Amidst a sea of outstretched arms and German fervor, Adolf Hitler is welcomed to the stage. Here, he gives his opening speech to resounding applause. The torch is lit, the cannons fire, the crowd erupts. It’s August 1st, 1936 in Berlin. The Summer Olympics are now underway.
The latest PBS documentary American Experience: Jesse Owens tracks Owens from his early days in Alabama, to his stunning victories at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin and his life after his return to America. For some gold medal winners, it’s not all parades and victory laps. American Experience pulls no punches and tells the facts exactly as they are. It’s refreshing to watch a documentary with no overt agenda outside of telling the absolute truth.
In Berlin, Owens dominated the track, taking home 4 gold medals, the most of any Olympian in 1936. In the long jump event, Owens faced his toughest opponent in the German Luz Long. Nearly failing to qualify due to foul, Owens received a helpful tip from Long and made the event. The epic battle between the men ended with Owens victorious, to which Long congratulated him. The images of Long and Owens walking together with locked arms around the stadium in Berlin that was meant to serve as a monumental achievement of Aryan superiority is incredible with the hindsight of what became of the Nazi Party in later years.
Although the Germans took home the most medals overall (89), the dominance of Jesse Owens was a great embarrassment to Hitler, The Nazi Party and the idea that the Aryan race was the gold standard of excellence. It’s customary for the host of the Olympics to shake hands with gold medal winners, but Hitler refused, saying “Do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a negro?” An outraged Josef Goebbels would later write in his diary “We Germans win a gold medal, the Americans get three, two of which are won by niggers? This is a scandal; white humanity should be ashamed of itself.”
Owens should have been welcomed home as a national hero, but the times dictated that he be shuffled off into anonymity as a black man in a cultural landscape dominated by whites. If he were a white athlete, his endorsements alone would have been enough to give his family a comfortable life. Instead, a man who achieved something remarkable was relegated to degrading events in which he raced horses for very little money or notoriety.
It’s interesting to note the contrast between Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. Both are men that should be applauded and revered for their achievements in times when they had every reason to quit fighting and submit. Yet, while Robinson deservedly has his praises sung, Owens is primarily forgotten. Could this be because of the great importance placed on “America’s Pastime” of baseball and our relative ignorance to track & field?
Is this what becomes of our heroes? We praise them for their great achievement when it serves as the backdrop for a nice photo op or puff piece for American Exceptionalism, but discard them when they no longer have any use after their star burns out? Can we look at current military veterans and get the same answer? Louis Zamperini, a member of that 1936 U.S. Olympic team, said of the treatment of Owens after his return, “It’s like saving somebody’s life, then the next day that person slaps you in the face.”
This documentary is a great portrait of a man that should be a remembered piece of American sports history. It’s not an exhaustive look at his life, but a small slice of the Jesse Owens saga. If you’re at all a fan of the ESPN 30 for 30 series, you owe it to yourself to seek this out.
American Experience: Jesse Owens is available on DVD everywhere May 8th.