Jesse Owens: Myth and Reality
By Mark Weber
Jesse Owens, the black track and field star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, died in 1980 at the age of 66. As so often during his lifetime, even this occasion was used by the major television networks and print media to spread slanderous falsehoods which have acquired wide acceptance through repetition over the years. With the naming of a Berlin street after Owens in March 1984, yet another opportunity was afforded for the fanfarish media dissemination of outrageous myths. Particularly idiotic and despicable was the report on NBC Nightly News of Sunday, March 4, 1984.
The myths, which are usually asserted as fact, contend that German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was furious when Owens won; that Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens because he was black; that the Germans were embarrassed because the Owens victory “disproved” German ideas about racial differences, and so on.
Actually, Owens was acclaimed by the Berliners as enthusiastically as any German. Owens himself said that on one occasion, while in the stadium, he caught sight of Hitler: “When I passed the Chancellor, he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him.”
As for the alleged snubbing, the facts of the matter tell a story which is quite different than the one usually heard. Hitler was in his box on the first day of competition when Hans Woellke broke the Olympic record for the shot-put and, incidentally, became the first German to win an Olympic track and field championship. At Hitler's request, Woellke and the third place winner, another German, were lead to the box to receive personal congratulations from the Chancellor.
Soon afterward Hitler personally greeted three Finns who won medals in the l0,000-meter run. Then he congratulated two German women who won first and second place in the women's javelin throw. The only other scheduled event that day was the high jump, which was running late. When all the German high-jumpers were eliminated, Hitler left the stadium in the dark as rain threatened and was not present to greet the three winners - all from the United States, and two of whom were black.
Hitler left because it was late, not because he wanted to avoid greeting anyone. Besides, at the time he left Hitler could not know whether the final winners would be black or white. Count Baillet-Latour, president of the International Olympic Commission, sent word to the German leader that, as a guest of honor at the Games, he should congratulate all or none. So when Jesse Owens won the final of the 100 meters the next day, he was not publicly greeted by Hitler - nor were any other medal winners of that or any of the following events.
Any notion that the Germans were “embarrassed” because of victories by non-whites at the Berlin Games is ridiculous. Jesse Owens is very prominently featured in Olympia, the official German documentary of the Games. Leni Riefenstahl's film masterwork also devotes great attention to many other non-whites, including outstanding Japanese athletes. The same holds true in the deluxe, semi-official German picture book commemorating the Games, Die Olympischen Spiele 1936, released by the Cigaretten-Bilderdienst. Jesse Owens is pictured seven times in this book - more than any other athlete - and is admiringly referred to as "the fastest in the world.” A large picture in the book records the chiseling of the victors' names in granite at the stadium - and singled out in this picture is: “Owens U.S.A.”
Despite the remarkable achievements of Jesse Owens, and of other athletes of all races, Germany did capture more gold medals than any other nation, thus “winning” the Olympics - a fact usually ignored in discussions of the 1936 Games.
In a letter of March 14, 1984, to the Director of West German ZDF television, former German athlete Waither Tripps protested the false report by a West German television network news announcer that Adolf Hitler did not publicly greet Owens because of his African ancestry. Tripps was himself an outstanding relay runner at the 1936 Games. After sending his letter, Tripps further stated verbally that following the Games, Hitler invited all Olympic winners, including Owens, to a reception at the Reich Chancellory. Hitler personally congratulated and shook the hand of each winner, including Owens, who later confirmed this on several occasions.
Following is the text of Tripps's letter:
To the Director of the
ZDF [Second German Television]
Re: "Heute" ["Today"] news broadcast of 10 March 10, 1984
As part of his report on the unveiling of the "Jesse-Owens-Allee" street sign in front of the Berlin Olympic Stadium, your announcer made an absolutely untrue statement. He repeated the stupid lie that in 1936 Adolf Hitler refused to meet the incomparable, four-time Olympic winner Jesse Owens because of his skin color and Negro ancestry. It seems that the announcer sought to clearly emphasize the so-called race hatred indoctrination.
This story is not just a fairy tale. It is a wretched lie. Today the truth is suppressed for presumably political reasons. But it will not die. There are too many contemporary witnesses. I am one of them.
In fact, Adolf Hitler received and congratulated the German Olympic winners of the 1936 Games in the place of honor at the Olympic stadium. The 800,000 daily spectators, including many foreign visitors, enthusiastically applauded this. Dr. Gisela Mauermayer (now living in Munich), Tilly Fleischer-Grothe (now living in Lahr), Gerhard Stoeck (now living in Hamburg) and others were among those personally honored.
It was also arranged to honor the outstanding and unforgettable Jesse Owens in this way as well. But at this point the President of the International Olympic Committee, Count Baillet-Latour, stopped Hitler's plan by pointing out that this practice conflicted with the Committee rules. The Count, however, had no objection to holding this kind of congratulatory reception in the Reich Chancellory.
Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt, then President of the German National Olympic Committee and head of the German athletic association, later confirmed these facts at a meeting of the former members of the German team. I was one of those present at this meeting in Stuttgart with the unforgettable Ritter von Halt, which took place shortly after his release from the Soviet-run Sachsenhausen concentration camp. (Among others, actor Heinrich George and Reich Trainer Dr. Nerz died there!) Also present were Borchmeyer (competitor in the final race against Owens, now living in Frankfurt), Blask, Hem. Tilly Fleischer, Dr. Gisela Mauermayer, Dr. Metzner, Hornberger, Stoeck, Syring, Dessecker, and many others. They are contemporary witnesses for fairness and truth.
The facts will be published in the magazine of the “Former German Winners' Sports Club.” As National Olympic Committee President Daume rightly stated during the ceremony in Berlin, honor belongs to those who deserve it. Microphone personalities who spread lies do not belong on the television screen!
To his credit, Jesse Owens himself never contributed to the myth-making. He repeatedly stressed the warmth of his reception in Germany and his happiness during those days in Berlin. But he couldn't prevent others from using him as a symbol, in life as well as in death, to slander Germany for motives of their own.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1984 (Vol. 5, No. 1), pages 123-125.