Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Olympians

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Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, 1936 (b/w photo), German Photographer, (20th century) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

The most famous black Olympian of all-time (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali), Jesse Owens symbolized—in idea, at least—the superiority of the American melting pot over the ethnic-based despotism roiling 1930s Europe. Owens, a record-breaking track and field star at Ohio State University, was one of eighteen black Americans to participate in the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany. Reports on Hitler's repression campaign against Jews, Gypsies, and political opponents had trickled out far enough for multiple countries, the United States included, to consider boycotting the Games, but ultimately none pulled out. (American Olympic chair Avery Brundage vehemently opposed a boycott, calling the troubles in Europe a "Jew-Nazi altercation.") Enormous press attention added to the stakes, with Germans and Americans seeing in their athletes' performances a validation of their respective ways of life. Given the political backdrop, Owens' masterful performance was that much more important: not only did he win four gold medals (and break three world records), but earned a powerful symbolic victory over Hitler and the Aryan notion of racial superiority. Owens' victory thrilled the nation, but even basic examination showed that actual U.S. attitudes on race fell well short of their public ideals. Nearly three decades before the Civil Rights era, millions of African Americans in the South remained disenfranchised, while even world champion athletes such as Owens were forced into segregated facilities in the north. Additionally, Owens and fellow 4x100 meter relay teammate Ralph Metcalfe were able to participate in the race only because two Jewish runners were benched; the runners, Marty Glickman and Jerry Stoller, accused Brundage, an avowed anti-communist (and rumored Nazi sympathizer), of not wanting to embarrass Hitler with the spectacle of Jews standing on the winner's podium. For these reasons, the 1936 Olympics remain, for better or for worse, one of the most charged events of the 20th century.

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