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Books | Sports

May 1, 2007

When Jesse Owens Raced in Front of Hitler

For his new book, ESPN's Jeremy Schaap re-visits the surreal 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, and the legendary feats of the US team's top performer.

Carl Bialik

Ahead of the 1936 Summer Olympics, US track star Jesse Owens concerned himself with practical matters such as his injuries and his rivals. Meanwhile, American politicians and sports officials hotly debated whether Owens and his teammates should compete in the Games in Nazi Germany, or boycott them to protest Hitler's overt anti-Semitism. In Jeremy Schaap's new book, Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, Owens's legendary performance is shown as carrying heavy political meaning. His feats were a source of celebration and pride among African-Americans. Yet when the US decided to participate in the Hitler-hosted Games, Owens and his teammates also unwittingly lent credibility to a genocidal regime.

Jeremy Schaap/Photo by ABC's Donna Svennevik
"The reporting of Jesse Owens's era was more colorful and more incisive than much of today's reporting. But there were also a lot of hacks."

Jeremy Schaap/Photo by ABC's Donna Svennevik

In the following interview—conducted by email, and edited for clarity—Schaap, a national correspondent for ESPN, talks about the book, why the German crowds embraced Owens, and why it's unfair to compare his hero to Jackie Robinson. (Also, you can hear Schaap and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, May 2, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What would Jesse Owens think of the book?

Jeremy Schaap: First, I would hope that he would think that it was accurate. That would mean more to me than anything else. But I would also hope that he would see the book as a tribute to his achievements.

GM: If you'd had a chance to interview him, what would you have asked?

JS: I would have liked to have asked him hundreds of questions, but the most important ones would have been about his experiences in Berlin during the Olympic fortnight. Most important, I think, I would have wanted him to tell me how Luz Long assisted him during the broad-jump competition.

GM: I got goosebumps reading the sections about Long, Owens's German competitor who advised and embraced Owens, and kept in touch with him after the Games. Has Long gotten his due from the history writers? Has anyone written the story of his life?

JS: Long's life story has never been told in English and, to the best of my knowledge, not in German, either. The story of his friendship with Jesse Owens is, for me, the greatest story of the modern Olympics—a testament to what the Olympics are supposed to be about and the goodwill they have been designed to foster.

GM: Were there any eyewitnesses to the 1936 Games whom you were able to interview? What's your impression of the experience of writing a book based largely on secondary sources?

JS: There was only one eyewitness I interviewed: John Woodruff, the 800-meter gold medalist. And I did know sprinter Marty Glickman, who passed away a few years ago, and I consulted interviews he gave in the fairly recent past. When you write books about events that occurred more than a lifetime ago, necessarily you will rely more on contemporaneous accounts than on original interviews. It's a challenge, but I enjoy archival work.

GM: Compare the experience of writing books with reporting for ESPN.

JS: I love the immediacy of television reporting and hosting. I also enjoy the camaraderie, working with producers and camera crews. Writing a book is a much more solitary experience—although I do cherish my relationship with my editor [Susan Canavan] at Houghton Mifflin, who is wonderfully gifted and makes me look much better than I should.

GM: If you were in charge of ESPN, what would you change?

JS: I would try to find a way to find more room for feature reporting on SportsCenter. It's the network's flagship show and there was a time when feature stories were seen on it more often.

GM: Can track ever be as popular as it was when Owens plied his trade?

JS: Not in the United States. As in harness racing, track's appeal was tied to America's rural roots; the further we get away from those roots, the less likely we are to find track compelling—except during the Olympics.

"The story of Luz Long's friendship with Jesse Owens is, for me, the greatest story of the modern Olympics."
GM: Much of your book is based on contemporary press accounts. What was your impression of the quality of reporting at the time on such difficult topics as race, Judaism, and the truth about Hitler? How has sports journalism changed since then?

JS: The reporting of the era was more colorful and more incisive than much of today's reporting. But there were also a lot of hacks. For the most part, the reporters stuck to the events on the fields of play; the columnists addressed the larger issues.
Unquestionably, some of the sports columnists fully understood what was going on in Germany and said so. Their coverage of race issues, however, was much more naïve. There was very little appreciation of the special challenges faced by Owens and his fellow African-American athletes. There was little or no willingness—outside the pages of the Daily Worker—to assess honestly the racial dynamics of contemporary American society.

GM: Some of the principals of the book express the belief that Owens thrived under adversity. Do you think that was the case? Was he at his best when in strange environs, perhaps fighting through injury? Do you think that's true of most sprinters?

JS: It is a fact that Owens was at his best at the Big Ten championships in 1935—when he was injured—and then in Berlin, when he was healthy but under tremendous pressure. I think Owens was one of those athletes who was capable of total focus; he had the ability to concentrate wholly on the race at hand. I think that quality is what distinguishes the best sprinters—the true champions—from those who are merely fast.

"If there had been a US boycott of the Olympics, no one today would know the name Jesse Owens."
GM: Your book melds Owens's rather single-minded quest for track success with the much larger political debates going on around him. Did you ever grow frustrated with your subject, and wish that he was more conscious of the political issues?

JS: I cannot say that I was frustrated with Owens's reluctance to take political stands or express his opinions, because he was a very young man who had never been outside the United States, who had spent almost his entire life training to be a great athlete. I think it would be unfair to expect every great athlete to be as politically aware and socially conscious as, say, Jackie Robinson, who came along a decade later. Still, it would have been nice to have seen Jesse reflect more thoughtfully on the racial situation in the US and the bigotry of the Nazis.

GM: How might history have been different if the US had decided to boycott
the Olympics? Would anyone today have heard of Jesse Owens?

JS: It's a great "what if." If the United States, Great Britain and France had merely boycotted the games, the Third Reich still would have plunged Europe into war and genocide. But if those powers had used the occasion of the Olympics to force change in Germany, to extract legitimate concessions and to make clear to the rest of the world exactly what the Nazis represented—in short, if they had expressed more skepticism and tried harder to prevent the Germans from rebuilding their economy and armed forces—then perhaps things might have been different. If, ultimately, they felt they had to boycott the games to make the Nazis understand that their policies would not be tolerated, that statement might have empowered the anti-Nazi movement. If there had been a boycott, no one today would know the name Jesse Owens.

GM: I was very interested by the varied crowd reactions to Owens and the other black athletes in Nazi Germany. What should we make of the sometimes-vigorous cheering for blacks and Americans, and the adulation Owens received when he tried to sit incognito in the stands? Do you think that means that there was ambivalence about the repellent aspects of Nazism in 1936, or was the crowd responding to admonitions to present a good public image of Germans to the world, or did they simply enjoy a good athletic show, and separate it from politics?

JS: More than anything else, I think the crowds were simply responding to the athletic marvel of the time. If Owens had been purple or polka-dotted, they would have loved him. I don't think their affection suggests that they would have wanted to see him marrying their daughters or working in their offices.

GM: It was troubling to read Owens and other athletes, as well as some American writers, express ambivalence and even occasional admiration for Hitler and Nazism (the organization and spectacle of it, at least). Your story largely ends in 1936, but did you find that many of them later expressed regret at their failure to condemn Hitler when brought so close to him?

JS: No one ever forced Owens to acknowledge the positive things he said about Hitler and his Germany. If he had been questioned about the things he said in 1936, I am sure he would have said he regretted them—but he would also have reminded the questioner that he was young and relatively unversed in the policies of the Third Reich. By nature, Owens was not confrontational. He did not want to make a political statement. He can be excused, I think, for most of his more naïve statements. But not the writers. The ones who did not see what was lurking under Berlin's façade of hospitality should have.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Books
- posted on Sep 17, 08

he was inpiering to me !!!

- Books
- posted on Feb 03, 09
zephyr smith

i love this biography but this cant help with my project . This isnt enough information for i can past .

- Books
- posted on Feb 18, 09


- Books
- posted on Apr 11, 13

he was amazing and i hope to follow behind him but im going to be more adventurous

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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