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The Jesse Owens story – who comes out worst?

“Everybody knows” that the American athlete Jesse Owens, who won two gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was snubbed by Adolf Hitler who refused to shake hands with a man who was patently “non-Aryan” and who seemed to disprove his racial theory that Aryans, especially German ones, were inherently superior to everyone else.

However, the facts tell a different story.

Jesse Owens won his first gold medal (100 metres) on the second day of competition. On the first day, Hitler had been effusive in his congratulations for German athletes but had ignored everyone else, Aryan or not. Somebody – a very courageous soul it has to be said – had told Hitler that this was bad form and was likely to cause resentment all round.

Hitler’s response was to not personally congratulate anybody after that, whatever their nationality or race. In other words, Jesse Owens was not singled out because of his skin colour – it would not have mattered who he was, or where he came from. Everybody was treated alike.

However, Owens did receive a real snub when he got back home – from his own national President. Franklin D Roosevelt did not send him a congratulatory telegram, nor did he invite him to join his fellow athletes at a White House reception – only white Americans were allowed to attend.

It got worse – when Jesse Owens attended a reception held in his honour at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel he was was not allowed to use the main entrance. He had to use the entrance at which freight was delivered.

  • Of the two, who comes out worse in this affair?

    • Adolf Hitler
    • F D Roosevelt
    • They were both equally at fault

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What do you think?

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5 Comments

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  1. Hitler was a monster while FDR at best a product of different times. When we apply the lens of today to the past, there is always a failure.

    Personally i am more disappointed in FDR. But that is more for what happened after those Olympics than the ongoing racial issues in the US. The racial issues were horrible. The application of that later was even worse than the snub of non-white athletes.

    • It is always difficult to isolate a specific action by an individual from what we know about him or her based on all their other actions. In this case, Hitler did not behave in a racist way – although of course we know that he did in other circumstances. He followed the advice he was given and treated all the athletes in exactly the same way from that point on.

      However, Roosevelt’s action was based purely on racial prejudice. He could have included black as well as white athletes at the White House reception, but chose not to. We know that Jesse Owens regarded this as a personal snub and did not excuse it as simply following the prevailing social convention.

      I would therefore castigate Roosevelt far more than Hitler in this instance, without in any way thinking that Hitler was a better person overall than Roosevelt.

      There is another aspect to this which does not work to Hitler’s advantage. Jesse Owens was allowed to represent his country at the Berlin Olympics. He was selected purely on the basis of his ability, as were other black athletes. Nobody said that he couldn’t compete because of his skin colour,, however good he might be as an athlete.

      However, there is no way that a German Jesse Owens would have been allowed anywhere near the Olympic Stadium as a competitor. We also know that Jews were not allowed to represent Germany. In this circumstance, the balance of right and wrong is definitely tilted towards the American side.

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      • i would argue the relative impact of racism is more critical than the short term reality. Society globally was far more segregated then than it is now.

        Again, when we point the lens of today on yesterday yesterday usually falls short.

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