Jesse Owens and the 'Triumph' in Berlin
Some 70 years after the 1936 Summer Olympics, the extraordinary performance of Jesse Owens lives on. Owens won four gold medals and set three Olympic records at the Berlin games, and his achievements shattered Adolf Hitler's assertions of Aryan supremacy.
ESPN author and anchor Jeremy Schaap debunks a few of the myths surrounding Jesse Owens in his new book "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics." When we spoke to him from our studios in New York this past week, Schaap said that although Owens became an international celebrity after the 1936 Olympics, he had to struggle to support himself and his family. In fact, Owens really didn't get his due until 1955.
Mr. JEREMY SCHAAP (Author, "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens in Hitler's Olympics"): He wasn't celebrated to the extent that he would later be, because people tend to be nostalgic. You need about a 20 year - I think that's about the rule - 20 years to pass before people start to really appreciate significant events, such as what he did in Berlin. But beyond that, he became a convenient goodwill ambassador for the United States, for American industry, for the American government. He was someone they could send around the world as a symbol of American opportunity, even for its minorities at a time when it was in obviously an ideological struggle with the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War.
So Owens, who spends the first 15 years after the Olympics really struggling to find his way professionally, personally, financially, finally finds this role where he can go around the world and round the United States, in the words of one of his - somebody who wrote about him a long time ago - as a professional good example. And that's really what he became.
HANSEN: Describe who he was in 1936 in terms of his athletic achievements, in terms of his place in American culture at that time.
Mr. SCHAAP: He's only 22 years old. He's lived the first nine years of his life in the Deep South, in Alabama. His family moved to Cleveland afterwards. For about the previous 15 months, he'd become an incredible mega celebrity. But it had been a trying time. He bursts onto the scene in May of 1935 at the Big 10 Championships in Michigan. And he puts on a display that is unprecedented and subsequently unmatched in athletic history. He sets five world record and ties another in a span of less than an hour. And overnight, everyone is singing his praises, he wants to be seen by crowds everywhere. Will Rogers is writing about him.
But soon enough, a rival emerges who beats Owens in consecutive races. He's immersed in controversy about his personal life. He suddenly realizes that being a celebrity isn't necessarily just a wonderful thing. He goes to the Olympics in 1936 understanding, as an African-America at that time, that this is his one chance to really assure his family's survival.
HANSEN: There is a story that many people tell, and it's a different story, about how after winning his gold medals, Jesse Owens was snubbed by Adolf Hitler. Is it true?
Mr. SCHAAP: It's not true. You could say that Adolf Hitler could have found a way to congratulate Jesse Owens, to acknowledge the fact that he was dominating these Olympics games. But what happened is much more nuanced, like most of the myths that have risen up from those games. What happens, and I'll try to be succinct, on the first day of games, two Germans win gold medals. Hitler congratulates them in his box in front of everyone, 110,000 people in the stadium. He also congratulates the Finns who finished one, two, three in the 10,000 meters, who look more blond and Aryan than the Germans, in fact.
By the time Jesse's teammate, the African-America high jumper Cornelius Johnson, wins the gold medal that night, Hitler has left the stadium. If anyone had the right to say he was snubbed, it was Cornelius Johnson. Although the Germans say Hitler was strictly adhering to his schedule, that he had to leave the stadium. And in fact, the high jump competition did run long. But the head of the International Olympics Committee is so upset by the implication that perhaps Hitler had snubbed Cornelius Johnson that he tells Hitler, look, you've either got to congratulate everyone or no one.
And by the time Jesse Owens wins his first gold medal the next day, Hitler is honoring his pledge, believe it or not, to the head of the International Olympic Committee. This is at a time when Hitler is eager to make friends with as many people as possible. And he is actually compelled officially from congratulating Jesse Owens. And Jesse Owens tells everyone who will listen, look, Adolf Hitler did not snub me. But nobody wanted to hear that story. And the story proved remarkably durable, and persists to this day.
HANSEN: Hmm. Did Owens leave a mark on you?
Mr. SCHAAP: Oh, I think so. I hope I came to understand him. I certainly appreciate him. He was a man with remarkable dignity and grace, and talent, of course. But he was, you know, not perfect. He wasn't an angel. He certainly had his foibles. But at the end of the day, what he achieved was so meaningful. And I don't want to suggest that he saved any lives; all the horrors that were to come still came. But at a time when so many people in the West, including some of our most prominent citizens in this country - Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh - were celebrating the Third Reich, he went there and he fought back, and he proved that, you know, at least part of what they were saying was utter nonsense.
HANSEN: So the mark that Jesse Owens left on you is the mark he left on the rest of the world.
Mr. SCHAAP: I think so.
HANSEN: Jeremy Schaap is the author of "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens in Hitler's Olympics," and he joined us from our studios in New York.
Jeremy, thanks a lot.
Mr. SCHAAP: Liane, thank you.