Jesse Owens and four Olympic Golds that triumphed over racism | Sunday Observer

Jesse Owens and four Olympic Golds that triumphed over racism

14 May, 2021
Jesse Owens and Luz Long epitome sportsmanship amid the brutal Nazi Regime
Jesse Owens and Luz Long epitome sportsmanship amid the brutal Nazi Regime

The 1936 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XI Olympiad were held in Berlin, Germany from August 1 to 16, 1936. These Olympic Games are best remembered for Adolf Hitler’s failed attempt to use the Olympic Games to prove Aryan racial superiority. Athletes, Jesse Owens of the United States and Luz Long of Germany demonstrated how sportsmanship could unite people under toughest circumstances. Their story continues to echo even after 84 long years.

The Berlin 1936 Olympic Games were the first to be televised. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to film the Games and her movie, titled “Olympia,” pioneered many of the techniques now common in the filming of sports. A total of 49 nations took part with five making their debut: Afghanistan, Bermuda, Bolivia, Costa Rica and Liechtenstein. A total of 129 events under 25 disciplines of 19 sports were part of the Games.

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had a new 100,000-seat stadium built, as well as six gymnasiums and other arenas. A total of 3,963 athletes - 3,632 men and 331 women took part. Germany emerged victorious winning 33 gold, 26 silver, 30 bronze and overall, 89 medals. The United States came second with 56 medals - 24G, 20S and 12B. Hungary secured the third position with 16 medals - 10G, 1S and 5B.

Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony was held on August 1, 1936. After the arrival of Adolf Hitler and his entourage, the parade of nations proceeded, each nation with its own unique costume. As the birthplace of the Olympics, Greece entered the stadium first. The host nation, Germany, entered last.

As swimmer Iris Cummings later related, “once the athletes were all in place, the torch bearer ran in through the tunnel to go around the stadium.” A young man chosen for this task ran up the steps all the way up to the top of the stadium there to light a cauldron which would start this eternal flame that would burn through the duration of the games.

The 1936 Summer Olympics torch relay was the first of its kind. It pioneered the modern convention of moving the flame via a relay from Greece. Adolf Hitler, commented, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.”

Some nations’ athletes purposefully gave the Nazi salute as they passed Hitler. Others gave the Olympic salute, or a different gesture entirely, such as hats-over-hearts, by the United States, India and China. All nations lowered their flags as they passed. Writer Thomas Wolfe, who was there, described the opening ceremony as an “almost religious event, the crowd screaming, swaying in unison and begging for Hitler. There was something scary about it; his cult of personality.”

After a speech by the President of the German Olympic Committee, the Games were officially declared open by Adolf Hitler who quoted in German, “I proclaim open the Olympic Games of Berlin, celebrating the Eleventh Olympiad of the modern era.” Hitler opened the Olympic Games from his own box, on top of others. Writer David Wallechinsky had commented on the event, saying, “This was his event, he wanted to be glorified.”

Jesse Owens’ Quest Started with 100m

After a long and fraught process, Jesse Owens joined other USA athletes on the ship to Berlin for the 1936 Olympic Games. Blessed by the ability to focus on what he did best, Owens lined up for his first event - 100m. What followed was nine days of incomparable Olympic sport.

It is difficult to imagine the burden on Owens’ shoulders as he stood on the start line on August 2, 1936 for 100m heats at the Olympic Games. Competing in an arena adorned with Nazi flags while still the subject of ongoing protests by fellow Americans appalled that their athletes had travelled to Hitler’s Berlin, Owens was in a position uniquely challenging in Olympic history.

Owens may have been the 100m world record holder, after running 10.2 sec in Chicago two months earlier, but the quietly spoken Alabama native was not a nailed-on certainty for the blue-riband event in Berlin 1936. And crucially, as the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games 100m silver medalist, Metcalfe had already proved that he could perform on the biggest stage of all.

Owens wrote that he felt the pressure gauge was at its most intense for the 100m. The title was so close and yet so difficult to grasp. Surprisingly, it would be impossible to guess any of this from the television footage of Owens’ three heats and the final.

As taught by Charles Riley, his coach at Fairmount Junior High School, to run as though the track was on fire, Jesse Owens flew along the track. In the second of his two heats on day one, he clocked 10.2 sec, a time that would have equaled his world record were it not for the strong tail wind. None of his competitors got within two-tenths of a second of the graceful Owens in the opening two races.

With just one German, Erich Borchmeyer, through to the semi-finals on August 3, the unassuming Owens had already started to catch the attention of large swathes of the Berlin crowd. Cries of “Owens” began to ring out before his semi-final. In cold, overcast conditions, the US sprinter won his race in 10.4 sec with Metcalfe taking the other semi-final in 10.5 sec.

For the final, the pair drew opposite sides of the track, Owens on the inside lane two and Metcalfe on the outside lane seven. A habitually poor starter, Metcalfe almost stumbled out of the ‘blocks’- homemade trenches dug in the cinder track by each athlete and was immediately down on his smooth-flowing teammate. Never troubled, Owens was comfortably clear at 50m and despite a late surge from Metcalfe, Owens burst the tape in 10.3 sec. Metcalfe took the silver and the Netherlands’ Tinus Osendarp won the bronze.

The much-publicized reports that Hitler refused to acknowledge Owens’ opening victory appear to be untrue, with the German leader reportedly deciding halfway through day one of the athletics program not to shake hands with any further gold medalists. None of this mattered to Owens. The men’s 100m gold medalist had what he wanted. He wrote in later life, “Winning the 100m was the most memorable moment of all - to be known as the world’s fastest human being.”

Sportsmanship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long

Jesse Owens and Luz Long are two gentlemen athletes who competed in long jump at Berlin 1936. Out of the tyranny of the games, came a wonderful display of true sportsmanship and friendship that meant more than the Olympic Games.

They came from different backgrounds and circumstances. Owens was an African American who suffered the indignity of segregation and ridicule because of the color of his skin. Long was a beloved white German who could have anything he wanted and was a beloved son of Germany who was one of the stars that would show the world the Aryan supremacy in the world of athletics.

Jesse Owens would become the most decorated Olympian at Berlin 1936 Olympic Games by winning 4 gold medals. Luz Long would only secure a silver in long jump. Owens was the most successful athlete at the Games and as such has been credited with, “single-handedly crushing Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.”

During the long jump competition, Long was competing against Owens and just recorded a jump that became an Olympic record. Owens struggling, was down to his final jump. Long sensing that Owens was feeling dejected, offered him some assistance and told him to try and jump from a spot several inches behind the take-off board.

Since Owens routinely made distances far greater than the minimum of 7.15m required to advance to the final round, Long surmised that Owens would be able to advance safely to the next round without risking a foul trying to push for a greater distance. On his third qualifying jump, Owens was calm and easily qualified for the finals.

In the final, both Owens and Long exceeded the old Olympic record five times. Owens went on to win the gold in long jump with 8.06m while surpassing Long’s own record of 7.87m. Long won the silver and was the first to congratulate Owens. They posed together for photos and walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room.

Owens said, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Adolf Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.” Luz was posthumously awarded the noblest honour that can be bestowed on an athlete, the IOC Pierre de Coubertin medal for promoting the Olympic spirit.

Notable Achievements at Berlin 1936

Basketball, canoeing and handball made their debut. Art, Baseball, Gliding, Wushu and Kabaddi were demonstration sports. German gymnast Konrad Frey became the most successful host nation athlete winning 3 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze medals whilst his teammate Alfred Schwarzmann won 3 gold medals.

Rie Mastenbroek of the Netherlands won 3 gold medals in swimming. At the age of 13 years and 268 days, Marjorie Gestring of the US won the gold in 3m springboard diving to become the youngest ever to win an Olympic gold. In swimming, 12-year Inge Sorensen of Denmark earned a bronze in 200m breaststroke, to become the youngest medalist ever in an individual event.

In equestrian, Germany won individual and team gold in all three disciplines. In cycling match sprint finals, German Toni Merkens fouled Arie van Vliet of the Netherlands but was surprisingly awarded the gold with a fine instead of disqualifying.

The future American war hero Louis Zamperini, lagging behind in 5,000m final, made up ground by clocking a 56-sec final lap. This effort caught the attention of Adolf Hitler who personally commended Zamperini. In a dramatic 800m in history, American John Woodruff won the gold whilst Glenn Edgar Morris, won the gold in decathlon.

A remarkable story from athletics was the gold won by the US women’s 4x100 m relay after the favorites Germany dropped the baton. Of notable interest on the United States team was Betty Robinson, the first Olympic gold medalist in athletics for winning 100m at Amsterdam 1928.

Jack Lovelock of New Zealand won 1500m gold, with a world record of 3:47.8. In marathon, the ethnic Koreans Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Sung-yong won gold and bronze medals for Japan. Estonia’s Kristjan Palusalu won gold medals in both Men’s heavyweight wrestling styles. British rower Jack Beresford won his fifth Olympic medal and his third gold. The US rowing team won the gold, defeating the Germans and Italians.

India won the gold in field hockey defeating Germany 8 - 1 in the final. Italy’s football team won the gold and Austria won the silver. Hitler called for a rematch of the quarter-final following a controversial win for Peru by 4 - 2 over Austria. The IOC ordered a replay without any spectators. The Peruvian government refused, and their Olympic squad left in protest.

20-year Egyptian weightlifter Khadr El Touni continued to compete for additional 45 minutes after winning the middleweight class and lifted a total of 387.5 kg crushing both the Olympic and world records. He had lifted 15 kg more than the light-heavyweight gold medalist. Fascinated by El Touni’s performance, Adolf Hitler rushed down to greet him and so impressed by his domination ordered a street in the Olympic Village be named after El Touni.

Luz Long’s last letter to Jesse Owens

Following the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games, Luz Long fought in the World War II. Here’s the transcript of his last letter to Owens: I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is … so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war is done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we were not separated by war. I am saying – tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this … for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true. That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I did not know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than the Berlin Olympiad. And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I must tell you, Jesse. I think I might believe in God. And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you. Your brother, Luz.

Owens’ Legacy, Awards and Honours

At Olympic Games, arguably no athlete made a greater impact, or personified Olympic values, than Jesse Owens. At his greatest moment in Berlin 1936 Olympics, he stole the show. He won 100m in 10.30 sec, 200m in 20.70 sec, and long jump, with an impressive leap of 8.06m. His fourth gold came in 4x100m relay, in which Owens formed a key part of the team that set a new world record of 39.80 sec.

An astonishingly gifted athlete, Jesse Owens’ track record speaks for itself. A year earlier, on May 25, 1935, Owens averaged a world record every nine minutes at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He set five world records and equaled a sixth in just 45 minutes.

The dormitory that Owens occupied during the Berlin Olympics has been fully restored into a living museum. In 1970, Owens was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. In 1976, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. In 1979, he was awarded Living Legend Award by President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, the USA Track and Field created the Jesse Owens Award which is awarded to the country’s top track and field athlete.

In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H. W. Bush. In 1996, Owens’ hometown of Oakville, Alabama, dedicated the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum and included an inscription by poet Charles Ghigna: “May this light shine forever as a symbol to all who run for the freedom of sport, for the spirit of humanity, for the memory of Jesse Owens.”

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)