The Untold Story of Jesse Owens And Hitler's Olympics
By Jeremy Schaap
Houghton Mifflin. 272 pp. $24
Jesse Owens captured the nation's attention in a single afternoon. On May 25, 1935, at a track meet in Ann Arbor, Mich., he set or tied four world records in less than an hour and instantly became one of the two greatest African American sports heroes of the time, along with boxer Joe Louis. Both were born in Alabama, within eight months of each other, and moved as children to the industrial North -- Louis to Detroit, Owens to Cleveland.
In June 1936, a year before Louis won the world heavyweight title, he was temporarily derailed in his championship march by German fighter Max Schmeling. It then fell to Owens to redeem American athletic pride in the upcoming Olympic Games in Berlin.
As Jeremy Schaap points out in his evocative new study of Owens and the Berlin Olympics, writers and human rights advocates debated whether the United States should even participate in the games, which were a calculated showcase for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Owens himself tepidly endorsed an Olympic boycott, but as "the greatest running and jumping talent the world had ever seen," he also knew the Olympics would be his ultimate international stage.
When the games began in August 1936, the 22-year-old Owens was seen as the living repudiation of Hitler's credo of Aryan supremacy. He was, Schaap writes, "a true revolutionary, fighting against the ugliest regime on the planet, embarrassing Hitler . . . simply by being at his best."
If that seemed a heavy responsibility for a 160-pound sprinter, Owens proved equal to the task. Like the sportswriters who covered the games, Schaap, an ESPN reporter, keeps one eye on the track and another on Hitler's official box, gauging the effect of Owens's triumphs and those of America's other black athletes on the Nazi brass. After congratulating several German and European victors on the first day of competition, Hitler decided to head for home rather than greet the two African American high jumpers who won gold and silver medals.
Owens never met Hitler, but his victories were recorded by the Fuhrer's favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, in her remarkable documentary about the games, "Olympia." (While cajoling Nazi leaders, Riefenstahl carried on an affair with the American athlete Glenn Morris, who later played Tarzan in the movies. After winning the gold medal in the decathlon, Morris ripped open Riefenstahl's blouse and kissed her breasts in full view of 100,000 spectators.)
Day by day, as Owens's achievements mounted, the cheers grew louder. Running on a muddy track, he equaled the world record of 10.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash. He dramatically bested a German competitor, Luz Long, in the broad jump, setting an Olympic record that stood for 24 years. Afterward, Long saluted Owens by holding his hand aloft for all the crowd to see.
The next day, against a headwind, Owens set a world record in the 200-meter dash. He was not expected to run any more races, but -- in the "untold story" part of the book -- Schaap reveals that Owens quietly campaigned for a spot on the 400-meter relay team. He was able to win his fourth gold medal only by replacing a Jewish sprinter, who was left on the sidelines of the Hitler games.
For the next 45 years until his death in 1980, Owens relived the glory of his Olympic victories on the banquet circuit and in three unreliable autobiographies. Schaap, the author of Cinderella Man, about boxer James J. Braddock, brings fresh luster to Owens's fading legend, but his narrowly focused book is neither a full biography nor a comprehensive history of the 1936 Olympics. And for all his diligence in the archives, Schaap has resorted to the dubious ploy of inventing long conversations and interior monologues, which undercut his book's authority and give it the foul odor of docudrama.
He also leaves unexamined the pathos of Owens's later years, as the world's most celebrated athlete -- "the man who was standing in for all minorities everywhere" -- returned to a segregated America. When the civil rights movement finally gained momentum a generation later, Owens was all but forgotten. The man who outran Hitler, you might say, was just too fast for his time. ·
Matt Schudel is a Washington Post staff writer.