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Who really snubbed Jesse Owens?

August 19, 2008 14:25 IST
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.

So, what exactly happened in Berlin in 1936? Hitler and his goons were bent on leaving a good impression by crafting the most magnificent spectacle seen till then. (How many people realise that the relay of the Olympic torch from Olympia in Greece to the host country was dreamt up by the Nazis? There was no such 'tradition' before 1936.)

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, at a time when Hitler's monstrosities had been public knowledge for a quarter of a century.

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 ( then named Cassius Clay) 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.'

The United States has travelled some way since the days of Roosevelt and Owens. In those days, there was a white man in the White House and a black man doing the hard yards out in the stadium. Today, there is a serious chance of a black man sitting in Roosevelt's chair, while a white man is winning accolades for his octet of gold medals.

Sadly, some things never change. In 1936, the press allowed itself to be seduced by Nazi propaganda; sift through the archives, and there is no shortage of admiring reports about the economic and social development of Germany under the Hitler regime. In 2008, there seems to be the same unquestioning admiration for Communist China as for Nazi Germany.

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). When you see the determination with which the Chinese are setting out to beat the United States in the gold count, you cannot help wondering if this dictatorship too will follow the Nazis in other areas too.

Tailpiece: I have long since despaired of Doordarshan's commentators -- why can't we simply get the foreign feed? -- but the national broadcaster hit a new low with the Beijing Games. Even its technical standards have slipped, with comments from the harassed engineers clearly audible over the air, not once but just about every day. And then there was the time that we saw the men's badminton championship match while the audio feed related the tale of the women's diving finals. Simply horrible!

T V R Shenoy