In the nearly 120-year history of the international Olympic Games, few athletes have come close to shining as brightly as the indomitable J.C. Owens, best known as Jesse Owens, the African American track and field star who won a total of four Olympic gold medals in a single year’s events. At the 1936 Summer Olympic Games held in Berlin, Owens was the most successful athlete of the entire event, delivering a severe blow to the stated ambitions of the German Third Reich’s leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who wanted to use the occasion of his country’s hosting the event to demonstrate for the world the so-called supremacy of the “Aryan race”. In this, Owens made sure the Fuhrer failed miserably. Subsequently, much was made of Hitler’s supposed snubbing of Owens by newspapers in the United States which noted that the leader of Germany’s Nazi party didn’t take the time to shake hands with the American athlete either before or after his victories. Interestingly enough, this version of events was disputed by none other than Jesse Owens himself, who insisted in a speech he delivered at the ’36 National Republican Convention (in which he endorsed GOP nominee for President Alf Landon) that “Hitler did not snub me.” Weeks later he expanded on this while speaking to voters at an event in Kansas City, saying that contrary to reports about the Hitler snub in the press, it was actually “our president [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.“
What Owens was expressing here was an obvious annoyance at what was clearly sheer moral hypocrisy on the part of the United States of America, which on the one hand delighted in his athletic triumph over Hitler’s Germany while at the same time it refused to part with the Nazis’ extreme doctrine of white racial purity. In his own words, “After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?”
When Owens arrived back in America from Berlin, he was punished and subsequently dropped by the American Amateur Athletics Union for signing on to corporate endorsements. And because of the negative publicity associated with this, these same corporations just as quickly severed ties with him! He explained, “After I came home with my four medals everyone wanted to slap me on the back, shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.” Just three years after his great Olympic feat he was forced to declare bankruptcy, and spent time working as a janitor. “For a while I was one of the most famous people on earth,” he explained, ” but I soon discovered how empty fame can be and how easily it could be exploited by those who would use it, and me, for gain.“
His is a story of seeming triumph over adversity and oppression, only to continue being exploited for the profit motives of others in the aftermath. It is the essential demonstration of the hollowness that lay at the very heart of the American Dream.
A new film chronicling his rise and the events occurring in the days leading up to the infamous 1936 Olympic Games titled RACE will be arriving in theaters nationwide on February 19. It will be interesting to see whether the movie will continue to peddle the long-standing mythology surrounding these events and the reactions of those involved, or if it will go for historical accuracy. For now, have a look at the trailer: