GORDON WHITE: Hitler's Olympics: What Have We Learned From That Era?
One of the most despicable yet notably heroic episodes in the history of sports was drawing to an end 70 years ago this week in Berlin where Adolf Hitler, on Aug. 16, 1936, concluded two weeks during which he flaunted Nazi racism and anti-Semitism for all the world to see. This was the 1936 Olympics, known as "The Nazi Games" or "Hitler's Olympics."
In light of the present state of the world's disorder and wars of hatred and religiosity plus the disgusting, inexcusable bigotry voiced recently by Mel Gibson and his reprehensible ilk, one wonders if mankind learned anything after going through the horrors of the Second World War that was necessary to defeat Hitler, the racist, psychopathic killer of non-Aryans. Apparently little if anything at all.
After all, even Americans, who pride themselves on being citizens in a nation of hope and freedom for all, practiced racial segregation long after WW II. Gibson and recent presidential campaigns plus the words of Senator Trent Lott are just a few examples of the racism and bigotry that is, unfortunately, still alive here in the land of the free.
Nearly three quarters of a century ago Hitler bragged about his German Aryan race purism and tried to put it on display in the Berlin Olympics as proof he was right. There had long been calls to boycott the games and there was even a move to wage a substitute Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the city that lost out to Berlin in the vote for the 1936 Olympic site. The Barcelona plan collapsed when Spain plunged into its civil war.
To the everlasting discredit of a number of American Olympic officials, they virtually kowtowed to Hitler by excluding two Jewish sprinters from one vital relay competition.
Avery Brundage, the pompous and dictatorial president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, backed his track coach's decision, proving Brundage belonged in a class with Henry Ford, Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio preacher, and Colonel Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, as prominent American anti-Semites sympathetic to Hitler's Germany.
On the second day of the Olympics and the first of the track and field competitions in the huge, then new Olympiastadion, one of the noblest Americans of his day, Jesse Owens, began to tear apart Hitler's myth of superiority right there before the Foolish Fuehrer and all of his fellow psychopaths of the Nazi hierarchy.
Within five days Owens and a number of other black heroes had exposed the total improbity of the racist Aryan theories of superiority.
The 22-year-old Ohio speedster and leaper started out, Aug. 2, with his famous broad jump (now known as long jump) victory.
He got the gold medal easily after he overcame two obviously incorrect red flags in the qualifying round that forced him to leave the ground on his third and final chance many inches back of the launching board.
The next day, Owens won the 100-meter gold medal in record time. Another day later he won the 200-meter dash, and 48 hours after that he won his fourth and final gold of the games when he opened the victorious U.S. 4X100 relay run.
Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, another black American, won gold and silver in the 100; Max Robinson, also black, was second to Owens in the 200-meter dash, and John Woodruff, a black University of Pittsburgh freshman, won the 800-meter run in a spectacular race.
He was intentionally boxed in by three runners intent upon seeing that no black man won that race. So Woodruff simply stopped dead in his tracks and allowed everyone to pass him. He then took off and went way outside and around the field of 11 other runners to win the gold.
Archie Williams, another black American, won the 400-meter gold medal.
But at the outset it was clear how Hitler felt about all this. Two blacks, Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton, finished first and second in an American sweep of the three high jump medals on the first day of competition.
Arthur Daley, reporting for The New York Times, wrote:
"But for the politically minded persons in the crowd there was one rather disquieting incident connected with the march of these three Americans to the victory pedestal. The Fuehrer had greeted all three medalists in the other events with a handclasp and words of congratulation. But five minutes before the United States jumpers moved in for the ceremony of the Olympic triumph, Hitler left his box."
The German Chancellor never recognized a single black medalist during the games but smiled and basked in the glory of his numerous German medal winners. The hideous dictator also personally congratulated most other white medalists.
The host country led the medal parade with 89, including 33 gold, while the United States was second in the 49-nation Olympics with 56 medals, including 24 gold. Nine golds went to black American athletes and one to a Jewish athlete, Sam Balter, who played on the winning U.S. basketball team.
So much for Hitler's Super Race idiocy.
But the disgraceful action of the U.S. track coach, Lawson Robertson, stands to this day as a reminder of how some Americans stumble over their own prejudices.
The night before the 4X100 relay was to be run, Robertson took Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, both Jewish, off the team and replaced them with Owens and Metcalfe. Robertson said, "Owens and Metcalfe were the fastest runners we had."
Marty Glickman, then a Syracuse undergraduate track, football and basketball athlete, became one of the leading radio and TV play-by-play announcers in sports history. He was a fine person who claimed that he was removed from his one chance to run in the Olympics because he and Stoller were Jewish and that his coach and Brundage did not want to offend Hitler.
I knew Glickman well when he was the best in the business of basketball play-by-play following WW II. Marty was the voice of the New York Knicks, called the harness races at Yonkers Raceway and broadcast the New York Giants football games for decades. Marty was an honorable man, and I easily accepted what he said as correct. Many other people at those 1936 Olympics agreed with his assessment of the substitutions.
Also, Owens felt so badly about the switch that he almost did not run in the relay and apologized to Glickman and Stoller personally before finally deciding to compete for his fourth gold medal. Glickman and Stoller, apparently, did a lot to convince Owens to go ahead and run in the relay.
Of course, one asks the question: Why would black and Jewish athletes compete in those "Hitler Olympics?"
The generally accepted answer was that they wanted to show Hitler and the world that they were as good as or better than his Aryans. They did just that.
Also, black Americans felt that white America was being hypocritical since we still had strong segregationist and racist policies in the United States in those days.
Where Hitler had signs posted in stores, restaurants and other public buildings throughout Germany that read, "No Jews allowed," America's South had signs that read, "Whites Only" and "Colored Only." When jobs were scarce during the Great Depression in the mid 1930s, signs in New York store windows read, "Jews need not apply." Where Hitler did not allow Jews into German schools, some states in America made blacks send their children to non-white, separate schools. Hitler stripped Jews of their German citizenship in 1935 while some states in the USA made it impossible for blacks to vote.
Surely, Hitler was the Devil incarnate. Yet America had some explaining to do in those days.
Hitler's Olympic display was one of those many revolting sign posts on the way to the Holocaust and WW II. Too few people and nations heeded those ugly but obvious warnings and the world paid the price.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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