“Stick to sports.”
“Politics don’t belong in sports.”
“Shut up and dribble.”
If you have followed basketball, football, soccer, or really any sports in the last couple of years, you know that the issue of politics and sports has been a hot-button issue. We’re not here to convince you one way or the other, but you should know that politics and sports have long been intertwined. Here is one such story....
As the opening of the 1936 Berlin Olympics drew near, a motorcade approached Berlin’s Olympic stadium. They drove under massive Greek columns, adorned with colorful olympic flags, side by side with red and black flags with a haunting swastika. Spectators lined the street on both sides. It was delirious. People shouted, threw flowers, and saluted as the motorcade drove by. They were there to catch a glimpse of their leader.
Crowds packed inside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, 110,000 plus. The opening ceremony was almost a religious event, according to novelist Thomas Wolf. The crowd screamed and swayed in unison, begging for their leader, Adolf Hitler. If the opening ceremony was any indication, the 1936 Olympics were Nazi Germany’s chance to showcase itself as a superior nation. And as a chance to provide “proof” of the superiority of the Aryan race to the whole world.
Unfortunately for the Fuhrer, Jesse Owens was there. You see, Owens was a world-class sprinter. And he was Black.
Hitler’s distaste for Black folks was well known. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote of Black Americans, “From time to time the illustrated papers show how a negro has become a lawyer, a teacher, perhaps, even a minister. It never dawns on the degenerate middle-class America that this is truly a sin against all reason. That it is criminal madness to train a born half-ape until one believes one has made a lawyer of him.” For Hitler, Black folks were less than human. They were inferior.
If Hitler had it his way, he would not have let Black or Jewish folk compete. But, pressure from the Olympic committee and threats of entire nations backing out of the games forced Hitler’s hand. So, Owens competed.
Owens went on to win Gold in the 100M dash, the 200M dash, the 4x100M relay, and in long jump. Tradition called for the leader of the host country to congratulate the Gold medal winner, but Hitler refused. Nazi leaders considered Owens win as a “disaster for white humanity.”
Owens’ victories proved that Hitler’s view of white superiority was indeed a myth. Reporters pointed to Hitler’s snub as yet another atrocity of the growing Nazi Germany. The Olympics, in many ways, highlighted the moral and ideological flaws of Nazism.
Despite this, most historians agree that the 1936 Berlin Olympics calmed opposition to Hitler. Despite his outspoken attitude toward Black and Jewish athletes, the fact that people like Owens were able to compete made Hitler appear as sane, rational, and tolerant. This was exactly how Hitler spun the Berlin Olympics to fellow Germans.
Politics played a central role in the 1936 Olympics and leading up to them. Hitler used the Olympics as a chance to spread Nazi ideology. Nations fought back against it, threatening to pull themselves out of the games if Black or Jewish athletes could not compete. And Owens shattered Nazi beliefs by proving that Black athletes were not inferior after all. How much of an impact Owens had is debatable, but one thing is not. Politics and sports have long been intertwined.
Nathan is the Director of Education, Events, & Exhibits at the FHA.
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