Five years ago, I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball great Jackie Robinson, and it was mentioned his older brother Mack competed and won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Wow, I thought, how come I didn’t know, lover of the modern Olympics that I am? Because until recently, the story of the 1936 Olympics was about Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, giving Adolf Hitler a metaphorical middle finger. Olympic Pride, American Prejudice: The Untold Story of 18 African Americans Who Defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to Compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Amazon) reveals the stories of 17 other black athletes, including two women, who competed at the games.
“Set against the turbulent backdrop of a segregated United States, sixteen black men and two black women were torn between boycotting the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany or participating. After all, they were representing a country that considered them second-class citizens and would compete in a country amidst a strong undercurrent of Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism.
Jesse Owens is the most recognized of the group for winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Other winners include Jackie Robinson’s brother Mack who won silver for the 200-meter race, and Cornelius Johnson, who led an American sweep in the high jump.
As a companion piece to the brilliant documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (Stream for FREE with Amazon Prime) this book draws on over forty hours of interviews and extensive research the filmmakers obtained which did not make the final film cut. It explores key elements of the story and provides fuller context on the prospect of an Olympic boycott, the relationships between the president of the International Olympic Committee and the Nazis, the different perspectives of Jewish athletes, the NAACP and black newspapers, and details about the actual lives of the eighteen Olympians from family members’ testimonials.”
The athletes were Jesse Owens, obviously, Mack Robinson, Jimmy LuValle, Ralph Metcalfe, Cornelius Johnson, David Albritton, John Brooks, Archie Williams, Jimmy Luvalle, Ralph Metcalfe, Fritz Pollard, Jr, John Woodruff, Jackie Wilson, Howell King, Jimmy Clark, Oliver Willis Johnson, John Terry, and for the women, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.
The story of the athletes revolves around the Jim Crow era of the United States, the fascism taking over in Germany, and the athletes fighting to represent a country that treated them like second-class citizens. Why on earth would they want to compete for the United States, who held them back with segregation and poor treatment just because of the color of their skin? Many of them thought winning a medal would help change society when they got back home. Sadly, this was not the case.
There was a great discussion among the United States Olympic committee on whether to even send a team to Germany because even in 1935, stories out of Germany’s treatment of Jews was well-known. Really, it was one racist country determining whether to compete in another racist country to see who was best. Many of the African-American athletes petitioned to compete, saying they would disprove the Germans’ belief of Aryan excellence. Ultimately, it was decided the U.S. would send a team to Berlin by a vote of 58 to 56.
Most of these athletes came home and found no endorsement deals, no better paying jobs. Mack Robinson, who ran the 200m in Berlin faster than anyone else had ever run it, ended up with a silver medal because Jesse Owens also ran the 200m and beat him. When Robinson returned home, the only work he could find was as a street sweeper, wearing his Olympic jacket while doing so. Even Jesse Owens had a hard time making it after returning home.
While all the black athletes are featured in this book, there’s little attention to Owens because there’s been so much written about him. Instead, there’s a lot of emphasis on Louise Stokes, Tidye Pickett, Jimmy LuValle and Ralph Metcalfe. Metcalfe was told to run so there was daylight between him and the next runner. He understood that to mean that if it came down to the wire, the white man would be awarded the gold medal unless it was clear he crossed the finish line first. It had happened at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles when Ralph Metcalfe and white Eddie Tolan crossed the finish line at the same time, and the powers that be gave Tolan the medal. If you watch the documentary (see above for link), there’s no doubt Metcalfe was robbed of the gold.
Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes had made the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. It was the first time African-American females had made the team. On the way to Los Angeles, Babe Didrickson, who many consider the greatest female athlete of her time, poured a pitcher of water over their heads while they slept. Then, shortly before the competition was to begin, the women’s track coach replaced Pickett and Stokes. They were determined to make and compete in the 1936 Olympics.
The work ethic that these athletes displayed in order to get to the Olympics did lead to moderate success for some of the athletes post-Olympics, but none of it had to do with the fact they brought home medals and received the acclaim they deserved.
This is the 52nd Audiobook I’ve listened to as part of my 2021 Audiobook Challenge.
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