Monday, June 17, 2024

Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics, on History

The Olympics have a long, dark history of “sportswashing” its oppressive host countries. However, in the most classic example, the washing didn’t take. Jesse Owens was the main reason why Hitler’s 1936 Olympics turned into a propaganda misfire. It made Owens internationally famous, but his four gold medals were a tough act to follow. At a time when the world needs to reconsider how the Olympics (and other international sporting events) operate, viewers are invited to reconsider Owens’ life and legacy in Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics, which premieres Wednesday on History Channel.

Owens was truly the son of a sharecropper, who was born into dire poverty. Yet, when his family moved to Cleveland as part of the Great Migration, he encountered two white coaches, Charles Riley at Fairmount Junior High and Larry Snyder at Ohio State, who actively encouraged Owens. Some viewers might be surprised to learn how nationally famous Owens was before the Olympics, when he was competing at the collegiate level. In fact, his hectic schedule of exhibition appearances nearly exhausted him before the Olympic trials.

Using on-camera expert Jeremy Schaap’s book as a guide, director Andre Gaines (an executive producer on the
Children of the Corn reboot) and his talking heads clearly establish how much Hitler and the National Socialists had invested in the Games as a propaganda showcase for Aryan superiority and how much Owens and the other black American athletes ruined the plan. There has been revisionist chatter that Hitler was just feeling tired when he declined to congratulate Owens, or whatever, but Triumph will have none of that.

It also casts further shade on longtime American Olympic boss Avery Brundage, who successfully fought off proposed Olympic boycotts and did his best to avoid embarrassing Hitler during the Games. Perhaps the best sequence of the TV documentary covers Brundage’s disgraceful decision to replace Jewish athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe in the 4 x 100 relay, because losing to black athletes presumably would sting less for Hitler. Metcalfe’s son points out how angry his father looks flying down the track, because he was as furious as he appeared.

Brundage was a disgrace, but sadly, the entire International Olympic Committee is now made up of Brundages who had no problem with Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Games, even though the CCP was committing genocide in Xinjiang and turning the free society of Hong Kong into a police state. Frankly, the 2022 Games were just like 1936, except there were no Jesse Owens or Ralph Metcalfe Uyghur- or Tibetan-equivalents in Beijing.

Of course, many of Gaines’ commentators complain the Jesse Owens of the 1960s was not the Jesse Owens they wanted him to be. Instead, he was his own person, who opposed politicizing the games with black power protests (having witnessed the profound politicization of the 1936 Games, it seems rather understandable that he might want to keep sport and politics separate). To some extent, Owens’ daughters Marlene and Beverly push back against these dismissive arguments, but they are clearly part of the “narrative” Gaines set out to tell.

Even those who take issue with Owens’ aversion to militancy (which is literally what some talking heads criticize him for) should recognize his life was heroic in many ways. He was a champion under the most extreme circumstances imaginable and a good sportsman, who forged inspiring friendships with German long-jumper Luz Long and his surviving son. It is also a timely reminder that the free world needs to have a frank discussion regarding the state of the Olympic movement, which has practically become a PR agency for authoritarian regimes. Recommended for the history and the Owens Daughters’ memories more than the social commentary (isn’t that nearly always the case?),
Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Berlin Games airs Wednesday (6/19) on History Channel.