When “Politics, Race, and Propaganda” Collide: A Look Back at Hitler’s Olympic Games

Photo: American Olympic athlete Jesse Owens runs his historic 200 meter race at the 11th Olympiad in Berlin. Owens won the race with a time of 20.7 seconds, establishing a new Olympic record. —Courtesy of Library of Congress

“For a time, at least, I was the most famous person in the entire world,” American track- and field athlete Jesse Owens (1913-1980) observed. Owens who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics held in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, was credited as crushing the myth of Aryan supremacy, while illustrating the strength, grace, and power of the African diaspora in the very first Games lived televised to the world.

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Hitler saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to promote his agenda while taking aim at Jews and Blacks, saying they should not be allowed to participate. A proposed boycott shut down those plans, as athletes from all ethnicities were welcome—with the exception of German Jews.

The official poster advertising, in English, the 11th Summer Olympic Games. The poster was created by Franz Wurbel. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of John Loaring

At the same time, African American newspapers called out the hypocrisy of a proposed boycott, given the fact that many were living under Jim Crow laws, which legalized apartheid in the United States. Eighteen African American athletes competed on the United States team, including Owens, Mack Robinson, and Ralph Metcalfe, and went on to win an impressive 14 gold medals at the Games.

A new exhibition takes a closer look at the underlying forces that shaped the Games in Politics, Race, and Propaganda: The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936, on view at the California African American Museum through February 26, 2017. Organized by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the exhibition presents historic photographs and documents, riveting films, Olympics promotional materials, and first-person accounts that tell the stories of athletes who were barred because of their ethnic heritage, those who boycotted the Games in protest, and the African Americans who competed and won—along with one of Jesse Owens’s legendary gold medals and Mack Robinson’s silver medal.

Photo: American Olympic athlete Jesse Owens runs his historic 200 meter race at the 11th Olympiad in Berlin. Owens won the race with a time of 20.7 seconds, establishing a new Olympic record. —Courtesy of Library of Congress

Owens embodied the American Dream—after his people lived the American Nightmare. The youngest of ten children born to a sharecropper living in Alabama, Owens’s family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was nine years old during the first wave of the Great Migration.

Owens discovered his passion for running while in junior high school, attributing his success to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his track coach. He went on to attend the Ohio State University, where he was known as the “Buckeye Bullet” winning a record eight individual NCAA championships. Despite the fact that he was a star, he was forced to live off campus with other African-American athletes because of apartheid laws.

Owens arrived in Berlin to the throng of fans, many young girls who were screaming for him. They brought scissors and began snipping at his clothes, forcing him to retreat back on the train on which he had traveled.

Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich, wrote that Hitler, “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens.” Hitler had tried to shrug it off with a racist remark—but it was too late, the truth had been televised to the world.

American Olympic runner Mack Robinson training at the summer games in Berlin. Robinson, the older brother of American baseball star Jackie Robinson, won the silver in the 200m event, finishing second to Jesse Owens. US Holocaust Memorial Museum courtesy of Delano Robinson

After the Games, Owens returned home and took up commercial offers to capitalize on his success. United States athletic officials withdrew his amateur status, which prohibited him from making sporting appearances, and in turn the offers vanished. For all the good Owens had done for his country, his country continued to betray him—just as they had done his people for centuries.

Much ado was made of Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the games, but Owen knew the score, telling the world, “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.


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