Myth and the Olympics

This piece on the magic of the 1936 Olympics by David Clay Large is straight catnip for me:


Perhaps the most famous myth involves Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field athlete. In popular mythology, the impressive performances of America's blacks, especially Owens, so infuriated Hitler that he refused to shake Owens's hand after his victory in the 100-meter dash. It's a good story, and one widely disseminated at the time to show that the Olympic spirit had triumphed over Nazi racism. 

The problem is, it never happened. Before Owens even stepped onto the track, the Olympic committee president, Henri de Baillet-Latour, had told Hitler to stop congratulating victors in the stadium, something he had been doing repeatedly, unless he congratulated every winner. Fearing that Owens might be one of those winners, and determined never to press the flesh with a black man, Hitler stopped inviting athletes to his box for a public handshake. 

But Owens didn't mind -- he claimed that Hitler, whom he called "a man of dignity," treated him to a friendly wave. In fact, Owens said it was not Hitler but President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had snubbed him by neglecting to send him a congratulatory telegram. 


Of more lasting importance than the Owens fable is the contention, still widely propagated today, that the African-American victories in 1936 forced people everywhere to rethink their assumptions about black inferiority in high-level track-and-field athletics. Supposedly even German commentators conceded the superiority of America's "black auxiliaries" on the athletic field. 

In reality, the publicity surrounding black athletes' success simply taught the Nazis how to refine existing stereotypes. Instead of arguing that those athletes were physically inferior, they disparaged them as freaks who, because of their "jungle inheritance," were able to jump high and run fast. 

But it was not just the Nazis who held such views. Many American commentators put forth similar explanations. While certain "inherited physical advantages" might make blacks good sprinters and jumpers, the thinking went, they could never compete successfully with whites in disciplines requiring strategy, teamwork or stamina. Thus, the experts assured America, blacks could never play quarterback, or excel in sports like long-distance running or basketball.

This goes a bit too far for me in the myth-busting direction. It's still true that Hitler didn't shake Owens' hand because he was black, right? Also, while it's certainly true that black athletic success forced the erection of new stereotypes, it's hard to believe that, in America, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis had no effect on that generation, particularly on the children.

With that said, I love the little details, the nooks, the crannies in the legend--Owens complementing Hitler and being miffed at Roosevelt, for instance. I also think it's always worth remembering that "black=superior athlete" is a recent invention. At the onset of the 20th century, before Jack Johnson, it was routine to view blacks, not simply as intellectually weak, but physically weak. Scientific racism held that blacks were so frail that they would die out within decades. Comparing blacks to animals is older. But before blacks started succeeding at athletics, sports like boxing were seen as something higher than dog-fighting.

This also of course gives me a chance to run my favorite instance of racist athletic analysis:

New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote in the mid 1930s that basketball "appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness." We see how qualities such as cunning and wiliness were posited as the keys to Jewish basketball success and how these kinds of statements were indicative of early 20th century America.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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