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Blacks and the 1936 Olympics


With the aggression of the Third Reich and the wave of Nazism rising in the 1930s, the 1936 Olympics, hosted by Germany, was seen by the Nazi Party as the perfect opportunity to display their racial superiority of the world stage.  The Nazis wanted to use the 1936 Olympics help Adolf Hitler advance his theories of Aryan supremacy.  Hitler hoped that the Germans would dominate the competition on the world stage, proving to all that the Aryans were a race of super beings.  Leading up to the Games, the Nazi’s took state control over all sports facilities.  They put extreme emphasis on physical conditioning in hopes of dominating the Olympics.  

 The Nazis banned Jewish athletes from representing Germany in the Olympics.  The United States considered boycotting the Games because they feared participation would reflect support of the Nazi’s and their anti-Semitic ideologies.  Later, in response to the threats of boycott from other nations, Germany allowed one German Jew, Helene Meyer, to compete for Germany at the Games.  As a footnote of irony, the biggest supporters of the idea of a Berlin Games boycott were the United States, who had their own issues of racial segregation and discrimination.  In fact, it was easier for Blacks to get service in Hitler’s Germany than to get service in a hotel or restaurant in Washington. (Sex and Race, pg. 188)

 In light of Hitler’s racial views, many were concerned about the Black athletes safety while in Germany.  The Nazis assured the International Olympic Committee that Black athletes would be treated well while in Germany.  They also allowed foreign Jews to compete at the Games.  

 Eighteen African-Americans represented the United States at the Olympic Games, winning a total of fourteen medals, which was nearly one-fourth of all of the fifty-six medals awarded to the U.S. team during the 1936 Olympics.  The African-American athletes dominated the Track and Field events at the 1936 Games.  Ten of the United States Eighteen African-American athletes were on the Track and Field team.  They combined to win seven gold medals, three silver, and three bronze medals. 

 The standout athlete of the Games was Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field star.  Owens won four gold medals at the Games.  Owens’ performance undermined the Aryan superiority myth of the Nazis.  A long standing story from the games said that Hitler shunned Owens by refusing to shake hands with him after the medal ceremonies.  In fact, Hitler refused to shake the hands of all of the black athletes at the Games. 

 On the first day of the Games, after two German’s won Germany’s first-ever gold medals in track and field, Hitler invited both of the athletes to his box and congratulated them.  He did the same for three Finnish gold medalists in the 10,000 meters competition.  But when two of the United States African-American athletes, Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton, won gold and silver medals in the high jump later that same day, Hitler left the stadium abruptly and did not shake their hands.    Later that night the IOC president instructed Hitler that he either had to shake the hand of every winner or none at all.  Hitler chose the latter choice. (Ring of Hate: Joe Louis vs,. Max Schmeling: the fight of the century by Patrick Myler New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005, pg. 93)  While it is certainly true that Hitler did not shake Owens’ hand, Owens says that they did acknowledge each other with a wave.  When asked about the incident, Owens was always quick to say that he didn’t feel snubbed by Hitler.  In fact, Owens said that it was the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who shunned him.  Roosevelt, Owens stated, never received him at the White House after the Olympics.  Roosevelt was in the middle of a Presidential campaign and was concerned about a possible backlash from the southern states in response to inviting Owens to the White House. This is another example of Blacks regarded as heroes in public view, yet still being under appreciated in America.

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