Gilbert: Jesse Owens

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(HOST) Exactly seventy-five years ago today Adolf Hitler personally welcomed the world to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Perhaps what we remember most about those games is an African-American athlete named Jesse Owens. Here’s commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert with the story.

(GILBERT) His name was actually not Jesse. It was James Cleveland Owens; but a teacher had once asked his name, and he had answered "J.C." The teacher thought he had said "Jesse," and the name stuck.

He was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. In Berlin he won four gold medals – for the 100 meter, 200 meter, 4×100 relay, and long jump, thus giving the lie to the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority.

Owens wasn’t scheduled to run in the relay, but at the last minute he and another man replaced Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the U.S. track team. Glickman blamed U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage for giving in to Nazi pressure to not let them run.

Berlin had won the bid to host the Olympics two years before the Nazis came to power. Efforts to move the games were unsuccessful, largely because of German assurances that athletes of all religions and ethnicities would be free to participate. In fact, Jewish German athletes could not participate. Some individuals, including two Jewish Americans, and some countries, including Spain and the Soviet Union, boycotted the games. In 1936 many people did not view Nazi Germany with the revulsion and fear that they would later.

The games were a propaganda triumph for Hitler. The tradition of the pre-game Olympic torch relay started that year. It was the brain child of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, which saw an opportunity to portray the new Germany as the direct heir of classical Greece (especially Sparta) as the torch traveled from Greece though seven European countries to Berlin – countries that Germany would soon invade.

Watching YouTube film of Owens competing is thrilling. Film of the opening ceremony, the arrival of the Olympic torch in the stadium, and Hitler opening the games – all amidst cries of "Sieg Heil" and massive crowds giving the Nazi salute – is chilling in the extreme.

In addition to the thirteen medals won by African Americans, one affirming incident stood out: Owens almost didn’t qualify for the finals in the long-jump. What he thought was a practice jump actually counted, and he faulted on his second jump. But before his final jump, a blond, blue-eyed Lutz Long suggested to Owens that he put a towel just before the take-off board so he could see it more clearly. Owens had a great jump and went on to win the Gold. Long embraced the victor, and they became good friends.

According to reporter Larry Schwartz, Owens later recalled, "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story," Owens added, "is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II."

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