is more interesting than you think it is. It is more awful than you think it is. It is more nuanced and subtle than you think it is. The way most people learn it, history is a plot so dull and obvious you'd fall asleep halfway through.

The 1936 Olympics (winter and summer games) were awarded to Germany during the Weimar Republic. After 1933, they became the Nazis' Olympics. Once the games commenced, they were Hitler's Olympics, and by the time they were through, they were Jesse Owens' Olympics. This may be the basic message of Jeremy Schaap's informative and not very long history Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, but Schaap does an important service debunking a lot of well-entrenched myths about this moment in time.

There was a serious movement afoot to relocate the German Olympics, or to simply boycott them. Many American men who stood against such a movement pointed to the Jim Crow South as evidence of a certain American hypocrisy. However, the real hypocrisy is the implication that Hitler's Jew-hatred was like our own bigotry - i.e. acceptable and part of doing business.

Owens himself wanted to compete, and why wouldn't he. The story everyone now tells about Jesse Owens astonishing drubbing of the so-called Master Race is how Hitler left his box during the race, or during the medal ceremony, or in some other fashion made a big deal of snubbing Owens. As if any world leader would stoop so low in perception as to show their spite for one particular athlete - or performer, or anyone, really.

Hitler was openly dismissive of the "non-Aryan" athletes, inviting not only German medal winners, but also fair-skinned Finnish athletes to be photographed with him after their wins on the first day - but not the first African-Americans to medal in the these games later the same day. The Olympic committee insisted he greet all medal winners or none at all, and Hitler chose to greet none after this first day, a rule he failed to keep.

Owens himself told later in his life that the German audience in the stands was hostile towards him, though records show the exact opposite was true. The German crowds were excited to have this young, American runner at their Olympics, they cheered wildly. They even whistled, which apparently is a strictly American thing to do.

Hitler did watch as Jesse Owens won four gold medals, in the 100, the 200, the long-jump and the relay. And at the time, Owens claimed Hitler waved at him from his box.
"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 did not feel then that he had been snubbed by the German Chancellor.
"Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."
FDR did not congratulate Owens, though he did receive a cable from Ohio Governor Martin L. Davey reading:
"It is my pleasure to convey to you the congratulations of the people of your state for your brilliant achievement in the Olympic games."
Now, while it is common knowledge that Americans have long distinguished between the accomplishments of white men and all others (e.g.: first woman astronaut, first black president) I was amazed to learn all of the remarkably colorful adjectives used to describe Mr. Owens. I was not previously aware, for example, the appetite in the media for the word "sepia" when describing lighter-skinned blacks.

Yes, he was the Cleveland Cataclysm (LA Times) Buckeye Bullet (an OSU reference, not one to the color of the nut.) He was also the Negro Wonder (NY Times), the Dark Streak (NY Times), and the Brown Blizzard (several papers.)

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