Wednesday, August 4, 2010

August 4, 1936: Destroying stereotypes

BERLIN - There's no doubt Hitler was annoyed. Jesse Owens, the black American, had won the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters. This was flying in the face of everything Hitler preached. Owens was single-handedly contradicting Hitler's claim that white German athletes were superior to all others in the world, that a black man couldn't compete.

After the first day of the track-and-field competition, Hitler had congratulated only the German medal winners and no others. When told he had to either congratulate all the winners or none of them, he chose the latter. This was seen as a snub toward Owens.

Owens never felt the snub. He didn't seem bothered that he was never personally congratulated by Hitler, assuming Hitler was just too busy to bother. However, he wasn't snubbed by the German public. He was treated like royalty. When he won the 100, 110,000 people in Olympic Stadium stood and applauded. Throughout the Olympics, during which he won four gold medals, Owens was approached by autograph seekers in the streets, hailed as a hero. Hitler had to have been bothered by that more than anything.

Or maybe Hitler was most bothered by Luz Long. The German long jumper, competing against Owens, was favored in the long jump. In qualifications, Owens had fouled twice and had only one attempt left to qualify. He was visibly upset. Long suggested Owens take off a foot behind the board, just to ensure he got a score. Owens did, easily qualifying. In the final on August 4, Owens won his second gold medal. Afterward, Long, who won silver, was the first man to congratulate Owens, and they walked to the dressing room arm-in-arm.

Allegedly, the Nazi leaders were outraged at Long's actions. Whether they were or not, Owens never saw any mistreatment or discrimination while in Germany. He was treated lavishly, even allowed to stay at the same hotels as white athletes. Meanwhile, when he returned to America, he was honored with a ticker-tape parade, but then he had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to attend the banquet thrown in his honor. He never received a congratulatory message of any kind from president Roosevelt.

After the Olympics, Owens said he was genuinely moved by Long's friendship, saying Long's actions meant far more to him than any of the medals he won. Owens and Long remained close, corresponding by letter after the Olympics. While Long was fighting for Germany in North Africa, he wrote what he feared would be his last letter to Owens, asking Owens to someday return to Germany and meet Long's son. Owens receieved the letter after Long was killed and years later, he honored the German's last request. It was the least he could do for the man who had risked his life to become his friend.

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