Jesse Owens, and the black American Olympians of 1936, were not snubbed by Hitler, but by their own society

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were a showcase for Nazi Germany, and for Hitler personally. Germany won more medals than any other nation at those games. The most famous story emerging from the 1936 Olympics is the triumph of black American athlete, Jesse Owens. The latter, a star track and field competitor for the US team, won four gold medals, thus demolishing the myth of white Aryan racial superiority. Hitler, incensed at this outcome, snubbed Owens and left the stadium.

A nice story – except that it is not true. Owens, and the 17 other African American athletes, were not snubbed by Hitler at all, but by their own government. Not a single US President, until Barack Obama, acknowledged the accomplishments of these 18 black Olympians. They achieved enormous triumphs and accolades in Nazi Germany, only to be ignored and discriminated against by their home nation. Even Eisenhower, in 1955, nominated Owens as an ambassador of sport. That is all well and good, but hardly recognition for the achievements of the African American athletes.

In one of the great ironies of history, the black American athletes lived in a racially integrated Olympic village for the duration of their stay in Berlin. That state of affairs was impossible at that time in the US. Returning home, they had to go back to the legalised racial segregation practiced by their home nation.

John Woodruff, a fellow athlete, won gold in the 800 meters race in Berlin. He explained in an interview decades after the event the feeling of exhilaration, destroying the widely held myth of white supremacy in the heart of Nazi Germany. Yet, when Woodruff returned to the US, he encountered the following:

After the Olympics, we had a track meet to run at Annapolis, at the Naval Academy. Now here I am, an Olympic champion, and they told the coach that I couldn’t run. I couldn’t come. So I had to stay home, because of discrimination. That let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed. Things hadn’t changed.

While Owens gained international attention after the Berlin Olympics, the accomplishments of the other athletes faded into obscurity. This is unfortunate – while Owens deserves recognition and admiration, the myth of being ‘snubbed by Hitler’ has served to eclipse the equally remarkable sporting achievements of Owens’ athletic colleagues.

In fact, Owens achieved remarkable popularity among the German crowds during his time at the Berlin Olympics. He received ear-shattering ovations, with chants of ‘Oh-vens!’ reverberating throughout the Olympic stadium. The Nazi government, for its part, toned down the antisemitic rhetoric and propaganda posters for the duration of the Olympics.

Hitler, on the first day of the Olympic competition, congratulated only the winning German athletes. The governing Olympic committee advised him that this was against protocol – receive all the winners or none at all. So from the second day onwards, Hitler did not receive any athletes. Owens, who was gaining popularity and being mobbed by adoring German fans for an autograph, was greeted by a Nazi salute from Hitler in the stands. Owens waved back, and continued with the competition.

As Owens explained in the years after the 1936 Olympics, it was not Hitler who snubbed him, but the American president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt pointedly ignored the black American athletes, and invited only the white athletes to visit him in the Oval Office. FDR did not even send a telegram of congratulations to the African American team, Owens commented.

In the decades after his Olympic career was over, Owens worked various jobs. The commercial endorsements, and mini-celebrity status, achieved by retired athletes, was denied to Owens. There were times when Owens was forced to declare bankruptcy. Becoming a heavy smoker, Owens passed away of lung cancer in 1980.

The story of Hitler-didn’t-shake-hands-with-Owens is one of those comforting urban legends. Taking grains of truth from real events, they achieve a life of their own, snowballing into an agglomeration of untruths and soothing falsehoods.

In 1936, America had no inclination to tackle the rising threat of European fascism; indeed, American companies continued to do business with large German conglomerates implicated in supporting the Nazi party and its war machine. Big American companies, such Du Pont, Coca Cola and General Electric, had investments in Nazi enterprises.

Deflecting attention from US involvement in Nazi Germany’s economy, in particular after the full revelations of the horrors of the Nazi-run concentration camps – and their role in provisioning slave labour – the Owens-was-snubbed-by-Hitler story serves as a retroactive application of moral principles. After all, Owens giving Hitler a reason to be incensed, provides Americans with a salve to their collective conscience.

Who need bother with the story of IBM corporation, and its involvement in German enterprises during the Holocaust, when we can soothe ourselves with the knowledge’ that already in 1936, we knew what a bad man Hitler was by the way he allegedly ignored Jesse Owens?

Yes, we all understand the criminal and racist nature of the Nazi party, and the vitriolic ideology of its chief exponent. White supremacist ideology led to the concentration camps. However, let’s examine the history of the US honestly, and learn the lessons it can teach us today.

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