Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap

I am an Olympic junkie. Every two years, for roughly two and a half weeks, I am glued to my TV, watching Team USA. I’ve even held Olympic parties in the past on the day of the opening ceremonies. Winter or summer, it doesn’t matter, I just want to see the excellence in sport. This week I’m going to highlight a few books and movies about the Olympics that you may or may not heard of. Today’s book brings us all the way back to 1936, when the rumblings of another world war were already starting. In case you don’t know who Jesse Owens was, he was the Usain Bolt of his time.

“From the ESPN national correspondent and author of the New York Times bestseller Cinderella Man comes the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of a defining moment in sports and world history.

In 1936, against a backdrop of swastikas flying and a storm troopers goose-stepping, an African-American son of sharecroppers won a staggering four Olympic gold medals and single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. The story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 games is that of a high-profile athlete giving a perfomance that transcends sports. But it is also the intimate and complex tale of the courage of one remarkable man.

Drawing on unprecedented access to the Owens family, previously unpublished interviews, and exhaustive archival research, Jeremy Schaap transports us to Nazi Germany to weave this dramatic tale. From the start, American participation in the 1936 games was controversial. A boycott was afoot, based on reports of Nazi hostility to Jews, but was thwarted by the president of the American Olympic Committee, who dismissed the actions of the Third Reich as irrelevant. At the games themselves the subplots and intrigue continued: Owens was befriended by a German rival, broad jumper Luz Long, who, legend has it, helped Owens win the gold medal at his own expense. Two Jewish sprinters were denied the chance to compete for the United States at the last possible moment, most likely out of misguided deference to the Nazi hosts. And a myth was born that Hitler had snubbed Owens by failing to congratulate him.” 

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics (Amazon) is an important read, not just for the history of the modern Olympics, but for the history of race relations in the United States and fascism abroad.

‘“No eighth-grader can run that fast.” Eleven flat. In other words, at fifteen years old, in cheap shoes and street clothes, Jesse Owens was more than just a strong local talent. He was world-class—and not just for his age. The world record was 9.6 seconds—held by eight sprinters, all adults, who had set it in spikes, on real tracks, with real competition… The boy in whom he had recognized some athletic potential had turned out to be the greatest running and jumping talent the world had ever seen. But (the coach, Riley) knew that for a twenty-one-year-old black man in the United States in 1935, nothing was guaranteed.

As soon as Jesse Owens entered college, his life was a whirlwind. People were stunned when he ran. But then he ran too much, pushed himself too hard. In 1935, within “the space of just a few weeks he had attained international celebrity, broken several world records, reportedly proposed to one woman, married another woman, raced in the Midwest, on the West Coast, again in the Midwest, then on the East Coast, lost three consecutive races to a powerful foe, and watched as his Olympic prospects were downgraded from sure thing to long shot. Jesse Owens was tired.”

Then, the next semester, he failed his psychology course, making him ineligible for sports. It was a godsend. He could rest up, refocus on his schooling and his running, but at his own pace. He wouldn’t have to face competition until the late spring when the Olympic trials were held in New York. His eyes were still set on the Olympics, which in 1936 were being held in Berlin, Germany.

There was already a lot of talk about boycotting the Olympics being held in a country led by a fascist regime. “…The most vigorous and effective proponent of an American boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Germany was not a Jew. Instead he was a devout Irish-American Catholic known all his life for his stubborn opposition to racial and religious discrimination. Born on Manhattan’s East Side in 1878, Jeremiah Titus Mahoney… Mahoney, who succeeded Brundage as the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, became one of the most powerful men in all of sports. In 1935, after long reflection, he came to the conclusion that American participation in Hitler’s Olympics would serve only to legitimate a wholly evil regime, a regime that was discriminating against its own Jewish citizens as it chose its Olympic teams. “There is no room for discrimination on grounds of race, color, or creed in the Olympics,” Mahoney said.”

American officials toured Berlin, being led around by Nazis, who were careful what was seen and not seen by these men, who came home and said there was absolutely no reason to boycott the Olympics. Many of the black athletes felt the same way. ” Ben Johnson, the black Columbia sprinter who was expected to compete for a place on the American Olympic team, Mahoney’s argument was the apogee of hypocrisy. “The Negro in the South is discriminated against as much as the Jews in Germany,” Johnson said shortly after Mahoney’s visit to campus. “It is futile and hypocritical that Judge Mahoney should attempt to clean up conditions in Germany before cleaning up similar conditions in America.” ” The Jews were being treated just like they were being treated in America. Jesse and other athletes signed a petition to attend the games, despite a plea from the NAACP that they bow out. That and the tour by officials did the trick. The United States Olympic Team was heading to Germany.

So much has been written about Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, and there’s one thing about the games that Schaap tries to set the record straight. That would be of Hitler snubbing Owens and the other black athletes after their medals ceremony. Owens claimed that Hitler waved to him as he was leaving the stadium, but sports writers of the day didn’t see it that way and claimed Owens and his fellow black athletes were snubbed. In fact, Owens often said, upon his return to America, “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

After winning his four gold medals, Owens told a journalist, “I am proud that I am an American. I see the sun breaking through the clouds when I realize that millions of Americans will recognize now that what I and the boys of my race are trying to do is attempted for the glory of our country and our countrymen. Maybe more people will now realize that the Negro is trying to do his full part as an American citizen.”

Owens was tired after the Olympics and wanted to get home to earn money for his family, so he didn’t take part in a European tour made by Team USA. Because of this, he was suspended from competing in amateur competitions.

“Eventually Owens tried to cash in on his fame with a chain of dry-cleaning stores. They failed. He owned and operated a barnstorming black baseball team. To attract crowds to the games, he sometimes raced a horse across the outfield. Of course the horse would spot him 20 yards—and Owens, sometimes in a suit, sometimes in shorts, would sometimes win. If the horse got a bad start. He took a job with the state government of Illinois, working as a kind of physical education guru in the school system. Here he excelled, sharing the lessons he had learned from Charles Riley and Larry Snyder with thousands of children. He traveled the world spreading the Olympic gospel, mostly leaving to Ruth the responsibility of raising their three daughters. He also worked as an executive at Ford Motor Company and with a sporting goods company.” The riches that he expected when returning home a champion never materialized because he was a black man in the United States.

My only complaint with this book is the way of recreating conversations, as if Schaap were there to record exactly what was said. This is fairly common with sports journalists from what I’ve read, so I’ll give him some slack. His dad, Dick Schaap, after all, help write one of my favorite sports books of all time, Instant Replay.

Don’t have time to dive into Triumph: the Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics? His story is told in the 2016 movie called Race, which you can stream on Amazon Prime.

This is the 12th book I’ve read as part of the 2021 Library Love Reading Challenge.

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